The Simpsons Take on Ayn Rand: See the Show’s Satire of The Fountainhead and Objectivist Philosophy

Say what you will about the tenets of Objectivism—to take a fan favorite line from a little film about bowling and white Russians. At least it’s an ethos. As for Ayn Rand’s attempts to realize her "absurd philosophy" in fiction, we can say that she was rather less successful, in aesthetic terms, than literary philosophers like Albert Camus or Simone de Beauvoir. But that’s a high bar. When it comes to sales figures, her novels are, we might say, competitive.

Atlas Shrugged is sometimes said to be the second best-selling book next to the Bible (with a significant degree of overlap between their readerships). The claim is grossly hyperbolic. With somewhere around 7 million copies sold, Rand's most popular novel falls behind other capitalist classics like Think and Grow Rich. Still, along with The Fountainhead and her other ostensibly non-fictional works, Rand sold enough books to make her comfortable in life, even if she spent her last years on the dole.




Since her death, Rand's books have grown in popularity each decade, with a big spike immediately after the 2008 financial crisis. That popularity isn’t particularly hard to explain as an appeal to adolescent selfishness and grandiosity, and it has made her works ripe targets for satire—especially since they almost read like self-parody already. And who better to take on Rand than The Simpsons, reliable pop satirists of great American delusions since 1989?

The show’s take on The Fountainhead, above, has baby Maggie in the role of architect Howard Roark, the book’s genius individualist whose extraordinary talent is stifled by a critic named Ellsworth Toohey (a cardboard caricature of British theorist and politician Harold Laski). In this version, Toohey is a vicious preschool teacher in tweed, who insists on educating his charges in banality (“mediocrity rules!”) and knocks down Maggie’s block cathedral with a snide “welcome to the real world.”

In response to Toohey’s abuse, Maggie delivers a pompous soliloquy about her own greatness, as Rand’s heroes are wont to do. She is again subjected to preschool repression in the clip just above—this time not at the hands of a socialist critic but from the headmistress of the Ayn Rand School for Tots. The domineering disciplinarian tells Marge her aim is to “develop the bottle within” and dissuade her students from becoming “leeches,” a dig at Rand’s tendency—one sadly parroted by her acolytes—to dehumanize recipients of social benefits as parasites.

Readers of Roald Dahl will be reminded of Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, and the barracks-like daycare, its walls lined with Objectivist slogans, becomes a site for some Great Escape capers. These sly references hint at a deeper critique—suggesting that the libertarian philosophy of hyper-individualism contains the potential for tyranny and terror as brutal as that of the most dogmatically collectivist of utopian schemes.

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When Ayn Rand Collected Social Security & Medicare, After Years of Opposing Benefit Programs

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

The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

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

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

"Once upon a time, artists had jobs," writes Katy Waldman in a recent New York Times Magazine piece. "Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring 'The Waste Land' (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims." Or Willem de Kooning painting signs, James Dickey writing slogans for Coca-Cola, William Carlos Williams writing prescriptions, Philip Glass installing dishwashers – the list goes on.

Waldman suggests that we consider day jobs not just bill-paying grinds but delivery systems for "the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience." Brian Eno thinks differently. "I often get asked to come and talk at art schools," he says in the clip above, "and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, 'I'm here to persuade you not to have a job.'"




That doesn't mean, he emphasizes, that you should "try not to do anything. It means try to leave yourself in a position that you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take maximum advantage of whatever your possibilities are."

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Eno wants to "work to a future where everybody is in a position to do that," enacting some form of universal basic income, the general idea of which holds that society will function better if it guarantees all its members a certain standard of living regardless of employment status. But if that standard rises too high, might it run the risk of softening the rigors and loosening the limitations needed to encourage true creativity? Musician Daniel Lanois, who has worked with Eno on the production of several U2 albums as well as ambient music projects, describes learning that lesson from his collaborator in the Louisiana Channel video just above.

"At the peak of my sonic experimentations with Brian Eno, we only ever used four boxes," says Lanois. "That's when we started getting these really beautiful textures and human-like sounds from machines. We got to be experts at those few tools." The limitations under which they worked in the studio may not have followed from any particular philosophy, but the actual experience taught them how a richer artistic result can arise, paradoxically, from more straitened circumstances. Since the beginning of art, its practitioners have always had to find innovative ways around obstacles, whether those obstacles have to do with technology, sides, time, money, or anything else besides. As Lanois reassuringly puts it, "I can imagine that if you have limitation, even financial limitation, that might be okay, man."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Much Money Do You Need to Be Happy? A New Study Gives Us Some Exact Figures

“If I gave you a million dollars, would you…?” (insert possibly life-altering risk, humiliation, or soul-selling crime here). What about ten million? 100 million? One BILLION dollars? Put another way, in the terms social scientists use these days, how much money is enough to make you happy?

If you’re Montgomery Burns, it’s at least a billion dollars, lest you be forced to suffer the torments of the Millionaire’s Camp. (“Just kill me now!”) As it tends to do, The Simpsons’ dark humor nails the insatiable greed that seems the scourge of our time, when the richest 1 percent take 82 percent of the world’s wealth, and the poorest 50 percent get nothing at all.




Hypothetical windfalls aside, the question of how much is enough is an urgent one for many people: as in, how much to feed a family, supply life’s necessities, purchase just enough leisure for some small degree of personal fulfilment?

As the misery of Monty Burns demonstrates, we have a sense of the 1% as eternally unfulfilled. He’s the wicked heir to more serious tragic figures like Charles Foster Kane and Jay Gatsby. But satire is one thing, and desire, that linchpin of the economy, is another.

“What we see on TV and what advertisers tell us we need would indicate there is no ceiling when it comes to how much money is needed for happiness,” says Purdue University psychologist Andrew T. Jebb, “but we now see there are some thresholds.” In short: money is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of it.

Jebb and his colleagues from Purdue and the University of Virginia addressed questions in their study “Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world” like, “Does happiness rise indefinitely with income, or is there a point at which higher incomes no longer lead to greater wellbeing?” What they found in data from an international Gallup World Poll survey of over 1.7 million people in 164 countries varies widely across the world.

People in wealthier areas seem to require more income for happiness (or “Subjective Well Being” in the social science terminology). In many parts of the world, higher incomes, “beyond satiation”—a metric that measures how much is enough—“are associated with lower life evaluations.” The authors also note that "a recent study at the country level found a slight but significant decline in life evaluation" among very high earners "in the richest countries."

You can see the wide variance in happiness worldwide in the “Happiness” study. As Dan Kopf notes at Quartz, these research findings are consistent with those of other researchers of happiness and income, though they go into much more detail. Problems with the methodology of these studies—primarily their reliance on self-reported data—make them vulnerable to several critiques.

But, assuming they demonstrate real quantities, what, on average, do they tell us? “We found that the ideal income point," averaged out in U.S. dollars, "is $95,000 for [overall life satisfaction],” says Jebb, “and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being,” a measure of day-to-day happiness. These are, mind you, individual incomes and “would likely be higher for families,” he says.

Peter Dockrill at Science Alert summarizes some other interesting findings: “Globally, it’s cheaper for men to be satisfied with their lives ($90,000) than women ($100,000), and for people of low ($70,000) or moderate education ($85,000) than people with higher education ($115,000).”

Yes, the study, like those before it, shows that after the “satiation point,” happiness decreases, though perhaps not to Monty Burns levels of dissatisfaction. But where does this leave most of us in the new Gilded Age? Given that "satiation" in the U.S. is around $105K, with day-to-day happiness around $85K, the majority of Americans fall well below the happiness line. The median salary for U.S. workers at the end of 2017 was $44, 564, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Managers and professionals averaged $64,220 and service workers around $28,000. (As you might imagine, income inequality diverged sharply along racial lines.)

And while the middle class saw a slight bump in income in the last couple years, median household income was still only $59,039 in 2016. However, we measure it the "middle class... has been declining for four decades,” admits Business Insider—“identifying with the middle class is, in part, a state of mind” rather than a state of debt-to-income ratios. (One study shows that Millennials make 20% less than Baby Boomers did at the same age.) Meanwhile, as wealth increases at the top, “the country’s bottom 20% of earners became worse off.”

This may all sound like bad news for the happiness quotient of the majority, if happiness (or Subjective Well Being) requires a certain amount of material security. Maybe one positive takeaway is that it doesn’t require nearly the amount of vast private wealth that has accumulated in the hands of a very few people. According to this research, significantly redistributing that wealth might actually make the wealthy a little happier, and less Mr. Burns-like, even as it raised happiness standards a great deal for millions of others.

Not only are higher incomes "usually accompanied by higher demands," as Jebb and his colleagues conclude—on one's time, and perhaps on one's conscience—but "additional factors" may also play a role in decreasing happiness as incomes rise, including "an increase in materialistic values, additional material aspirations that may go unfulfilled, increased social comparisons," etc. The longstanding truism about money not buying love—or fulfillment, meaning, peace of mind, what-have-you—may well just be true.

You can dig further into Andrew T. Jebb's study here: “Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world.”

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

MIT’s New Master’s Program Admits Students Without College and High School Degrees … and Helps Solve the World’s Most Pressing Problems

One of the central problems of inequality is that it perpetuates itself by nature. The inherent social capital of those born in certain places and classes grants access to even more social capital. Questions of merit can seem marginal when the credentials required by elite institutions prove inaccessible to most people. In an admirable effort to break this cycle globally, MIT is now admitting students to a graduate program in economics, without GRE scores, without letters of recommendation, and without a college degree. 

Instead students begin with something called a "MicroMasters" program, which is like “a method used in medicine… randomized control trials,” reports WBUR. This entryway removes many of the usual barriers to access by allowing students to first "take rigorous courses online for credit, and if they perform well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree program on campus"—a degree in data, economics and development policy (DEDP), which focuses on methods for reducing global inequality.

 

 

Enrollment in the online MicroMasters courses began in February of last year (the next round starts on February 6, 2018), and the DEDP master's program will start in 2019. “The world of development policy has become more and more evidence-based over the past 10-15 years,” explains MIT professor of economics Ben Olken, who co-created the program with economics professors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. “Development practitioners need to understand not just development issues, but how to analyze them rigorously using data. This program is designed to help fill that gap.”

Duflo, co-founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), explains the innovation of MicroMasters' radically open admissions. (For anyone with access to the internet, that is, still a huge barrier for millions worldwide): “Anybody could do that. At this point, you don’t need to have gone to college. For that matter, you don’t need to have gone to high school.” Students who are accepted after their initial online course work will move into a “blended” program that combines their prior work with a semester on MIT's campus.

MicroMasters courses are priced on a sliding scale (from $100 to $1,000), according to what students can afford, and costs are nowhere near what traditional students pay—after having already paid, or taken loans, for a four-year degree, various testing regimens, admissions costs, living expenses, etc. The current program might feasibly be scaled up to include other fields in the future. Thus far, over 8,000 students in the world have enrolled in the MicroMasters program. “In total,” Duflo says, “there are 182 countries represented,” including ten percent from China, a large group from India, and “even some from the U.S.”

Students enrolled in these courses design their own evaluations of initiatives around the globe that address disparities in healthcare, education, and other areas. Co-designed by the Poverty Action Lab and the Department of Economics, MicroMasters asks students to “grapple with some of the world’s most pressing problems," including the problem of access to higher education. You can view the requirements and enroll at the MITx MicroMasters’ site. Read frequently asked questions and learn about the instructors here. And here, listen to WBUR’s short segment on this fascinating educational experiment.

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

Robert Reich Makes His UC Berkeley Course on Wealth and Inequality in America Available on Facebook

Robert B. Reich served as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and was later named one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the 20th century by TIME Magazine. Nowadays, Reich teaches courses on public policy at UC Berkeley, and uses his popular Facebook page to discuss policy questions with a much broader audience. So here's the next the logical step: This semester, Reich is teaching a Berkeley course on wealth and inequality in America, and he's making the lectures themselves available on Facebook too. Watch the opening lecture above, and then check back in for new installments.

Note: Once you start playing the video, you might need to enable the audio in the lower right hand corner of the video player.

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A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

Is Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism still relevant to the 21st century? Can we ever read him independently of the movements that violently seized state power in his name, claiming to represent the workers through the sole will of the Party? These are questions Marxists must confront, as must all serious defenders of capitalism, who cannot afford to ignore Marx. He understood and articulated the problems of political economy better than any theorist of his day and posed a formidable intellectual challenge to the values liberal democracies claim to espouse, and those they actually practice through economic exploitation, perpetual rent-seeking, and the alienating commodification of everything.

In his School of Life video explainer above, Alain de Botton sums up the received assessment of Communist history as “disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships.” “Nevertheless,” he says, we should view Marx “as a guide, whose diagnosis of capitalism’s ills helps us to navigate toward a more promising future”—the future of a “reformed” capitalism. No Marxist would ever make this argument; de Botton’s video appeals to the skeptic, new to Marx and not wholly inoculated against giving him a hearing. His ideas get boiled down to some mostly uncontroversial statements: Modern work is alienating and insecure. The rich get richer while wages fall. Such theses have attained the status of self-evident truisms.

More interesting and provocative is Marx’s (and Engels’) notion that capitalism is “bad for capitalists,” in that it produces the repressive, patriarchal dominion of the nuclear family, “fraught with tension, oppression, and resentment.” Additionally, the imposition of economic considerations into every aspect of life renders relationships artificial and forms of life sharply constrained by the demands of the labor market. Here Marx’s economic critique takes on its subtly radical feminist dimension, de Botton says, by claiming that “men and women should have the permanent option to enjoy leisure,” not simply the equal opportunity to sell their labor power for equal amounts of insecurity.

The video won’t sway staunchly anti-communist minds, but it might make some viewers curious about what exactly it was Marx had to say. Those who turn to his masterwork, Das Kapital, are likely to give up before they reach the twists and turns of the arguments de Botton outlines in broad strokes. The first and most famous volume is hard going without a guide, and you’ll find fewer better than David Harvey, Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital has guided readers through the text for years, and his lectures on Marx have done so for students going on four decades. In the video above, see an introduction to Harvey’s lecture series on volume one of Marx’s Capital, and at our previous post, find complete videos of his full lecture series on Volumes One, Two, and part of Volume Three. Harvey doesn’t claim that a kinder, gentler capitalism can be found in Marx. But as to the question of whether Marx is still relevant to the vastly accelerated, technocratic capitalism of the present, he would unequivocally answer yes.

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

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