The Null Device

2009/9/16

Telstra, Australia's telecommunications backbone quasi-monopolist, is going to be broken up, into separate wholesale and retail arms at least. Which sounds like good news for Australian internet users.

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Dispatches from the grim meathook present-day: the Calabrian mafia, which has for a long time made a lucrative sideline from the disposal of waste, has apparently muscled in on the business of nuclear waste disposal. Of course, being the Mob, they're able to offer economies honest operators cannot, by the simple expedient of packing ships with nuclear waste and blowing them up off the coasts of Italy and Greece. Up to 30 such ships may have been sunk.

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An article in the New Republic examines the rise of Ayn Rand's ideology, which asserts that one's wealth is literally proportional to one's value as a human being, selfishness is a virtue and altruism is evil, from the fringes to the mainstream of American conservative thought:

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms--that taking from the rich harms the economy--but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.
Today numerous CEOs swear by Rand. One of them is John Allison, the outspoken head of BB&T, who has made large grants to several universities contingent upon their making Atlas Shrugged mandatory reading for their students. In 1991, the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club polled readers on what book had influenced them the most. Atlas Shrugged finished second, behind only the Bible. There is now talk of filming the book again, possibly as a miniseries, possibly with Charlize Theron. Rand's books still sell more than half a million copies a year. Her ideas have swirled below the surface of conservative thought for half a century, but now the particulars of our moment--the economic predicament, the Democratic control of government--have drawn them suddenly to the foreground.
Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum's mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage. Heller remarks that "this may have been Rand's first encounter with injustice masquerading as what she would later acidly call ‘altruism.’ " (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite "sales tax" or "income tax." The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)
While the premises of Randian ideology—the myth of the heroic self-made man, the cirrelation between wealth and value—have a certain sort of glibly narcissistic appeal (in particular to those wishing to rationalise their beliefs in themselves as good people), they fall apart under closer examination:
Is income really a measure of productivity? Of course not. Consider your own profession. Do your colleagues who demonstrate the greatest skill unfailingly earn the most money, and those with the most meager skill the least money? I certainly cannot say that of my profession. Nor do I know anybody who would say that of his own line of work. Most of us perceive a world with its share of overpaid incompetents and underpaid talents. Which is to say, we rightly reject the notion of the market as the perfect gauge of social value.
Now assume that this principle were to apply not only within a profession--that a dentist earning $200,000 a year must be contributing exactly twice as much to society as a dentist earning $100,000 a year--but also between professions. Then you are left with the assertion that Donald Trump contributes more to society than a thousand teachers, nurses, or police officers. It is Wall Street, of course, that offers the ultimate rebuttal of the assumption that the market determines social value. An enormous proportion of upper-income growth over the last twenty-five years accrued to an industry that created massive negative social value--enriching itself through the creation of a massive bubble, the deflation of which has brought about worldwide suffering.
The reality of the contemporary United States is that, even as income inequality has exploded, the average tax rate paid by the top 1 percent has fallen by about one-third over the last twenty-five years. Again: it has fallen. The rich have gotten unimaginably richer, and at the same time their tax burden has dropped significantly. And yet conservatives routinely describe this state of affairs as intolerably oppressive to the rich. Since the share of the national income accruing to the rich has grown faster than their average tax rate has shrunk, they have paid an ever-rising share of the federal tax burden. This is the fact that so vexes the right.
And here is a piece on the sociopathic dimension of Randian ideology:
Interestingly, despite her general disdain for humanity, there were people she seemed to admire greatly, such as William Edward Hickman, whose credo, "What is good for me is right," she described in her Journals as, "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard." But Hickman was no simple expositor of personal greed and self-interest; no mere modern day libertarian; no pedestrian practitioner of excessive self-love. No indeed. He was a sociopathic murderer. In 1927 he kidnapped a 12-year old girl from a school in Los Angeles by the name of Marian Parker, chopped off her legs, cut our her internal organs, drained all of her blood and then spread parts of her body all over the city.
Of Hickman, this sick murderer, Rand had almost nothing but positive things to say. She indeed critiqued those who would condemn Hickman's actions for having committed "worse sins and crimes," such as those she ascribed to his jury. Among those "greater" crimes--greater than mutilating a child--she included being, "Average, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, 'dignified' housewives." Their ordinariness, in other words, placed them below Hickman, in Rand's mind. "How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone's fate?" she implored in her Journals.

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