Economics

Adventures With Rush Limbaugh

For 26 years I have been an economist researching the pension system. Along the way I formulated some policy implications from the research -- which is the matter-of-fact job of a career academic in modern departments of economics. I have studied pensions my entire adult life. My 1984 dissertation from University of California at Berkeley was very uncool -- stagflation was the hot area. My work’s subtitle was, “Towards a National Retirement Income Security Policy.“

Fast forward two plus decades and I testify on October 7, 2008 in Congress about what should be done about the nation’s eroding retirement income programs. I was invited after an op-ed of mine on the subject ran in The New York Times on September 27, 2008.

My testimony dealt mostly with 401(k) plans, but also other defined contribution plans like those offered by TIAA-CREF. Some of those plans were declining sharply, some between 20 to 50 percent, because of the market collapse and people’s retirement dreams were evaporating in the worst labor market in 20 years. My book -- When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them (Princeton University Press, 2008) -- had just been published and I was in Congress telling legislators what should be done to bring stability to our nation’s troubled retirement system. A policy economist’s dream. No? Yes -- but only if the academic understands the new forces of gravity caused by the blogosphere, coupled with the power of a fierce presidential election, the anxiety generated by a crashing economy, and the ordinary force of the lobbying efforts of a well-established industry sector -- in this case the 401(k) industry.

I learned something that you don’t learn as a professor. If you are going to question a long-standing profitable tax break for a powerful industry, get an E-bay account and bid on a “thick skin.” In the weeks following my testimony I received more than 20 e-mails a day (most I answered) and about that many Google Alerts. Sen. John McCain alluded to my testimony at campaign rallies in the last days of his failing bid for the White House. I was interviewed by many legitimate reporters. A fraction of the e-mails I received were respectful -- all were filled with fear. The least offensive of the non-respectful e-mails are similar to the one I reprint below, but none were as funny. Most were obscene and threatening.

From: ADAM H---------

To: Teresa Ghilarducci

Sent: Nov 7, 2008 4:47 PM

Subject: 401K policy

Dear Ms. Ghilardt:

I think your Socialist ideas regarding 401K plans are absolute trash.

Get a f****** (asterisks added) new hairstylist.

Thanks"

I wrote back:

Mr. H---------:

Wait. I spend a lot of money on my hair. Maybe too much? What's the matter with my hair? At least my plan is better. I want people to have access to a safe place to save their retirement money. My plan calls for 401(k)s to exist alongside a government program that lets people save in a system similar to what members of Congress and other federal employees' have. You’ll get better and safer returns than most people get with their 401(k)s.

What's wrong with that? The hair is a separate issue.

Sincerely,

Professor Ghilarducci

Three weeks after my testimony, and a week before the election, I got my first clue about where the buzz was being created about my plan. I went to a well-organized, exciting conference on Life-Cycle Saving at Boston University. Zvi Bodie, the nation’s leading finance economist, gathered industry leaders and academics to discuss issues in American’s retirement income security system. I sat at the table of gracious, well-dressed, and extremely knowledgeable financial industry executives, people I have grown comfortable with during my stints as a pension trustee. They stunned me by asking if my ears were burning, because I was much discussed at a previous week’s conference on 401(k) plans. What happened was that Rush Limbaugh had given a garbled version of my testimony on his Web site (complete with my photograph). In my book (and in Congress) I proposed the government set up a new plan, which would supplement Social Security, an additional place Americans could save for their retirement.

Only 50 percent of workers have pensions at work. This rate of coverage has been stagnant since the 1970s. Many people don’t know how hard it is to save. In order for an average earner to supplement Social Security benefits at the most basic level, she would have to save 5 percent out of every paycheck for 40 years. Because it is hard, I proposed the government give a tax credit of $600 (indexed for inflation) for everyone towards his or her contribution. 401(k) plans would still exist. But the truth didn’t stand a chance in the hyper-desperate time around the presidential election. The ire of the industry came when I proposed to pay for the tax credits by scaling back dramatically the tax deduction for 401(k) plans, deductions that were expanded greatly under the Bush administration. Without the tax deduction the 401(k) industry knew it would have to lower fees and provide a better, safer, product, and that is when it started a full-court media blitz against me.

I made several mistakes. I had adopted the habit of a teacher who answers any request for knowledge. The University of Notre Dame -- where I taught for 25 years -- encouraged us to respond to all media inquires. Also, over the summer, I eagerly accepted all requests to be interviewed about my new book. In mid-October, I agreed to two live radio interviews (and didn’t check out their Fox affiliations nor the style of the show). In one interview the host thanked me for my time and after I hung up, he told his national audience he hoped I would stop ruining his country. Another host asked me if I wanted to change the tax deduction into a tax credit (a tax deduction means that the higher the tax bracket you are in the larger your tax subsidy is). A person in the 39 percent bracket gets 39 cents from the government for every dollar saved in a 401(k) and a person in the 15 percent tax bracket gets 15 cents). I said, ironically, I wanted to spread the wealth. Radio hosts don’t do well with irony – and so my play on the debate over what Barack Obama had told Joe the Plumber was largely missed by the public. Then I got a moniker from a blogger on “Capital Commerce “ which prompted my worried 71 year-old mother to call from California. Blogger James Pethokoukis identified me as "401(k) Foe Teresa Ghilarducci, the Most Dangerous Woman in America." (Yes, I am having a bit of fun with the "most dangerous" tag.)

But the legitimate press got the story right and called the discussion of what I proposed an “Urban Myth.” Here is reporting from MSNBC Nov. 7, 2008 John W. Schoen:

"Hearing on 401(k) plan grows to urban legend (MSM preparing people for government seizure of 401K!) There is no proposal in Congress to take away your 401(k) savings account. In any case, the stock market has already done a pretty good job of wiping out several trillion dollars worth of 401(k) savings without any help from Congress. At that hearing, one of the witnesses, Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at The New School for Social Research, made an interesting observation…. The government spends as much as $80 billion a year in tax breaks to subsidize 401(k) savings plans. In her opinion, that money could be better spent offering a tax credit for a revised retirement plan that would guarantee a minimum income stream to people who saved for retirement So maybe it's not such a bad idea to start listening to new ideas."

Aren’t new ideas what academics are supposed to come up with?

Even after the election I am still material for radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh, who among many roles often poses as a policy wonk.

On the November 7th show:

RUSH: Do you know what's going to happen to you? We don't know what's going to happen, but do you know what the Democrat plan for your 401(k) is?

CALLER: I believe it has something to do with circling the bowl.

RUSH: (laughing) Circling the bowl. You mean like flush it?

CALLER: Yeeeees.

RUSH: But seriously, how much do you know about it? You've just heard about it, or you want me to repeat what you know to other people?

CALLER: Please repeat, because like I said, since I knew I wasn't going to vote for Obama, I said, "I don't need to worry about it."

RUSH: Let me give it to you very briefly. So far, this is not Obama yet, but this goes straight to my point about all of the idiots on our side |. So one of the big incentives for having a 401(k) came under assault. Then that same committee two weeks later brought in an economist from the New School in New York called Teresa Ghilarducci. I'm having trouble with her name, and not on purpose but her idea is even worse, Darcy. She wants to basically eliminate the 401(k), …. “

But, if the right wing pays enough attention, the mainstream media will begin to correct some of the blogosphere’s exaggerations.

I am grateful that veteran reporter, Robert Powell, for MarketWatch, wrote that Barack Obama must fix the nation's retirement system.

Powell wrote

“It's starting to look like a train wreck of immense proportions. The government will be spending billions of dollars in the decades to come bailing out average Americans who don't have enough set aside to pay for basic living expenses if something isn't done now. What is that something? Ghilarducci suggests combining the best features of a 401(k) plan with the best features of traditional pension plans to create what she calls a guaranteed retirement account (GRA), a type of cash-balance pension plan (that many employers now offer) or sovereign wealth fund.”

Fortunately for me, the president of my university, Bob Kerrey, is a public figure and a former policy maker himself, so he is well used to this sort of treatment and is more than supportive. So what will I do the next time I am called to testify? My footnotes of supporting studies will move to the text -- otherwise my views look isolated and can be picked off like a young zebra separated from the pack. I will talk to Fox only on my terms and I will be fully prepared for an attack when I venture into the blazing sun of the blogsphere and CSPAN. I will continue to publish peer-reviewed research, to be sure; but,next time, before I head out for a wild ride from refereed journals to Rush Limbaugh I’ll have an arsenal of spurs and switches.

Author/s: 
Teresa Ghilarducci
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Teresa Ghilarducci holds the Bernard L. and Irene Schwartz Chair of Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research.

The Relevance of the Humanities

The deepening economic crisis has triggered a new wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes at America’s universities. Retrenchment is today’s watchword. For scholars in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the economic downturn will only exacerbate existing funding shortages. Even in more prosperous times, funding for such research has been scaled back and scholars besieged by questions concerning the relevance of their enterprise, whether measured by social impact, economic value or other sometimes misapplied benchmarks of utility.

Public funding gravitates towards scientific and medical research, with its more readily appreciated and easily discerned social benefits. In Britain, the fiscal plight of the arts and humanities is so dire that the Institute of Ideas recently sponsored a debate at King’s College London that directly addressed the question, “Do the arts have to re-brand themselves as useful to justify public money?”

In addition to decrying the rising tide of philistinism, some scholars might also be tempted to agree with Stanley Fish, who infamously asserted that humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” Fish rejected the notion that the humanities can be validated by some standard external to them. He dismissed as wrong-headed “measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perception, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination.”

There is little doubt that the value of the humanities and social sciences far outstrip any simple measurement. As universities and national funding bodies face painful financial decisions and are forced to prioritize the allocation of scarce resources, however, scholars must guard against such complacency. Instead, I argue, scholars in the social sciences, arts, and humanities should consider seriously how the often underestimated value of their teaching and research could be further justified to the wider public through substantive contributions to today’s most pressing policy questions.

This present moment is a propitious one for reconsidering the function of academic scholarship in public life. The election of a new president brings with it an unprecedented opportunity for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The meltdown of the financial markets has focused public attention on additional challenges of massive proportions, including the fading of American primacy and the swift rise of a polycentric world.

Confronting the palpable prospect of American decline will demand contributions from all sectors of society, including the universities, the nation’s greatest untapped resource. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s recently released rankings, the U.S. boasts 13 of the world’s top 20 universities, and 36 U.S. institutions figure in the global top 100. How can scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences make a difference at this crucial historical juncture? How can they demonstrate the public benefits of their specialist research and accumulated learning?

A report published by the British Academy in September contains some valuable guidance. It argues that the collaboration between government and university researchers in the social sciences and humanities must be bolstered. The report, “Punching Our Weight: the Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making” emphasizes how expanded contact between government and humanities and social science researchers could improve the effectiveness of public programs. It recommends “incentivizing high quality public policy engagement.” It suggests that universities and public funding bodies should “encourage, assess and reward” scholars who interact with government. The British Academy study further hints that university promotion criteria, funding priorities, and even research agendas should be driven, at least in part, by the major challenges facing government.

The British Academy report acknowledges that “there is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of research,” but contends that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

The report mentions several specific areas where researchers in the social sciences and humanities can improve policy design, implementation, and assessment. These include the social and economic challenges posed by globalization; innovative comprehensive measurements of human well-being; understanding and predicting human behavior; overcoming barriers to cross-cultural communication; and historical perspectives on contemporary policy problems.

The British Academy report offers insights that the U.S. government and American scholars could appropriate. It is not farfetched to imagine government-university collaboration on a wide range of crucial issues, including public transport infrastructure, early childhood education, green design, civil war mediation, food security, ethnic strife, poverty alleviation, city planning, and immigration reform. A broader national conversation to address the underlying causes of the present crisis is sorely needed. By putting their well-honed powers of perception and analysis in the public interest, scholars can demonstrate that learning and research deserve the public funding and esteem which has been waning in recent decades.

The active collaboration of scholars with government will be anathema to those who conceive of the university as a bulwark against the ever encroaching, nefarious influence of the state. The call for expanded university-government collaboration may provoke distasteful memories of the enlistment of academe in the service of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, a relationship which produced unedifying intellectual output and dreadfully compromised scholarship.

To some degree, then, skepticism toward the sort of government-university collaboration advocated here is fully warranted by the specter of the past. Moreover, the few recent efforts by the federal government to engage with researchers in the social sciences and humanities have not exactly inspired confidence.

The Pentagon’s newly launched Minerva Initiative, to say nothing of the Army’s much-criticized Human Terrain System, has generated a storm of controversy, mainly from those researchers who fear that scholarship will be placed in the service of war and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and produce ideologically distorted scholarship.

Certainly, the Minerva Initiative’s areas of funded research -- “Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and Terrorist perspective projects, religious and ideological studies," according to its Web site -- raise red flags for many university-based researchers. Yet I would argue that frustration with the Bush administration and its policies must not preclude a dispassionate analysis of the Minerva Initiative and block recognition of its enormous potential for fostering and deepening links between university research and public policy communities. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The Minerva Initiative, in a much-reformed form, represents a model upon which future university-government interaction might be built.

Cooperation between scholars in the social sciences and humanities and all of the government’s departments should be enhanced by expanding the channels of communication among them. The challenge is to establish a framework for engagement that poses a reduced threat to research ethics, eliminates selection bias in the applicant pool for funding, and maintains high scholarly standards. Were these barriers to effective collaboration overcome, it would be exhilarating to contemplate the proliferation of a series of “Minerva Initiatives” in various departments of the executive branch. Wouldn’t government policies and services -- in areas as different as the environmental degradation, foreign aid effectiveness, health care delivery, math and science achievement in secondary schools, and drug policy -- improve dramatically were they able to harness the sharpest minds and cutting-edge research that America’s universities have to offer?

What concrete forms could such university-government collaboration take? There are several immediate steps that could be taken. First, it is important to build on existing robust linkages. The State Department and DoD already have policy planning teams that engage with scholars and academic scholarship. Expanding the budgets as well as scope of these offices could produce immediate benefits.

Second, the departments of the executive branch of the federal government, especially Health and Human Services, Education, Interior, Homeland Security, and Labor, should devise ways of harnessing academic research on the Minerva Initiative model. There must be a clear assessment of where research can lead to the production of more effective policies. Special care must be taken to ensure that the scholarly standards are not adversely compromised.

Third, universities, especially public universities, should incentivize academic engagement with pressing federal initiatives. It is reasonable to envision promotion criteria modified to reward such interaction, whether it takes the form of placements in federal agencies or the production of policy relevant, though still rigorous, scholarship. Fourth, university presidents of all institutions need to renew the perennial debate concerning the purpose of higher education in American public life. Curricula and institutional missions may need to align more closely with national priorities than they do today.

The public’s commitment to scholarship, with its robust tradition of analysis and investigation, must extend well beyond the short-term needs of the economy or exigencies imposed by military entanglements. Academic research and teaching in the humanities, arts and social sciences plays a crucial role in sustaining a culture of open, informed debate that buttresses American democracy. The many-stranded national crisis, however, offers a golden opportunity for broad, meaningful civic engagement by America’s scholars and university teachers. The public benefits of engaging in the policy-making process are, potentially, vast.

Greater university-government cooperation could reaffirm and make visible the public importance of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Not all academic disciplines lend themselves to such public engagement. It is hard to imagine scholars in comparative literature or art history participating with great frequency in such initiatives.

But for those scholars whose work can shed light on and contribute to the solution of massive public conundrums that the nation faces, the opportunity afforded by the election of a new president should not be squandered. Standing aloof is an unaffordable luxury for universities at the moment. The present conjuncture requires enhanced public engagement; the stakes are too high to stand aside.

Author/s: 
Gabriel Paquette
Author's email: 
doug.lederman@insidehighered.com

Gabriel Paquette is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University.

Stop the Insani-Tea!

On April 15, tens of thousands of people attended “tea parties” to denounce Obama’s economic policies – dressed up, some of the protesters were, like refugees from a disaster at a Colonial theme park. “No taxation without representation!” they demanded, having evidently hibernated through the recent election cycle. The right-wing publicity machine dutifully ground out its message that a mass movement was being born.

Suppose we grant the claim (however generous, however imaginative) that the tea parties drew 250,000 supporters. Compare that with the turnout, not quite three years ago, for the “Day Without an Immigrant” rallies, which involved somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million workers – many of them undocumented, which meant that their decision to attend involved some risk of losing a job or being deported. By contrast, last week’s anti-Obama protest made no real demands on its participants, and came after weeks of free and constant publicity by a major television network. Teabaggery also enjoyed the support of prominent figures in the conservative establishment. Yet with all this backing, the entire nationwide turnout for the tea parties involved fewer people than attended the immigrant rallies in a single large city.

The events of April 15 may not have marked the death agonies of the Republican Party. But they certainly amounted to a case of profound rhetorical failure: a moment when old modes of persuasion lost their power. The claim to speak for the concerns of “ordinary Americans” choked on its own pseudo-populist bile. The tea bags were less memorable than the cracked pots. It was hard to watch the footage without thinking that the next Timothy McVeigh must be a face in the crowd – and wondering if his victims ought to bring a class-action suit against Fox News.

Only just so much of the failure of the teabagging movement can be attributed to its instigators’ unfamiliarity with contemporary slang. A new book from the University of Chicago Press helps to clarify why alarmist denunciations of higher taxation and (shudder!) “redistribution of the wealth” just won’t cut it.

The publication for Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality by Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs could not be better timed. Page is a professor of political science at Northwestern University, while Jacobs directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. The authors conducted a national public-opinion survey during the summer of 2007 – just before the global economic spasms started – and they also draw on several decades’ worth of polling data in framing their analysis.

The question mark in the title is no accident. Page and Jacobs are not radicals. They insist that there is no class war in the United States. (This, in spite of quoting Warren Buffett’s remark that there actually is one, and that his class has been winning.) They provide evidence that “even Democrats and lower-income workers harbor rather conservative views about free enterprise, the value of material incentives to motivate work, individual self-reliance, and a generalized suspicion of government waste and unresponsiveness.” Their survey found that 58 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of low-income earners agreed that “large differences in pay are probably necessary to get people to work hard.”

But at the same time, they report a widespread concern that the gap between extremes of wealth and poverty is growing and poses a danger. “Although Americans accept the idea that unequal pay motivates hard work,” they find, “a solid majority (59 percent) disagree with the proposition that large differences in income are ‘necessary for America’s prosperity.’”

Not quite three quarters of those polled agreed that “differences in income in America are too large,” and more than thirds reject the idea that “the current distribution of money and wealth is ‘fair.’ ” The proposition that “the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people” was supported by a large majority of respondents.

While inequality may sound like a Democratic talking point (at least during campaign seasons), the authors note that “solid majorities of Republicans (56 percent) and of high income earners (60 percent) agree that income differences are ‘too large’ in the United States. ... Majorities of Republicans (52 percent) and of the affluent (51 percent) favor more evenly distributing money and wealth.” A footnote indicates that the category of “high income” or “affluent” applied to “the 25.2 percent of our respondents who reported family incomes of $80,000 or more per year.”

While informed sources tell me that sales of small left-wing newspapers are up lately, Page and Jacobs are doubtless correct to describe the default setting of American public opinion as a kind of “conservative egalitarianism.” Citizens “want opportunities for economic success,” they write, “and want individuals to take care of themselves when possible. But they also want genuine opportunity for themselves and others, and a measure of economic security to pursue opportunity and to insure themselves and their neighbors against disasters beyond their control.”

And to make this possible, they are reconciled to taxation. “There is not in fact a groundswell of sentiment for cutting taxes. When asked about tax levels in general, only a small minority favored lowering them; most wanted to keep them about the same. Asked to chose among a range of estate-tax rates on very large ($100 million) estates, only a very small minority of Americans – just 13 percent of them – picked a rate of zero. The average American favors an estate-tax range of about 25 percent. ... Most American say the government should rely a lot on taxes they see as progressive, like corporate income taxes, rather than on regressive measures like payroll taxes. To our surprise, a majority of Americans even say that our government should ‘redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,’ a sentiment that has grown markedly over the past seventy years.”

And all of this data was gathered, mind you, well before jobs, housing, and retirement savings began to vaporize.

Nothing in Class War? quite answers the question of what political consequences logically follow from the polling data. Perhaps none do, in particular. What people want (or say that they want) is notoriously distinct from what they will actually bestir themselves to do. But it’s worth noting that Page and Jacobs found broad support for increasing the pay of low-income jobs, and drastically reducing the income of those who earn a lot.

“Sales clerks and factory workers should earn $5,000 more a year (about 23 percent more), according to the median responses of those we interviewed,” they write. At the same people, people “want to cut the income of corporate titans by more than half – from the perceived $500,000 to a desired $200,000. Imagine the reaction of ordinary working Americans if they learned that the CEOs of major national corporations actually pulled in $14 million a year.” Yes, imagine. Then something other than tea might start brewing.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Atlas Shrunk

Adolescent exposure to Ayn Rand’s work tends either to convert you to her philosophy of Objectivism or to inoculate you against it. The intensity and depth of the conversion experience vary from person to person. Not everyone can handle the rigors of a totalist system requiring adherents to accept not just laissez faire economics (that’s the easy part) but the full Randian synthesis of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and history. There is also a kind of Objectivist psychotherapy, serving to cure altruism and related failings of character.

And so you may approach, without ever quite hoping to achieve, the state of perfect selfishness embodied in John Galt, the mysterious hero of Atlas Shrugged. Once upon this path, you will understand why the seemingly mild-mannered Immanuel Kant was, in fact, an incredibly sinister figure, which spares you the trouble (and it really is trouble) of reading him.

The full course of Randian thought-reform is itself quite demanding, however. Most conversions to Rand’s worldview prove halfhearted. Many are called, but few are Galtian. The world, or at least the United States, is full of people who remember the novels fondly, and vote Republican, while otherwise falling short of the glory. Rand would have scorned them. She was good at scorn, and hardcore Objectivists get a lot of practice at it as well.

But her fans -- as distinct from her followers, sometimes called Randroids, though never by each other -- form the real constituency for the "Atlas Shrugged" movie now in theaters. It is only the first of two or three parts. Whether the project will be finished appears to be a matter of debate among the moviemakers themselves. Clearly, though, it's going over well with its intended market, to judge by the Twitterchat hailing it as one of the great films of all time. And when I saw it in New York this weekend, the audience clapped at the end, as the credits began to roll.

By that point, my capacity for disbelief had been tested quite enough for one evening; the applause seemed one challenge to it too many. The problem with this incarnation of Atlas Shrugged is not ideology but competence. The film looks cheap. Its cinematography is at roughly the level of a TV show from the 1980s. Rand’s plot is almost operatic in its indifference to plausibility, but none of the cast is up to the challenge. (Even with the lead characters, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, some part of the actors' brains seemed busy checking their iPhones, perhaps to see if that dinner-theater gig came through.)

The film, or rather this installment of it, culminates in the triumphant run of the John Galt Railroad through Colorado, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour over rails fabricated from the surprisingly controversial Rearden Metal. The State Science Institute has issued dire warnings about Rearden Metal. The entire country stops whatever it is doing just to watch this event on television. Pundits on several continents write editorials denouncing the folly of such boldness. The stakes are enormous, for the mighty train is a symbol of the indomitable individual against collectivist tyranny. Either that or the tracks made of Rearden Metal are. Possibly it's both. Anyway, the climax, when it comes, possesses all the grandeur of an Amtrak commercial.

Any audience willing to pay $13 to watch "Atlas Shrugged" at the late screening on a Saturday night will be self-selecting for Randian enthusiasm, of course. People weren’t clapping for the movie, as such. They were applauding Rand’s weltanschauung. She was a genius, which more than makes up for the talent deficit of everyone else involved in the film. My objections are just the gripes of a Marxist who wants his money back.

But in truth, Rand and her work intrigue me. The initial exposure did not yield conversion, by any means, but the inoculation was imperfect. Something about her is fascinating. She is one of the great pulp writers, like Jim Thompson or Richard Shaver. At the same time, her fusion of melodrama and ideology is quite distinctive. I think of Rand (who was an anti-Communist émigré from Russia) as a profoundly Soviet author -- albeit one standing on her head.

In Atlas Shrugged, the greedy proletariat ruthlessly exploits the capitalists. The oppressed capitalists go on strike, then create a utopia under the leadership of John Galt. (In a socialist-realist “production novel” of the 1930s, Galt's analog would be the “positive hero” who grasps the direction of history and provides wise leadership.) The existence of a body of Objectivist scholarship interested me enough to write a long article about Rand for Lingua Franca, some while ago; and I still take an occasional look at the secondary literature on Rand.

But more to the point, "Atlas Shrugged" on screen is disappointing to me because it falls so far short of the movie version of "The Fountainhead" from 1948. Rand had a great deal of say in how that film was made. She did not like the result, but at no point in her life was Rand easy to please. It belongs in the class of films I always watch whenever rerun on television, along with "Psycho," anything with the Marx Brothers, and "Night of the Living Dead." (Make of that list what you will.)

The smoldering glances from Patricia Neal after she sees Gary Cooper and the mighty jackhammer he wields are a lesson in pure cinema:

More talent is concentrated in that clip (including the command of visual metaphor) than can be found in the whole of "Atlas Shrugged."

To put the dud now on screen into perspective, it helps to read Jeff Britting’s paper “Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film," which appears in Essays on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged,' edited by Robert Mayhew and published by Lexington Books in 2009. Britting is the archivist in charge of the author’s papers, held by the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif., and he was an associate producer of “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life,” which received an Oscar nomination for best documentary in 1998.

"Atlas Shrugged" may hold the all-time record for time spent in that realm of Hollywood called “development hell.” The possibility of bringing the novel to screen came up not long after it was published in 1957. Britting draws on “items found among her personal papers, interviews [with] or written statements by Rand, [and] oral histories conducted with people associated with historic efforts to produce a film version of her novel” during Rand’s lifetime. The author was never going to entrust her masterpiece to any other screenwriter, and her papers include several adaptations at various stages of completion. They include a proposed nine-hour TV miniseries and a four-hour theatrical release, in two parts, as well as shorter versions in each medium.

Britting quotes the producer Michael Jaffe, who worked on one effort to put Atlas Shrugged on television, about the standoff between Hollywood and Rand: “The reputation is that her stories are too idea-filled to make into films; if she had stayed out of it and let them just make the movies, take the best of the plot and not be whipsawed by all the philosophy, they’d be great stories. But it was the whipsawing that always killed it…. The people who controlled the rights to her stories would never let you just go out and make the movie.”

But the distinction between story and idea is not valid for an Objectivist. Britting quotes Rand’s definition of plot as “purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.” The actions and choices driving those events reflect the characters’ values; she defines value as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” So while it is true that Rand’s characters are prone to giving one another long lectures, her message is embedded in what they do as well as what they say. Her drafts show the author striving to pare down the dialog and remove secondary characters from Atlas Shrugged -- meanwhile reinforcing its plot as essential expression of her ideas on screen.

During work on one adaptation, she timed the speech that John Galt delivers to the world by radio at the end of the novel. This, for the true admirer, it is one of the greatest pieces of literature and philosophy of all time, and Rand herself would not have disputed the matter. It is a comprehensive statement on the morality of capitalism, the virtue of selfishness, and the absolute evil of interfering with the ordained perfection of the free market. In later nonfiction writings, Rand even took to quoting Galt’s speech as if he were an authority she were citing. (I find this a little creepy.)

The 60 pages or so of Galt's radio broadcast took four hours to read out loud, which would be long for cable access, let alone network TV. But Rand told her producer not to worry: “I will get the speech down to three to seven minutes. I’ll have to do so; no one else is equipped to do that.” Finding the “dramatic equivalent” of parts of Galt’s argument would allow Rand to express her (his?) ideas without taking four hours to do so. This required what she called “dancing back and forth … between abstractions and concretes.”

Screen adaptation, then, is for Rand a late phase of the creative process: a means of preserving the philosophical elements of a plot while responding to a different medium and new circumstances. And with that in mind, the conclusion of Britting’s essay sounds like a criticism of the new film -- except that it was published two years ago.

Anyone adapting Atlas Shrugged today, he writes, “must put down the book and look out at the world, totally on his own -- while taking stock of his own experience -- in order to begin dancing, as observes Rand, ‘literally’ between the novel’s abstract philosophy and its concretes.”

Instead, the makers of the new film have just taken Rand’s story from five decades ago, trimmed it down a bit, and added cell phones and CNN.

Rand set her novel in a vaguely not-too-distant future. But it’s really her dystopian reimagining of the New Deal era. It pictures an America in which the economy is based on industrial production, but menaced by powerful labor unions and legislators eager to regulate businesses. In it, citizens get caught up in feverish debate over the opening of a new railroad, built with an exciting and mysterious new metal.

By 1957, this was already somewhat anachronistic. Today it’s just surreal. Manufacturing accounts for half the gross domestic product it did 40 years ago, unions are in trouble, and regulation means that corporations pay a fine and write it off. Exciting technological developments typically do not involve the railroad industry.

It’s hard to imagine how even the most skillful Randian dancer could turn Atlas Shrugged into a 21st-century story. Maybe make Hank Rearden a bioengineer who’s figured out how to integrate people’s genomes with Facebook? Dagny Taggart might run a company that trades risky but extremely profitable financial instruments based on how many people a company puts out of work when it moves from country to country. And it could end with John Galt planting a microchip programmed with his philosophy into everyone’s brains.

Admittedly, this all sounds preposterous, but it couldn’t be worse than the movie now in theaters.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Economists and You

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There's a surprising source for research on controversial topics in higher education: economists. In their journals and at their scholarly meetings, they are spending a lot of time analyzing issues that are important to many academics.

The American Economic Association met this weekend in Philadelphia. Here are some of the findings of interest to academics who aren't economists:

Yet Another Problem for Study Abroad

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The weak dollar is taking a toll on American students abroad and Chinese students in Europe.

Cheating Scandal at Virginia

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Large group of economics graduate students are under investigation at university known for its honor code.

Not So Dismal Enrollments

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The number of economics majors is up for the eighth straight year, reversing declines of the early 90s.

Text vs. Text vs. Text

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Paul Krugman and Glenn Hubbard enter the lucrative textbook market for Econ 101.

Social Scientists Lean to the Left, Study Says

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Analysis finds wide variations among disciplines -- with anthropology and sociology more liberal than political science and economics.

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