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Chance, Ayn Rand, and the Triumph of Narcissism

2011-04-09 8 min read Musings marco

[Long post, with a rambling story. It’s worth it, I promise.]

When I was a wee lad in Italy, I had a horrendous Latin teacher. You must know that all high school kids in Italy need to learn Latin (at least back then), and in the higer grades of high schools Latin was taken very seriously. That meant that one of the two essays in the graduation exam had a good chance of being about Latin (the other was always about Italian literature). Having a lousy teacher meant that the rest of us had to go to remediation classes – long, boring, expensive.

This teacher was bad for the most unusual reason: she didn’t know even the most rudimentary basics of what she was teaching. We got her in junior year, so we already had had quite the drill on Latin – and she routinely didn’t know even those basic things that we’d learned years before. You could always count on her to pluralize a neuter noun in -i instead of the correct -a, say.

We were puzzled at how she had passed the exam – there had to be exams, after all! Then, one day, someone asked her about the exams, and she said she had had the most amazing luck: she had gone in having prepared a single section of the Eneid, Virgil’s master poem about the flight of the Trojans from the condom factory (oops, I mean from Troy) to Italy, where they would found Rome. The next day, at the examination, the professor opened the book, asked her a random passage which happened to be exactlly the passage she had prepared for. He was so impressed with her amazing skills (after all, he had chosen a passage at random) that he stopped asking questions and gave her full marks. With the full marks from that exam, nobody asked her pedestrian questions anymore and she became a Latin teach, knowing only one single passage of one single Latin work. Which, of course, explains everything.

Years later I interviewed for a position at Yahoo!, the (then) Internet behemoth. I interviewed in march, but thanks to the vagaries of the immigration process, I couldn’t start working until july. In that time, two major events happened: Yahoo! moved from the campus in Sunnyvale to a brand new location in Mountain View; and there had been the first major layoff, which included 400 people, 10% of the workforce.

I was entirely surprised when I came in for my first day of work. The place had lost all its excitement, it was a hall of undead people, deeply demotivated and humiliated. It took months for things to get slightly better, and then 9/11 hit, which both caused the stock to tank completely and the morale to increase, because we felt we had a mission to help and inform. (I should mention here as a paren that we at Yahoo! were extremely thankful for the ability to keep people in contact with each other on the day itself. As many know, the phone network was completely overwhelmed and many had to turn to Yahoo! Instant Messenger to get in touch with their friends and family and tell them they were OK.)

I dug a little under the surface and realized that people at Yahoo! had seen the meteoric rise of the company and thought it was entirely due to their superior skills. Great attitude as long as things work out, but once they don’t, then you have to face a worse reality: if your success is due entirely to your superior skills, how could that turn into a catastrophe? What did you do that is so wrong, for the fall to be so complete?

It turns out that Yahoo! was just at the right place at the right time. There was a need to find things on the increasingly large web, Yahoo! knew how to do it, and it was good at fending off competition. Until it lost its sense of what’s important and decided it should focus on media and not on applications, including search, which was so unimportant, it was farmed off to a small startup called (how silly!) Google.

Around the same time as I worked at Yahoo!, I started meeting tons of people in the Bay Area / Silicon Valley that told me repeatedly and with enthusiasm about this author, Ayn Rand. I hadn’t heard about her before, her work not being all too popular in Europe, so I went and read through her probably most famous work, the monumental (as in number of pages) Atlas Shrugged.

What can I say, I was disappointed. I read this book that divided society into doers and moochers, and it seemed from the story that the dividing line was drawn up by some demiurge ahead of the creation of the universe, and then there were people that mooched and people that did, and Ayn Rand wanted us to free the doers from the moochers.

Fast forward to the burst of the bubble, and suddenly the tables turned. The Internet greats I knew had turned into (relative) paupers and no longer were they the captains of industry they had been. The fame and fortune gone, they realized that starting again wasn’t easy, and that being the tycoon that builds an Internet startup to fortune can very easily be a one-time opportunity. Unless you hit a winning streak again, no luck.

Not so mysteriously, Ayn Rand was suddenly not on anyone’s mind. You couldn’t find her in the book stores, you couldn’t find anyone that talked about her – and when you brought her up to your friends that had been ardent supporters, they gave you that dirty look reserved to the person that reminds you of something deeply embarrassing about your past.

Which helps to explain something I never understood: why do people gamble? In my whole life, I haven’t bought a lottery ticket (of the commercial variety, I have bought tons of charity lottery tickets). When I have gone to Las Vegas, I have never used a slot machine, sat down at a game table, even looked at a roulette. I am a physicist by schooling, and I know the odds are stacked against me. The lottery pays off only a meager 20% of earnings. The games in Vegas are better, but you still can’t win by playing. Except…

I think most people realize that the odds are stacked against them. Nobody plays roulette thinking that the average gambler makes a fortune – it is clear that the casino needs to make money, somehow, and gambling cannot be a money-losing proposition for them.

Last observation: how is it possible that the Republican party can convince people year over year that certain taxes are something the poor and super-poor should be paying despite their disproportionately benefitting the rich and super-rich? Why is it that so many in this country consider the estate tax evil? This despite the economic imperative?

Let me explain: I am not considering whether taxing the super-rich or allowing estates to be taxed is fair. That’s a matter of opinion. What isn’t a matter of opinion is that the poor and almost poor constitute a majority of the population. America is a (1) free-market (b) democracy. The former says that people are expected to act in their own self-interest, freely. The latter says that one person, one vote is how decisions are made.

Income is distributed unequally. There are lots more poor people than rich people, which is reflected in the way the median U.S. income is much lower than the average income. What if now the poorer half of the nation decided to double the taxes on the highest earners, the ones that pay in taxes as much as the poorer half does? Let’s say that’s the top 10% (my guess is that it’s much fewer people than that). The rich people would pay twice the taxes, and the poor could stop paying taxes altogether.

Is this good or bad? Is this the American thing to do? I don’t know, and for the sake of this argument, I don’t care. The problem I am having is that the lower-paid half of the country has the power to tax the heck out of the higher-paid percentage, and it has the obvious incentive to do so. Yet, for some mysterious reason, they don’t.

You follow the arguments presented by pundits, and it’s easy to realize they make no sense at all. My favorite has always been the “trickle down” theory: if you lower the taxes for the rich, they will spend it on the poor, eventually. Problem is, that first of all not true (a part of the additional earnings will go overseas), and second of all it would make more sense to give the money to the poor, who are forced to spend it anyway.

Most of all, the problem with trickle down economics is that it goes against the grain of democracy. It should be virtually impossible to force a minority to give up their obvious self-interest – and yet it happens all the time. Why?

I don’t know your opinion, but after all this careful consideration, I start thinking that the poor don’t want to tax the rich, because they think they will be rich some day, and they don’t want to tax their future self out of existence.

In other words, everybody is fooled into thinking they are better than others, and this way of thinking makes people believe in their heart they will win the lottery, they will become millionaires, they will be much better than who they are.

Republicans and their focus on translating the advantage of the few into something a majority would want: why do people keep voting for tax breaks for the rich, for cuts in the estate tax and business taxes, etc.

All one single idea: it’s all about the notion that some people think they are naturally better than others, and that makes them choose those options that don’t apply to them for real, but apply to them in their imaginary world.