Friday, January 9, 2009

Blogging Atlas Shrugged

One of my goals for the winter break was to finally get around to reading Atlas Shrugged. The blogosphere has been increasingly full of discussions about the book, its implications, and, notably, “going John Galt,” so, although I had picked up the basic premises through these discussions, I felt left out for not having read the actual book.

My collegue Akal's recommendation a few months ago sealed the deal, and I had to read it. It is certainly a compelling book. I had assumed that John Galt would be a main character and that the story would trace his development, but not only am I yet to meet Mr. Galt (other than through very vague references), I was pleasantly surprised to find a female lead, Dagny Taggert, who instantly reminds me of myself in oh so many ways.

One of the first things that I’m noticing about the book is that it is dialogue heavy, and many of these sections are written in curious and somewhat maddeningly illogical exchanges that frequently remind me (somewhat oddly) of Catch-22. For example (I’m cutting extensively because Rand is nothing if not wordy):

[Eddie Willers] looked at James Taggert and said, “It’s the Rio Norte
Line.” He noticed Taggert’s glance moving down to a corner of the
desk. “We’ve had another wreck.”
“Railroad accidents happen everyday. Did you have to bother me about that?”
“You know what I’m saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is
shot. Down the whole line.”
“We are getting a new track.”
Eddie Willers continued as if there had been no answer: “That track is
shot. It’s no use trying to run trains down there. People are giving
up trying to use them.”
“There is not a railroad in the country, it seems to me, that doesn’t have a few
branches running at a deficit. We’re not the only ones. It’s a
national condition – a temporary national condition.”
Eddie stood looking at him silently. . . . “What do you want?” snapped Taggert.
“I just came
to tell you something that you had to know, because somebody had to tell
“That we’ve had another accident?”
“That we can’t give up the Rio Norte Line.” . .
. “Who’s thinking of giving up the Rio Norte Line?” he asked. “There’s never been a question of giving it up. I resent you saying it. I resent it very
“But we haven’t met a schedule for the last six months. We haven’t
completed a run without some sort of breakdown, major or minor. We’re
losing all our shippers, one after another. How long can we last?”
“You’re a pessimist, Eddie. You lack faith. That’s what undermines the moral of an organization.”
“You mean that nothing’s going to be done about the Rio Norte Line?”

“I haven’t said that at all. Just as soon as we get the new

“Jim, there isn’t going to be any new track. . . I’ve spoken with Orren
Boyle.” . . .
“What did you bother him for? I believe the first order of rail wasn’t due for delivery until next month.”
“And before that, it was due for delivery three months ago.”
“Unforeseen circumstances. Absolutely beyond Orren’s
“And before that, it was due six months earlier. Jim, we have been waiting for Associated Steel to deliver that rail for thirteen months.”
“What do you want me to do? I can’t run Orren Boyle’s
“I want you to understand that we can’t wait.”
. . .
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
“That’s for you to decide.”
“Well, whatever else you say, there’s one thing you’re not going to mention next – and that’s Rearden Steel.”
Eddie did not answer at once, then said quietly, “All right, Jim, I won’t mention it.”
“Orren is my friend. . . . I resent your attitude. Orren Boyle will deliver that rail just as soon as it’s humanly possible. So long as he can’t deliver it,
nobody can blame us.”

I’m also particularly drawn to Rand’s use of the word “adequately,” which she repeats over and over. Businesses and workers do not believe that they have to be the best, or even good, only “adequate.” They do not believe that they should have to compete as long as their performance is “adequate.” It’s similar to the adage about how most workers work only hard enough to not get fired, and most businesses pay only enough to keep the workers from quitting.

Similarly, she constantly returns to the theme of blame. “As long as . . . nobody can blame us.” Going above and beyond, doing extra, working and innovating around unforeseen circumstances are not even considered. If you’ve ever seen the Fox show House, there is one episode which calls out this attitude quite brillantly, “3 Stories.” In this episode, the ever misanthropic Dr. House is asked to lecture a medical class. He tells them 3 stories about various patients with leg ailaments, and asks them to attempt to diagnose and suggest treatments for these patients. “Student # 1” constantly objects that they can’t be blamed, or that they didn’t know certain things about the patients, as if believing that the disease

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