Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905. She lived through the Bolshevik Revolution prior to immigrating to the US at the age of 20. Rand became one of the most celebrated English-language writers of the 20th century, authoring controversial, best-selling, massive novels such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Most of Rand’s books metaphorically portray the triumph of Individualist Objectivism over Collectivism. Boiled down to simple terms, Rand’s larger-than-life heroes change the world for the better by relentlessly pursuing perfection in whatever profession or craft they choose as their life’s work, without regard for their impact on the masses. Rand’s fictional heroes, such as architect Howard Roark, wind up lifting society as a whole via their soaring singular achievements, much as a rising tide lifts all boats.
Rand’s popularity in the US has simmered on a low boil for decades. She reappeared on the front burner in 2008 when her personal friend and disciple Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, admitted that his Rand-inspired philosophies and policies were horribly flawed and led both directly and indirectly to the collapse of the American financial system in 2008. Greenspan, like Rand, had erroneously believed free markets were, by definition, self-regulating. Greenspan believed Wall Street’s “Masters Of The Universe”, left unencumbered by rules, would lift society as a whole by refining capitalism to its rawest form in pursuit of their own enrichment.
Notorious Wall Streeters like Sandy Weill of Citi and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs ran amok during Greenspan’s reign as Fed Chairman, lining their pockets with billions and enriching their cronies via dubious, unethical, morally disgraceful – yet barely legal – dealings. While working to dismantle an almost non-existent regulatory framework, a rogue’s gallery of Wall Street operators legally robbed individuals, corporations, and municipalities without remorse nor regard for anything other than their own financial gain. They bought politicians (albeit quasi-legally) to change the few laws standing in their way, such as The Glass-Steagall Act. Eventually the entire system collapsed beneath the weight of its own greed, leaving a few thousand Wall Street bankers with unimaginably massive bank accounts, fleets of Gulfstream jets, and massive private estates in The Hamptons, while leaving the other 99.9% of the country holding a tax bill so massive it almost surely will never be paid.
A bewildered Greenspan went before the United States Congress in late 2008 and performed an odd mea culpa kabuki dance, summing up his decades-long Fed Chairmanship as one big “oops”. Indeed, the Great 2008 Bailout of the “Too Big To Fail” Wall Street institutions has left the world financial system so unstable, many predict it will almost surely fail again, and sooner rather than later. The chief engineer of the Great Bailout, US Treasury Secretary and former Goldman CEO Hank Paulson, took his half-billion tax-free dollars and rode off into the sunset aboard a private jet chartered for him by the US Government. Blankfein and his reptilian brethren (such as Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase) remain in place, still extraordinarily well compensated and unprosecuted. They all seem extraordinarily at peace with the fact that 99.9% of America would rejoice in seeing them frog-marched into Manhattan’s Federal Courthouse wearing orange jumpsuits and leg irons.
The Attorney General of the United States, after investigating Wall Street’s pillage of world financial markets for the past 3 years, recently admitted thousands of financial-sector Howard Roarks perpetrated acts that were reprehensible and clearly morally wrong, but the regulatory framework in place at the time was so weak that few, if any, of their heinous self-enrichment schemes were illegal. US AG Eric Holder dropped back ten yards and punted. Elliot Spitzer, where are you?
Enter Rand Redux, Act II. In the past few weeks, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney named US Congressman Paul Ryan as his VP running mate. Ryan is the Chairman of the US Congressional Budget Committee and architect of a US budget proposal known as “The Ryan Plan”. Like Greenspan, Ryan is a Rand groupie. Much like Greenspan’s failed vision for Wall Street and the thoroughly discredited blue-faced rantings of disgraced Reagan-era economist Arthur Laffer, Ryan’s plan goes something like this:
1. Give the massively rich an even more massive tax bailout at the expense of the other 99.9%
2. Unspecified alchemy will follow
Rand’s literary works are undeniably important. Many are well worth reading. However, like most true giants of our society, Rand’s heroes are both criminal and hero, in ratio.
Bill Gates personifies a pretty good real-life Howard Roark. Part hero, part evil. Gates arguably stole DOS from Tim Patterson (Gates later settled in court) and then launched a relentless game of global legal hardball to make himself (and plenty of others) billions, protecting property he at minimum filched and at worst stole outright. Then he “appropriated” a bunch of ideas from Xerox’s PARC in creating Microsoft Windows, and again, used a massive global team of lawyers to protect the ideas he’d claimed as his own. Gates is the son of a white-shoe corporate lawyer, so he clearly understood the power of an expensive team of lawyers from the very beginning.
Few would argue that Gates’ 2nd act, his massive charitable activities, are not a good thing for society. However, is the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation the fruit of a poisoned tree?
Then there is the controversial Steve Jobs, who like Gates, admittedly pillaged the work of XEROX PARC to form the DNA of Apple. Today Jobs’ successors relentlessly pursue a global thermonuclear legal war against Samsung, whom Apple claims stole ideas for their Android devices in exactly the same way Jobs stole XEROX’s research in the late 70′s. The jury, literally, remains out on Apple’s global legal war on Android in general and on Samsung specifically. Android devices have long since surpassed Apple’s in market share. Before Jobs died he vowed to scorch the planet pursuing perceived infringements perpetrated by Android, and his minions have continued to carry out Jobs’ wishes since his passing.
Nathan Myhrvold, Gates’ original research guru, is another case of Lawyers Gone Wild. Myhrvold was once an idea machine, Microsoft’s research guru. He was a hero to technie nerds everywhere. Now Myhrvold is a pariah, having switched jobs to become what many in the tech world deem the planet’s most notorious and despised “Patent Troll”. His Intellectual Ventures collects billions in a worldwide patent trolling scheme which operates exactly like the Mafia “protection” rackets depicted in movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather. A patent system that is utterly broken allows Intellectual Ventures to remain on the sunny side of racketeering and extortion laws.
If you look hard, there may be a few real-life, Roark-like characters whose good / evil ratio is much closer to 1.0 than Gates, Jobs, and Mhyrvold. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, appear to be examples. The pair produce a great product, as anybody who has ever suffered a painful breakup with a Significant Other can attest to. They didn’t steal their ideas. They continue to run Ben & Jerry’s in a societally and ecologically sensitive manner, spending a huge chunk (pardon the pun) of their profits on charitable deeds. They have fun, and make life just a little more fun for employees, retailers, and customers. On the minus side, in the process they have ruined untold thousands of sets of coronary arteries, but their victims presumably were not oblivious to the consequences of scarfing down freezerloads of Chunky Monkey and Phish Food.
Roger Penske may be another. Penske has created and sustained thousands of jobs by buying up teetering, neglected companies with otherwise good products, like Cummins Diesel, injecting capital and management expertise, and nursing them back to health. Unlike so-called vulture capitalists and corporate raiders (such as Bain Capital) Penske hasn’t pillaged and flipped his acquisitions in a few years. Rather, he accumulates and shepherds companies like adopted children. Penske buys selectively, and rarely sells. He is a buy-and-hold guy, whereas raiders like Henry Kravis, Carl Icahn, and Leon Black are flippers. Penske has made himself fabulously rich without making himself hated. He is respected, appreciated, even liked. On weekends, Penske travels to races with his NASCAR and IndyCar racing teams and wins millions of dollars, just for fun. Since 1969, Penske’s team has won 15 Indy 500s. Even Chip Ganassi, Penske’s arch-rival whose teams compete against Penske in IndyCar as well as in NASCAR, thinks Penske is a helluva guy. Ganassi once opined “Through [Penske's] guidance and setting the bar high for so many years, he’s made it possible for people like me to make a living at the sport.” Ganassi, who is about 20 years younger than Penske continued “I hope I’m still enjoying it as much as he does in 20 years.”
How about it, Boulevardiers…..know any Howard Roarks?