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Archive for June 6th, 2010

In a review of two new biographies about Ayn Rand, Charles Murray explains what made her books – particularly Atlas Shrugged – so powerful and persuasive:

In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943). The two novels have had six-figure annual sales for decades, running at a combined 300,000 copies annually during the past ten years. In 2009, Atlas Shrugged alone sold a record 500,000 copies and Rand’s four novels combined (the lesser two are We the Living [1936] and Anthem [1938]) sold more than 1,000,000 copies. And yet for 27 years after her death in 1982, we haven’t had a single scholarly biography of Ayn Rand. Who was this woman? How did she come to write such phenomenally influential novels? What are we to make of her legacy? These are the questions that finally have been asked and answered splendidly, with somewhat different emphases, in two new biographies published within weeks of each other: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications. …Why then has reading these biographies of a deeply flawed woman—putting it gently—made me want to go back and reread her novels yet again? The answer is that Rand was a hedgehog who got a few huge truths right, and expressed those truths in her fiction so powerfully that they continue to inspire each new generation. They have only a loose relationship with Objectivism as a philosophy (which was formally developed only after the novels were written). Are selfishness and greed cardinal virtues in Objectivism? Who cares? Does Objectivist aesthetics denigrate Bach and Mozart? Who cares? Objectivism has nothing to do with what mesmerizes people about The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. What does mesmerize us? Fans of Ayn Rand will answer differently. Part of the popularity of the books derives from the many ways their themes can be refracted. Here is what I saw in Rand’s fictional world that shaped my views as an adolescent and still shapes them 50 years later.

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It’s rather symbolic of what’s wrong with Washington that a commission ostensibly created to promote deficit reduction is seeking a bigger budget, as noted in the Tax Notes story excerpted below. Rather than impose a bigger burden on taxpayers, though, I will generously suggest that they could easily fulfill their mandate by perusing Cato’s Downsizing Government website. And if they really want to do the right thing, they can always just look at Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution and get rid of existing programs and activities that are not enumerated powers of the federal government.

Saddled with a tight deadline and great expectations, members of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission say they may not have the resources necessary to meet their task. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which the president created through an executive order in February, is charged with developing a plan by December 1 that would stabilize the budget deficit by 2015 and reduce the federal debt over the long term. The group is widely expected to consider a combination of tax reforms and spending cuts. But despite the weighty demands, the panel has only a fraction of the staff and budget of standing congressional committees. The panel’s own cochairs and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have criticized the meager resources and called for more support. …The White House has set aside the resources to provide the equivalent of four full-time salaries and $500,000 in operating costs for the commission, fiscal commission Executive Director Bruce Reed told Tax Analysts.

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In the real world, government policies that raise the cost of doing business often lead to crippling – and sometimes even fatal – results. Here’s a story, which I saw via Instapundit and Megan McArdle, about an insurance company that is closing its doors because “federal healthcare legislation made the two-year old company’s business model unsustainable.” In her commentary, Megan displays an appropriate level of skepticism about whether bad policy deserves all the blame whenever a company goes under, but this does seem to be one of those instances since Obamacare forces health insurance companies to follow bad business practices such as allowing people to get sick before getting insurance. The loss of 50 jobs is discouraging, as is the loss of a company that was providing very sensible (or at least would be very sensible in the absence of destructive government policies) high-deductible policies that represented genuine insurance rather than inefficient low-deductible policies (i.e., pre-paid, “all you can eat” plans) that dominate the current quasi-private market:

The hotly debated healthcare reform bill signed into law in March has killed a local insurance company. At least that’s according to a brief letter Richmond-based nHealth sent to insurance agents explaining the reason behind the shuttering of the once promising local startup. “I wanted to share with you the decision by nHealth’s board of directors to exit the health insurance market,” wrote James Slabaugh, executive vice president of the Richmond-based insurance company that employed about 50 people. (Many of those were at an office in Ohio). …The letter explained that “considerable uncertainties” in the health insurance market caused by the recent federal healthcare legislation made the two year-old company’s business model unsustainable. …Nezi said nHealth tried to raise additional capital but was unsuccessful. “People got skittish about writing any more checks,” Nezi said. “Because of that uncertainty, would you invest a few more million dollars of your money in a startup if you don’t know what the rules are going to be?” That left company with only one choice. “The most prudent and sensible conclusion for us is to discontinue the sale of healthcare policies and withdraw from the healthcare business,” Slabaugh wrote in the letter. Founded in 2008, nHealth was built around a high deductible insurance plan model that utilized health savings accounts and kept costs down making consumers more involved in their healthcare decisions.

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