I want to thank Brendan DuBois for sending me this insightful Boston Globe column about Ayn Rand vs. John D. MacDonald.
Corporate greed and disaster? Like pages from a crime novel
By Garry Emmons
December 15, 2009
DECADES LATER, the gig with the economy would end badly for the erstwhile saxophone player. But in the 1950s, jazz musician Alan Greenspan was just another cat under the spell of a dame, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, in thrall to the novelist Ayn Rand and her torch song of laissez-faire business, free markets, and capitalist elitism.
If only the Fed chairman-in-training had swung to a different drummer. In 1957, for example, instead of Rand’s pie-in-the sky “Atlas Shrugged,’’ imagine if Greenspan had taken to heart another book published that year, John D. MacDonald’s “A Man of Affairs.’’ (The two authors were contemporaries and both sold well, but MacDonald was “the best novelist in America,’’ according to writer Pete Hamill.)
If only young Alan had shrugged off Rand for MacDonald, maybe we’d all be better off today.
A hard-boiled crime writer who maintains legions of fans decades after his death, MacDonald had no illusions about how people and institutions behave when big sums of money are around. And because MacDonald actually knew how business works, he had a more trenchant view of American enterprise.
The son of an executive, MacDonald earned an MBA at Harvard (Robert McNamara was a classmate) and then spent several years in factories and industrial plants procuring matériel for the Army, an experience he later used in plots involving business.
MacDonald is best known for his paperback series starring Travis McGee, a private operative who takes care of violent bad guys but also rights financial wrongs perpetrated by slippery businessmen and corporate malefactors. To do this, McGee often calls upon the financial acumen of his brainy buddy Meyer, a “retired economist’’ who lives on a boat named the John Maynard Keynes.
But MacDonald also wrote nonviolent novels of contemporary American manners featuring organization men in corporate middle management or family businesses. These characters are dragged down by their own moral failings but also by the numbing impersonality of business and by predatory corporations and financiers. So while “Atlas Shrugged’’ is Rand’s paean to unbridled, heroic capitalism, personified in the character John Galt, in “A Man of Affairs,’’ MacDonald’s capitalist icon is a corporate raider named Mike Dean. In a tirade directed at the novel’s protagonist, Dean lays it out: “You sicken me. You pollyanna boys want to go around thinking the business world is honorable and reasonably decent . . . . Listen to me. There’s no more morality or ethics in industry than there is in that pack of barracudas out there . . . . I tell you that the only limitation is the law. And everything else goes.’’
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True, Greenspan was one of Rand's inner circle of followers who gahered in her Manhattan appartment in the '60s. However, Greenspan's role in manipulating the economy through determining interest rates at the Federal Reserve were antithetical to Rand's ideal of truly unregulated capitalism. Whatever else one can say about Rand's ideas, she really can't be blamed for Greenspan's decisions at the Fed. Ultimately, he didn't really practice what she preached.
Apropos of nothing, our daughter's in town for Christmas and today we went to a bookstore. She came out with a bag of books, and when I was looking through them to discover what she was reading, I found two books by this Ed Gorman guy. When I asked, she said, "Yeah, he's good. I really like his books." So naturally I told her I knew Ed Gorman. Now she's a lot more impressed with me.
It just occurred to me, looking at Ayn Rand's photo over on Charlie Stella's site - http://temporaryknucksline.blogspot.com/ - that Ms. Rand was in fact William F. Buckley Jr. in a hippy wig. I mean, it's uncanny!
You have to check out the phil donahue interviews with her. I forget which one, but it shows a somewhat paranoid woman quick to cut off someone she perceives is attacking her--the woman from the audience wasn't at all, but Rand didn't give her a chance to finish). Donahue was more than pleasant with her (very kind, I thought). Her philosophy is pretty scary ... her books were truly the same story over and over and over. I did, however, pick up a few things and come to understand some more of it, but I don't agree with most of it ... I'd definitely qualify as a "looter" in her world.
John D. MacDonald is on the cover of the Harvard Business School alumni magazine this month, with an interesting article inside, focusing on his experience as a businessman - both before becoming a writer and as the manager of his writing career.
Link: One Man Crime Wave
Hey Bill please tell your daughter for me that her beauty is matched only by her intelligence and wisdom. Seriously--it's fun to go to bookstores with your kids and grandkids. I really feel part of a continuum, thinking about myself at their age and how they'll likely be doing the same with their own kids someday (assuming not ALL bookstores have disappeared).
The long overdue demolition of Ayn Rand's philosophy did not come from the left, as one might expect, but from William F. Buckley's National Review Magazine. Her movement never really survived that lethal criticism.
John D. MacDonald lived in a real world, and not the abstract one of the intellectuals of all stripes. He's one of my heroes.
All I can think of is Alan Greenspan's comment in light of the financial meltdown of 2008: There was a fatal flaw in my view of how the world works.
Ah, yeah, that's one way of putting it.
(BTW, I know I've said it before, but if someone over the age of about 19 tells me that Atlas Shrugged is their favorite novel, I immediately think that either this person is fatally self-absorbed or doesn't read very much.)
Think I'm kidding about Rand being Buckley in a hippy wig? Hah.
I've posted comparison photos that prove my theory beyond any doubt.
See for yerself: http://esmeraldasden.blogspot.com/
Emmons article mentions A Man of Affairs and Condominium as examples of J.D. Macdonald's portrayal of greedy capitalism, but leaves out another superb example in the same vein. Have you read A Key to the Suite? A simple but chilling tale of sandbagging a honest business exec using a woman.
SELF INTEREST OR SELF-CENTERED
This is directed at those who admire and criticize Ayn Rand’s beliefs about people who stand on their own feet. Most who criticize Rand say she promoted selfishness, thereby greed, which is self-centered and anti-individual creativity, therefore, anti-Rand. Rand admired the creative individual, such as James Jerome Hill, on whom she was reputed to have based her character Nathaniel Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. If we look at Howard Roark’s summation to the jury, from Fountainhead, we do not see a self-centered individual destroying his work. Were he greedy, he would have simply accepted his payment. We see a self-interested, other- and outer-centered individual in love with his own dreams and creations, as one would love a spouse, child or family and refuse to allow them to be assaulted. Though love for anything spiritual may be missing, a great idea or vision also measures up to that which is spiritual, beyond self, and that view is not that inconsistent with Christianity. Claysamerica.com.
Clay - I haven't read Rand since my salad years (when I didn't especially like salads, oddly), but, as I recall, her pontificating characters, tho fascinating, chilled me to the bone, as they seemed to lack some spark of what makes us human. They were like brilliantly programmed robots spouting brilliantly crafted theory, but there was no detectable hint of good-natured humor, self-doubt or empathy - or even sympathy, or, heaven forbid, pity - for anyone of weaker stuff than themselves.
I agree it's not greed these characters depict, because greed would be a sign that they are indeed human and therefore more believable.
I couldn't take Rand seriously after ANTHEM, which was clearly ridiculous to me as a 12 year old. ANIMAL FARM was a much better allegory read at about the same time. Nothing I've been exposed to since has persuaded me that Rand wasn't simply the crank (and extremely ungenerous one, not atypically of many who seem to preach freedom as in the freedom to be the petty dictator in their own circle--Heinlein rather like that, too) she was portrayed as being in Jerome Tuccille's IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH AYN RAND.
I only ever read Anthem -- the short one -- but when I was in that post-collegiate, literary bliss and was trying to discover everything I could about 20th cent lit, I noticed that Ayn Rand fans didn't read much other than Ayn Rand. No Hemingway, no Joyce, no Russians, no Hammett, no Brautigan, no Wodehouse, no Steinbeck. Nothing. Just Ayn Rand.
Sageanddan: Yes, it's anecdotal, but I found exactly the same thing; it was as if the Randeans (right term?) were in an echo chamber. When I was in, as you so aptly put it, post-collegiate, literary bliss (before full-time work, marriage, and motherhood put a dent into my reading time), I managed to make it through Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead; then decided I'd had enough of both Rand's philosophy ("mine, mine, it's all mine, so f**k you!") and her literary style (abyssmal).
--Dismounting soapbox now!
In college, I was dating a girl who said that Rand was her favorite author. Eager to impress - because that's how I roll - I read Anthem because it was the shortest of Rand's books. Finishing the book finished my interest in Rand and the girl.
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