Christopher Hitchens Dismisses the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advocating Selfishness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Reinforcement”

Charges of hypocrisy, contradiction, “flip-flopping,” etc. in politics are so much mud thrown at the castle walls. Unless the peasants gather in large enough numbers to storm the palace and depose their lords, their righteousness avails them nothing. What does it matter to the current party in power, for example—who wears the national flag like a cape and has decided the civil religion and its Evangelical variety are one in the same—that its most-admired role model and (alleged) fixer is a corrupt Russian autocrat who murders journalists (or a Confederate general who led the armies of a treasonous slave state)?

So it is, on and on, with the political class.

Take Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. During these years, he was widely hailed as a major power behind the throne, no matter the policies of those who occupied it. He was “obliged to report,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in 2000, “to Congress only twice a year, at formal occasions where he is received with the deference that was once accorded the Emperor of Japan.” I well remember the dowdy frisson accompanying those appearances in the 90s, the Bill Clinton bubble years. Hitchens only slightly exaggerates. But somehow, Greenspan retained this guru-like aura despite the fact that his position violated his sincerely-held beliefs as a member, he himself told Hitchens, of Ayn Rand’s “inner circle”




As Hitchens notes in the grainy video clip above, “a state Federal Reserve Bank is not part of the Libertarian program, though Mr. Greenspan seems a bit iffy about this self-evident proposition.” In addition to championing atheism and abortion rights, Rand, Greenspan’s “intellectual guru,” defined the rigid ideological disdain for government meddling in markets and social spending of any kind. Yet she ended her days on the government dime. But there are no contradictions for purveyors of theodicies. Randians, or “Objectivists,” if they prefer, must know that to everyone outside the circle, the philosophy looks like ethically-bankrupt cult logic, wishful thinking easily discarded when inconvenient. Still, adepts will write to tell us that if we only grasped the gnostic reasoning of such-and-such argument, then we too could pierce the veil.

Hitchens dispenses with this pretense, not as an anarcho-communist radical but as a sometime neoconservative hawk and sometime admirer of Rand (or at least a knowledgeable reader of her work). “I have some respect for the ‘Virtue of Selfishness,’” he goes on to say in his aside on Rand above—which occurred during a lecture called “The Moral Necessity of Atheism” at Sewanee University in 2004. (In his Vanity Fair essay, Hitchens pronounced himself a “Rand buff.”) And yet, the title of Rand's collection of essays provides him with the rhetorical essence of his critique, one drawn from a different strain of virtue—of a religious variety, even. After dismissing Rand on literary grounds, he says:

I don’t think there’s any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings; I don’t know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement.

The urbane Hitchens goes on to tell an off-color anecdote about Lillian Hellman with a moralistic undertone, gets a laugh, and pivots to a much older theological conflict to bring his point home.

So to have a book strenuously recommending that people be more self-centered seems to me, as the Anglican Church used to say in its critique of Catholicism, a work of super-arrogation. It’s too strenuous.

It’s trying too hard, that is, to convince us, and itself, perhaps, that its superstitions, self-defenses, and desires are natural law. Rand’s belief system has so little intellectual currency among thinkers on the left that few people spend any time bothering to refute it. But Hitchens did the political center a service when he took on defenders of Randianism in the media, such as he does in the debate below with David Frum, the now infamous neoconservative Canadian speechwriter for George W. Bush. Those who think the healthcare debate began with the election of Barack Obama may be surprised to see it conducted in almost the very same terms in 1996.

Frum defends a version of the libertarian view, Hitchens a social democratic perspective. When Rand’s name inevitably comes up near the end of the discussion (4:40), Hitchens articulates the same views: “I always thought it quaint, and rather touching,” he says with dry irony, “that there is in America a movement that thinks people are not yet selfish enough…. It’s somewhat refreshing to meet people who manage to get through their day actually believing that.” Like many others, Hitchens embodied a number of contradictions. Among them, perhaps, was his staunch, almost Catholic belief—despite his strenuous objection to religion—that selfishness… too much selfishness, a valorization of selfishness, a cult of selfishness… is self-evidently a rather sinful thing.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Economist John Maynard Keynes

If you know anything about modern economic theory, you’ve learned the names Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes—generally pitted against each other as representing the divide down the center in Western political economy. While more radical thinkers like F.A. Hayek and, of course, Marx and Engels, hold sway over a significant part of the population, when it comes to the entrenched two-party system in the U.S. and so-called moderate Democratic and Republican politicians, we can handily refer to Friedman and Keynes, respectively, as advocating on the one hand very little government intervention into free market affairs and, on the other, a significant, very visible, guiding hand.

Keynes “believed that governments have it in their power,” says Alain de Botton in his School of Life animated introduction above, “to solve some of the greatest ills of capitalism.” Rejecting both communism and “the utter wisdom of the unfettered free market,” Keynes sought to chart a middle way, theorizing capitalist economies planned through "judicious injections" of money and “wise regulations” to “smooth out the peaks and troughs to which all economies seem fatefully prone.” Keynes himself was not prone to many financial ups and downs. Born in 1883 in Cambridge to a “well-to-do academic family,” writes the BBC, his “father was an economist and a philosopher” and his mother “became the town’s first female mayor.” He “amassed a considerable personal fortune from the financial markets” between the wars and became a “board member of a number of companies.”




At the height of the economic crisis in 1930, Keynes published an essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he “outlined his belief that most economic problems could be overcome, and give way to an age where the chief challenge for human beings would be how to occupy their leisure time in conditions of mass prosperity.” His utopian outlook may have been partly conditioned by his position as “part of the British establishment.” But Keynes was a nuanced, creative thinker, a member of the Bloomsbury group—Virginia Woolf was one of his closest friends—who “recognized that good economics was as fundamental to well-being as good painting or literature, and in a deep sense not fundamentally different in its search for the wellsprings of fulfillment, and its attention to human error and blindness.”

Like Woolf, Keynes tended to view human well-being through a narrow class prism, with some of the ugly prejudices such a view entails. Yet his theory began by considering the needs of huge numbers of unemployed in Britain and the U.S. who should not have to live in precarity and poverty, he reasoned, until the market got around to correcting itself, if it happened to do so in their lifetimes. The interventionist theories Keynes elaborated in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, his great work of 1936, led to his creation in 1944 of the IMF and the World Bank, two of the most controversial global institutions of the past half-century for what many see as their disastrous, coercive meddling in the economic affairs of poorer nations.

While deficit spending may be a de facto practice of every government administration, it is the theory of John Maynard Keynes that most attaches it philosophically to the center-left. And while it may be that more Keynesian stimulus spending, with government as the “primary shopper in the land,” as Peter Coy argued in 2014, is just what a sagging, stagnant world economy needs, the perpetual challenge, as de Botton points out, is the question of just “who should pay for the loans” governments issue, or the services it funds to buoy the citizenry. Few people, no matter how wealthy, seem to want to shoulder the burden, however light it may be for some, even if Keynes’ “multiplier effect” can be shown to raise all boats once it takes hold.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Albert Einstein Writes the 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?” and Attempts to Find a Solution to the “Grave Evils of Capitalism”

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a complicated human being, with a wide range of interests. His personality seemed balanced between a certain chilliness when it came to personal matters, and a great deal of warmth and compassion when it came to the wider human family. The physicist struck up friendships with famed American activists Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and he championed the cause of Civil Rights in the U.S. He professed a deep admiration for Gandhi, and praised him several times in letters and speeches. And in 1955, just days before his death, Einstein collaborated with another outspoken public intellectual, Bertrand Russell, on a peace manifesto, which was signed by six other scientists.

Einstein saw a public role for scientists in matters social, political, and even economic. In 1949, he published an article in the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” Anticipating his critics, he begins by asking “is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a number of reasons that it is.”




Einstein goes on, sounding something like a combination of Karl Marx and E.O. Wilson, to elaborate the theoretical basis for socialism as he sees it, first describing what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and what the socialist economist Thorstein Veblen called “’the predatory phase’ of human development.”

…most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

The science of economics, as it stands, writes Einstein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observable economic facts… are not applicable to other phases.” These facts simply describe the predatory state of affairs, and Einstein implies that not even economists have sufficient methods to definitively answer the question “why socialism?”—“economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” Einstein himself doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few questions addressing “some extremely difficult socio-political problems,” of the kind that attend every debate about socialism:

…how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Nevertheless, Einstein is “convinced” that the only way to eliminate the “grave evils” of capitalism is “through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” For Einstein, the “worst evil” of predatory capitalism is the “crippling of individuals” through an educational system that emphasizes an “exaggerated competitive attitude” and trains students “to worship acquisitive success.” But the problems extend far beyond the individual and into the very nature of the political order.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands… The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The political economy Einstein describes is one often lambasted by right libertarians as an impure variety of crony capitalism, one not worthy of the name, but the physicist is skeptical of the claim, writing “there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society.” Private owners always secure their privileges through the manipulation of the political and educational systems and the mass media.

The predatory situation Einstein observes is one of extreme alienation among all classes; “All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Einstein believed that devotion should take the form of a socialist economy that promotes both the physical wellbeing and the political rights of everyone. But he did not presume to know exactly what such an economic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, "Why Socialism?" here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Experts Predict When Artificial Intelligence Will Take Our Jobs: From Writing Essays, Books & Songs, to Performing Surgery and Driving Trucks

Image via Flickr Commons

We know they’re coming. The robots. To take our jobs. While humans turn on each other, find scapegoats, try to bring back the past, and ignore the future, machine intelligences replace us as quickly as their designers get them out of beta testing. We can’t exactly blame the robots. They don’t have any say in the matter. Not yet, anyway. But it’s a fait accompli say the experts. “The promise,” writes MIT Technology Review, “is that intelligent machines will be able to do every task better and more cheaply than humans. Rightly or wrongly, one industry after another is falling under its spell, even though few have benefited significantly so far.”

The question, then, is not if, but “when will artificial intelligence exceed human performance?” And some answers come from a paper called, appropriately, “When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts.” In this study, Katja Grace of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and several of her colleagues “surveyed the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence by asking them when they think intelligent machines will better humans in a wide range of tasks.”

You can see many of the answers plotted on the chart above. Grace and her co-authors asked 1,634 experts, and found that they “believe there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years.” That means all jobs: not only driving trucks, delivering by drone, running cash registers, gas stations, phone support, weather forecasts, investment banking, etc, but also performing surgery, which may happen in less than 40 years, and writing New York Times bestsellers, which may happen by 2049.

That’s right, AI may perform our cultural and intellectual labor, making art and films, writing books and essays, and creating music. Or so the experts say. Already a Japanese AI program has written a short novel, and almost won a literary prize for it. And the first milestone on the chart has already been reached; last year, Google’s AI AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, the South Korean grandmaster of Go, the ancient Chinese game “that’s exponentially more complex than chess,” as Cade Metz writes at Wired. (Humane video game design, on the other hand, may have a ways to go yet.)

Perhaps these feats partly explain why, as Grace and the other researchers found, Asian respondents expected the rise of the machines “much sooner than North America.” Other cultural reasons surely abound—likely those same quirks that make Americans embrace creationism, climate-denial, and fearful conspiracy theories and nostalgia by the tens of millions. The future may be frightening, but we should have seen this coming. Sci-fi visionaries have warned us for decades to prepare for our technology to overtake us.

In the 1960s Alan Watts foresaw the future of automation and the almost pathological fixation we would develop for “job creation” as more and more necessary tasks fell to the robots and human labor became increasingly superfluous. (Hear him make his prediction above.) Like many a technologist and futurist today, Watts advocated for Universal Basic Income, a way of ensuring that all of us have the means to survive while we use our newly acquired free time to consciously shape the world the machines have learned to maintain for us.

What may have seemed like a Utopian idea then (though it almost became policy under Nixon), may become a necessity as AI changes the world, writes MIT, “at breakneck speed.”

via Big Think/MIT Technology Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Introduction to Game Theory & Strategic Thinking: A Free Online Course from Yale University

Taught by Ben Polak, an economics professor and now Provost at Yale University, this free course offers an introduction to game theory and strategic thinking. Drawing on examples from economics, politics, the movies and beyond, the lectures cover topics essential to understanding Game theory--including "dominance, backward induction, the Nash equilibrium, evolutionary stability, commitment, credibility, asymmetric information, adverse selection, and signaling."

Since Game Theory offers "a way of thinking about strategic situations," the course will "teach you some strategic considerations to take into account [when] making your choices," and "to predict how other people or organizations [will] behave when they are in strategic settings."

The 24 lectures can be streamed above. (They're also on YouTube and iTunes in audio and video). A complete syllabus can be found be on this Yale web site. Texts used in the course are the following:

Game Theory will be added to our list of Free Economics Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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What It Cost to Shop at the Grocery Store in 1836, and What Goods You Could Buy

Click here to view the image in a larger format.

Like many children in possession of a toy cash register, I was a big fan of playing store.

A short stint working retail in a 90’s era Chicago hippie clothing emporium cured me of that for the most part.

But looking over the above page from Roswell C. Smith’s 1836 Practical and Mental Arithmetic on a New Plan, I must admit, I feel some of the old stirrings, and not because I love math, even when it’s intended to be worked on a slate.

Coffee, 35 cents per pound. A self-sharpening plough, $3.50. A whip, a buck fourteen. And a gallon of gin, 60 cents, which was "about two-thirds of a day's wages for the average non-farm white male worker." (View the prices in a larger format here.)

But I'm less intrigued by the wholesale price of the various items Smith's hypothetical country storekeeper would pay to stock his shelves in 1836, though I do love a bargain.

It’s more the type of goods listed on that inventory. They’re exactly the sort of items that figure in one of the most memorable chapters of Little House on the Prairie---Mr Edwards Meets Santa Claus.”

Okay, so maybe not exactly the same. Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was pretty explicit about the simple pleasures of her 1870s and 80s childhood. Her family’s bachelor neighbor, Mr. Edwards, risked life and limb fording a near-impassable, late-December creek, a bundle containing his clothes, a couple of tin cups, some peppermint sticks, and two heart-shaped cakes, tied to his head. Without his kindly initiative, their stockings would have been empty that year.

Presumably, the Independence, Kansas general store where Neighbor Edwards did his Christmas shopping would've stocked a lot of the same merch' that Smith alludes to in the above fragment of a bookkeeping-related story problem. Online bookseller John Ptak, on whose blog the page was originally reproduced, is keeping page 238 close to the vest (coincidentally the last item to be mentioned on the inventory, almost as an afterthought, just one, priced at 50¢.)

Childhood recollections aside, perhaps there was something else in Mr. Edward’s bundle, something the adult Laura chose not to mention. The sort of hostess gift that could've warmed Pa and Ma on those long, cold frontier nights…

Some gin, perhaps…or wine? Rum? Brandy?

Smith’s shopkeeper would’ve been well provisioned, laying the stuff in by the barrel, hogshead, and pipe-full.

As for that “bladder” of snuff, a post on the Snuffhouse forum suggests that it wasn’t a euphemism, but the actual bladder of a hog, paced with 4 pounds of snortin' tobacco.

Of course, Smith’s shopkeeper would’ve also carried a healthy assortment of wholesome goods- hymnals, children’s shoes, calico, satin, whips…

Perhaps we should do the math.

via Slate/JF Ptak

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

How Cormac McCarthy Became a Copy-Editor for Scientific Books and One of the Most Influential Articles in Economics

Creative Commons image via Wikimedia Commons

I first came to know the work of Cormac McCarthy through the 1973 novel Child of God, a portrait of a terrifyingly alienated loner who becomes a serial killer. The book so immerses readers in the dank, claustrophobic world of its protagonist, Lester Ballard, that one can almost smell the dirt and rotting flesh. Next, I read Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s psychedelically brutal epic about a mercenary band of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century Southwest. In McCarthy’s avalanche of prose—which lacks commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, and most every other mark of punctuation—long passages of grim death and carnage become hallucinatory trance-inducing incantations.

It’s never a good idea to identify an author too closely with their fiction; the most disturbingly effective works of horror and madness have very often been designed by writers of the highest emotional sensitivity and critical intelligence. This is certainly the case with McCarthy, whose work plumbs the deepest existential abysses. Nevertheless, I harbored certain anxious expectations of him, unsure if he was a writer I’d ever actually want to meet. So like many others, I was more than a little puzzled by McCarthy's decision to give his first and only TV interview in 2007 on Oprah Winfrey's wildly popular platform.




But among the many things we learned from their pleasant conversation is that McCarthy doesn’t care much for literary society. He doesn’t like writers so much as he loves writing and thinking, of all kinds. He spends most of his time with scientists, keeping—as we noted in a post last week—an office at a think tank called the Santa Fe Institute and doing most of his writing there on a noisy old typewriter. While developing relationships with physicists, McCarthy took an interest in their writing, and volunteered to copy-edit several scientific books. He overhauled the prose in physicist Lawrence Krauss’s Quantum Man, a biography of Richard Feynman, promising, says Krauss, that he “could excise all the exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature.”

In 2005, McCarthy read the manuscript of the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall’s first book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. He “gave it a good copy-edit,” Randall said, and “really smoothed the prose.” Later he did the same for her second book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. During that experience, she notes, “we had some nice conversations about the material. In fact, I saw a quote where he used a physics example I had given in response to a question about truth and beauty.”

Perhaps McCarthy sees this avocation as a challenge and an opportunity to learn. Perhaps he’s also doing research for his own work. His latest project, The Passenger, includes a character who is a Los Alamos physicist. But what about another, surprisingly out-of-the-blue editorial job he took on in 1996? Before he applied his austerities to Krauss and Randall’s work, he received an article from theoretical economist and friend W. Brian Arthur. The piece, scheduled to be published in the Harvard Business Review, was titled “Increasing Returns and the New World of Business.”

After mailing McCarthy the article, Arthur called and asked him how he liked it. “There was a silence on the line,” he tells Rick Tetzeli in an interview for Fast Company, “and then he said, ‘Would you be interested in some editorial help on that?’” The two spent four hours going over the writing. “Let’s say the piece was better for all the hours Cormac and I spent poring over every sentence,” Arthur says, noting that his editor called in a “slight panic” after hearing about the collaboration. You can read the full article here. It’s “a lot punchier and more sharply worded than you might expect, given its subject matter,” writes The Onion’s A.V. Club. It also contains a lot more punctuation than we might expect, given its copy-editor's philosophy.

“Increasing Returns and the New World of Business” became one of Harvard Business Review’s “most influential articles” Tetzeli writes. “Even now, the theory of increasing returns is as important as ever: it’s at the heart of the success of companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb.” Did McCarthy’s encounter with Arthur’s theory appear in his later fiction? Who knows. Perhaps where Arthur’s vision of economic growth predicted the massive tech giants to come, McCarthy’s keen mind saw the ever-increasing profits of business savvy drug cartels like those in No Country for Old Men and his Ridley Scott collaboration The Counselor.

via The A.V. Club

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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