Catching up with John Galt

From CNN this week came news that the capitalism-themed works of Ayn Rand are in high demand.  As politicians on the right form their messages, this is worth paying attention to.

The only Rand book I’ve read is her most famous volume, Atlas Shrugged.  A 1200-page brick of a book, it was nevertheless a page-turner – and despite the set of beliefs and philosophies behind it, it was first and foremost an extremely well-written story.  Rand’s characters are interesting and her plot is compelling.

That’s exactly why big screen rumors have persisted for years – and there’s no time like now.

The genius of Rand’s social commentary is in its separation of the seemingly synonymous concepts of free market capitalism and “big business.”  She skewers lobbyists for large corporations who seek control of the cogs and wheels of government – in other words, she would have no sympathy for the automakers, banks, or other large companies parading, hat in hand, to Capitol Hill.  In Atlas Shrugged, as is the case today, big businesses are often the first to call for government involvement in the economy because they have the resources and influence to frame the policy.

And there couldn’t be a better way to deliver these messages than through compelling entertainment.  Inside-the-Beltway conservative talking heads just aren’t going to get it done.

And that may be the biggest impediment to a silver screen adaptation for Atlas Shrugged.  Despite a riveting and topical story, its core philosophy isn’t exactly in lockstep with the prevailing Hollywood liberalism.  Don’t get me wrong – there won’t be a conspiracy.  But if I’m a liberal studio executive, and all my friends are liberal studio executives, and most of my political conversations are with other liberals, it won’t take much to convince me that the only audience for Atlas Shrugged would be packs of black-clad anarchical-capitalist “Randroids.”

Perhaps a small, independent studio will take a chance on the product despite the paralyzing group think of industry leaders.  Given the story, that may be more appropriate.

Workers of Detroit, unite!

It’s a red-letter May Day, as working comrades in the UAW are taking over Chrysler.  By the looks of things, they same fate may befall GM if they cannot work out a deal with their creditors.

Some analysts feel this is a good thing – reasoning that the union would have to abandon a single-minded quest for higher wages to think about the company’s broader needs.  But in the era of bailouts and government safety nets, there really is no incentive to do that.

Lessons from the Calvin Coolidge Snack Bar: Diet Sprite, the Stimulus, and Creating Demand

I took two economics classes at the University of Massachusetts. One was ECON 103, a course in basic macro economics that taught freshman how to draw basic supply and demand curves. It was taught by a professor in a big lecture hall with smaller sections on Friday mornings (which were mercifully taught in classrooms that were just a few hundred yard from my dorm). I slept through most of it, and if it had been the only economics class I took, I might be shrugging my shoulders right now and saying “Stimulus? Sure, why not.”

The second class I took was in a building named, appropriately, after Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge (a staunch supporter of free market economics) when our dorm’s House Council decided to found a snack bar in the 19th floor lounge. I was one of the nerds involved in House Council – a quasi-governmental body which, up to that point, had focused on putting on educational and social programming that no one cared about and no one went to. We decided to put the tax money we had collected to a better, more productive use by launching a social hub for Coolidge residents. It also taught me a great deal about how business works.

We launched simply in Spring 1998, and sent one of our volunteers out to buy the first run of supplies. She came back with one twelve pack of every type of soda she could find – assuming that we needed variety. We learned that demand didn’t call for a wide variety – people were just happy to have a place in the building where they could get soda cheaper than the vending machines. We also learned that no one likes Diet Sprite. To get rid of the supply, I gamely purchased about eleven of the ten cans our supply director bought (so I can personally attest to how horrible it was – seriously, don’t ever buy Diet Sprite).

Essentially, I subsidized the purchase of a product no one wanted. If we had only looked at raw data about which sodas sold quickest for our next supply run, we might have thought Diet Sprite was selling like hot cakes and bought more. Luckily, we were a tight knit group, so I could express my distaste for Diet Sprite. (Have I mentioned it’s sickeningly sweet? Stay away from Diet Sprite.) What I had done is artificially create demand.

Eleven years later, our economy is lagging and President Barack Obama – in a phrase uttered last week that has been retooled for this week’s speeches and press conferences – is blaming lost demand. People are simply not spending money, so the government will start spending for them.

When I created demand, it was 50 cents per can and I spent my own money. But now, with this stimulus plan, we’re all chipping in.

And this is the problem with any government action under the umbrella of a so-called “stimulus package.” Government doesn’t seem to understand the world of business – which is why President Obama can say, with a straight face, that an entity with a trillion dollar operating deficit “is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life.” (Seriously – he actually said that.)

Since government doesn’t understand business, and doesn’t operate by the same rules, how can we expect government activity to turn the business world around? Maybe Obama is wrong to say doing nothing is not an option. Maybe doing nothing – for a change – would be the best option.

In the meantime, I hope you like Diet Sprite; since no one is buying it, we’re going to buy a whole lot more of it.

NOTE: After some cursory research, it appears “Diet Sprite” is the same product as Sprite Zero. You’re warned.

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Thanks, Washington!

Recent comments on the economy have shown just how much confidence we can place in our representatives. There are lots of companies out there that are failing or in debt because of irresponsible spending. Now that those companies are being supported by the taxpayers, President Obama and his pals are setting strict regulations – for instance, the people who caused this mess aren’t allowed to give themselves raises. And they’ve come out strongly against those fancy “retreats” that are really just subsidized vacations.

It’s good to see that folks with business sense are making decisions on the economic recovery.

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Garth, do you smell bacon?

In order to beg for a piece of the stimulus pie, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released their list of “shovel ready projects” that they feel are good candidates for pork spending with funds from the stimulus package. is a great way to look at what America’s mayors think is a good idea to spend other people’s tax dollars on. More than a simple listing of projects in the Conference of Mayors report, Stimulus Watch is a wiki that allows citizen involvement – you can vote whether a project is necessary or not, list points for and against it, and make comments.

It seems to be working. Users are leaving comments and actually discussing the reasons for and against many of the projects. And while there are a few proposals which are drawing positive support, most are getting voted down. Citizens are also giving a bit of valuable: in response to a $3.5 million plan to refurbish the sidewalks in Old Town Alexandria, Va., one resident reveals that the city already makes regular repairs.

As Ars Technica notes, by opening the process up with a wiki-style interface, Stimulus Watch is light years ahead of the Obama Administration’s definition of “transparency.”

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For transparency, this is a little fuzzy…

President Obama’s stimulus package was the story of the week. The bill passed, but the bigger story may be what didn’t happen – or at least, didn’t happen yet.

TechPresident’s Nancy Scola was incredulous that President Obama did not mobilize his grassroots standing army to support the stimulus, even as Republicans began crying “pork.” Scola wondered if this showed the President felt he could take care of navigating the bill through Congress on his own. But some Obama critics – like Craig Colgan of TechRepublican – point out that the White House has not exactly on the cutting edge of new media, with a website that delivers little of the transparency, connection, and access that was promised on the campaign trail.

The answer may be that Team Obama cares more about the image of transparency than the actual substance. Consider – a site which promises to track the stimulus package after its passage, so citizens can see where their tax dollars are going. A nice concept, but somewhat useless – after the bill passes, taxpayers can do little if nothing to change where their dollars go.

It may be that the Obama Administration realizes that, with less-than-ironclad public support, it may be wise to keep the people at an arms length while the stimulus is debated and ultimately passed by Congressional Democrats. But they will give you a great view once your money starts getting flushed.

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The choice of a new generation?

Sure, Congressional Democrats continues to work on a giant spending bill even with the economy in the doldrums. But luckily, President Obama seems to have instituted his own stimulus plan to help our struggling businesses create more jobs – companies like Pepsi are capitalizing on the themes of the Obama campaign to move more of their own project.

As this Metro billboard suggests, Pepsi has adopted the mantra of hope and change. It’s more appropriate than they know – Pepsi has been claiming to be the “choice of a new generation” for decades – probably long enough to be the choice of the next generation that came along after the original new generation. It’s a message based more on positioning a brand than on any kind of substance.

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Betting the farm

With stimulus/bailout talk dominating the headlines, President Obama’s Department of Agriculture is doing something smart – reviewing the disbursement of farm subsidies to stop some payments. Currently, the flawed handout program sends cash to some people who have never planted a seed in their lives – and probably couldn’t tell a hole in the ground from… well, you can figure that part out.

It’s over a year old, but this blog post from Merry Olde England has a clever take on the ridiculousness of farm subsidies.

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