Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Moratorium on Brains
Posted on 05/09/2009 7:41:37 AM PDT by Publius
Eddie Willers sits down with the Anonymous Rail Worker in the Taggart corporate cafeteria and updates him.
The Anonymous Rail Worker says hell be gone for a month; he has taken a month off every summer for the past twelve years.
Hank Rearden walks from his mill down a dark road to Philadelphia where his new apartment is located. He is intercepted by a man of proud bearing who asks to speak with him. He is not there to rob Hank but to give him money that was taken from him by force and its a bar of gold! If robbery is done in open daylight, then restitution must be done at night. The money has been held in trust for Hank for years, and the man took an oath to wait. But after seeing what had been done to Hank, he felt he needed to violate that oath and approach him now. Its Ragnar Danneskjøld!
He tells Hank one can be a looter or a victim, but he chooses neither. He is merely complying with the system the looters have established. Hes a pirate working for the day when Hank can make a profit from Rearden Metal. Hank doesnt see that day ever coming; he sees Ragnar as a criminal and prefers that Ragnar had chosen to disappear like the Colorado industrialists and Ken Danagger. Ragnar smiles, lighting up the night, and tells Hank he has a special mission of his own: to destroy Robin Hood. Robin stole from the rich to give to the poor; Ragnar is stealing from the thieving poor and giving back to the productive rich. Robin Hood is the symbol of need, not achievement. Ragnar is the cop who retrieves stolen property and returns it to its rightful owner; he deals in gold, deposited in a gold standard bank, held in the names of victims like Hank. Ragnars goal is to return the last twelve years of income taxes to Hank; he has sources in high places and knows just how much the government has taken. The gold is deposited in the Mulligan Bank, which is not in Chicago; Ragnar thinks that Hank will soon know its true location. The gold is intended to start the rebuilding of the world out of the ruins after the final collapse.
Ragnar confirms that the story about the destruction of Orren Boyles steel mill in Maine is true. No looter will be permitted to make Rearden Metal ever.
Hank decides not to take the gold and threatens to call the police if Ragnar ever appears again. Hank says he will live by his own standards, but he is interrupted by the arrival of the police who are making sure Hank is safe; Ragnar backs into the woods. The police say they are looking for a man who is driving a beat up old car with a million dollar engine; Hank says he hasnt seen him. The cop spots Ragnar, and Hank passes him off as his bodyguard; the police leave. Ragnar smiles, says he hopes to meet Hank again soon, and vanishes. Hank picks up the gold bar and walks on.
Kip Chalmers, a government bureaucrat running for the California legislature, sits with his campaign manager, mistress and a British novelist in a private car attached to the Comet as it goes through Colorado. Chalmers is unhappy with the condition of the track and decides its time to campaign for the nationalization of the railroads. He is due in San Francisco the next day for a rally, and his train is now six hours late. Everything comes to a screeching halt as a split rail causes a derailment; the engine is flat on its side. Chalmers approaches hysteria as he encounters a train crew that is doing its job but not fast enough to get him to San Francisco on time.
At the Winston station, the station superintendent, who had been a drifter only a few days before, gets word of the problem and passes the buck to the night supervisor at Silver Springs, who passes the buck to his boss. Division manager Dave Mitchum is the brother-in-law of Claude Slagenhop and owes his job to a bit of blackmail between Jim Taggart and Wesley Mouch involving Mouchs sister. Clifton Locey had moved Mitchum into his present position at Silver Springs when the former division head quit over the issue of Chick Morrisons train getting the reserve locomotive. Mitchum is an old railroad hand who blames a conspiracy of the Big Boys for his many career failures, and once again he is at a loss as to what actions to take in this emergency.
Bill Brent, the chief dispatcher, says they arent going to send a coal burning steam locomotive into a tunnel built for diesels. They dont dare delay the Army munitions train to use its diesel to haul the Comet. Nobody wants to take responsibility and make a decision with Locey and the Unification Board watching. Brent says they need to take the diesel from an eastbound freight, which is on its way, after it exits the tunnel, and use that diesel to move the Comet through the tunnel. Then they can use a coal burner to get the Comet to the West Coast; it will be eighteen hours late. Everyone knows that blame is going to be delegated from New York; Brent asks rhetorically, Who is John Galt?
When the Comet reaches Winston, hauled by a switching engine, and Chalmers gets the bad news, he goes ballistic. The conductor takes Chalmers to the station, where the bureaucrat orders the station supervisor and call boy to get his train through the tunnel or else. They explain that Mitchum has told them to hold the train until morning, and Chalmers orders them to send a telegram to Jim Taggart himself. In New York, Jim passes the buck to Clifton Locey, who orders Mitchum to send the Comet through the tunnel safely with whatever motive power is available. Mitchum knows he is being framed for the Unification Board. He contacts Omaha to find that the regional boss has disappeared. The Iowa-Minnesota regional boss doesnt want to hear about it, lest he become involved in the rapidly expanding debacle, and the chief engineer of the Central Region tells him to follow orders. Mitchum types up the train orders, and every employee down the line who executes them knows that the orders are wrong, but if the Unification Board rules against them, they and their families will starve to death.
Mitchum tells Brent he is taking a track motor up the line to Fairmount, where he thinks there may be a diesel engine available. It is clear to Brent that Mitchum is trying to make himself scarce. Mitchum tells Brent to wait thirty minutes and then send the Comet through the tunnel with a coal burning steam locomotive. Brent refuses, demanding a written order, which Mitchum wont provide. Brent realizes Mitchum is framing him for the Unification Board, so he quits. Mitchum screams that he will bring the law down on him. Brent demands that Mitchum repeat his train order in front of witnesses, and Mitchum assaults him. Brent leaves, and Mitchum gives his orders to the call boy, who executes them after major misgivings.
At Winston, the engineer of the coal burner refuses to drive the train and vanishes into the night. The station agent hands the job to a drunk employee who is a friend of Fred Kinnan and who has already survived a bout with the Unification Board. As the train departs with Chalmers car in the consist, the conductor slips off the train and disappears. By amazing coincidence, the passengers in the first class section of the Comet include a professor of sociology who teaches collectivism, a journalist supporting the use of compulsion because his feelings dictate, a schoolteacher who has corrupted the minds of innocents, a newspaper publisher who believes in fascism, and a businessman who received his big break from the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. This is just a short sample of the long list of miscreants Rand lists as passengers on this Train of Fools. As the train enters the tunnel, the last living vision of its passengers is of Wyatts Torch.
Taggart Transcontinentals tunnel is based on the real life Moffat Tunnel, opened in 1926, and built by the Denver and Rio Grande. Thanks to multiple mergers, it is owned today by the Union Pacific.
A track motor is a powered handcar, now replaced by the ubiquitous high railer, which is a truck or SUV fitted with railroad wheels. Today, even large trucks, such as vacuum trucks that clean rights-of-way and culverts, carry high railer technology, and railroads designate them as trains on their dispatching systems.
Telegraphers, local dispatchers and call boys disappeared with the addition of radio to the railroads arsenal in the Fifties. Today, data telemetry and the Internet permit railroads to have up-to-the-minute information, which is why railroads utilize single location dispatching.
Ping! The thread is up.
FReeper Book Club: Introduction to Atlas Shrugged
Part I, Chapter I: The Theme
Part I, Chapter II: The Chain
Part I, Chapter III: The Top and the Bottom
Part I, Chapter IV: The Immovable Movers
Part I, Chapter V: The Climax of the dAnconias
Part I, Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial
Part I, Chapter VII: The Exploiters and the Exploited
Part I, Chapter VIII: The John Galt Line
Part I, Chapter IX: The Sacred and the Profane
Part I, Chapter X: Wyatts Torch
Part II, Chapter I: The Man Who Belonged on Earth
Part II, Chapter II: The Aristocracy of Pull
Part II, Chapter III: White Blackmail
Part II, Chapter IV: The Sanction of the Victim
Part II, Chapter V: Account Overdrawn
Part II, Chapter VI: Miracle Metal
I liked the documentary from a couple of years ago on Rand. It was well done. Did you see it, enjoy it?
Are you referring to the 1959 interview of Rand by Mike Wallace? Or is this something else? Do you have a title or link?
“Ayn Rand, A Sense of Life”, a 1997 documentary (just looked it up, I saw it a couple of years ago and didn’t know it was older).
I’ll have to see if I can buy it.
Hardly. Today, too many did too little for way too long, enabling the situation this country finds itself it. Now they get to taste the bitter fruits of their lazy inaction, and welcome to it.
America -- a great idea, didn't last.
Or a library copy. The DVD came with quite a few extras and maybe a commentary, if I remember correctly.
An interesting point, but I wonder if it carries it a bit far. Army munitions would not seem to be of much help against the pirate Danneskjøld, who after all "is in the Atlantic" (except when carrying out small and quick land operations against which an army would be useless).
But as to the unrest issue, as we learn a little later, Project X would by this time have already passed feasibility studies and the construction of the demonstration project would have been quietly underway.
Rand’s view of gold as a store of value is ironic. Gold’s only objective value is it’s usefulness in industrial processes.
I thought Robin Hood stold from the government and gave the money back to the peasants.
I think so. If you actually read the legendary stories, you will find that Robin Hood confiscated money which had been taken from the commons (poor and not-so-poor) excessively or under false pretenses by people in power (the nobility and high clergy), and redistributed it among people in genuine need or, when possible, to the rightful owners.
I don't believe I have read a tale of Robin Hood stealing the profits from a rich merchant in order to give to beggars, for instance.
A less frequent, and even less-frequently retold activity was that of enforcing justice where the lawful authorities would not (as when preventing a forced arranged marriage for the benefit of the deserving beloved).
Well, as far as Robin Hood is concerned, I think it is not so much the original legend, but what legend of Robin Hood has morphed into. Originally he was somewhat of a Ragnar himself, confiscating what was unjustly taxed and returning it to the proper owners. But modern day Robin Hoods in general do indeed rob from producers and give to the looters. The most clear modern example of this is Jesse Jackson’s shakedowns. Manufacture up some “injustice” and demand reparations, the proceeds allegedly going to the “victims.” The old west train robbers and bank robbers like Jesse James also come to mind. Initially they were protected by the locals because they likened Jesse to Robin Hood. They blamed their failures on the banks, railroads and the civil war. As time wore on and the gangs started robbing banks outside their home base, things began to change. The townspeople saw it was their own money being robbed, not some elusive “big bank.” Same thing happened during the thirties, and the wave of bank robbers that sprang up during the depression.
What AR was attempting to destroy was the myth that somehow if you are rich, you must have robbed someone along the way. This thinking is behind the populist uprising against the AIG bonuses. We can debate all day whether they should have been given, but the personal threats and pickets outside the homes of the recipients is a result of the distortion of the Robin Hood myth.
Now as far as the victims of the Comet, I agree with AR, no one was innocent. Actions have consequences, results. It was a slap in the face by good old reality. Professors can pontificate all day, philosophers can theorize, but in the end you cannot negate the laws of the universe just because they are “unjust”, “harsh”, or “judgmental.” We see this almost on a daily basis. All of our social ills we see today, such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, divorce rates, and the destruction of the family in general has resulted from the failure to perceive the simple notion that all actions have consequences.
The Moratorium On Brains is the title of chapter 17, but it is, as we have seen, a moratorium on considerably more than brains; it is, in effect, a moratorium on new economic activity and a contradictory and impossible insistence that the old economic activity proceed as it did before. The reason for this is that there are two different conceptions of economics both in Atlas Shrugged and in the real world: first, the dynamic model wherein wealth is created, risk and reward are balanced, and inequities in distribution of wealth make for the flow that is economic activity. Second, the notion that wealth is static; that it is a pie to be sliced up in even portions and that if the portions are uneven it is up to the State to rectify the matter. That the pie itself might shrink or expand is irrelevant to social justice and hence is resolutely ignored until at last there is no pie at all and a scapegoat must be found.
Nations move back and forth between those models depending on which of their adherents is in power - those that thrive on the first model build up enough surplus for the disastrous consequences of transitioning to the second to be masked for a time. The Soviet Union lasted seven decades under those conditions, Zimbabwe, seven years.
It is the latter conception that resulted in Directive 10-289. Both production and consumption are commanded to proceed unchanged while the underpinnings of the economy are expropriated by the Aristocracy of Pull, quite as nonsensically as if a waterwheel were ordered to continue turning while the river is stopped because there would be social consequences if it didnt.
The chapter opens with Eddie in another soliloquy, speaking to his voiceless track-worker confidante. Dagny has quit illegally and the government has started to arrest deserters and then stopped when it became obvious that there were too many to be kept. A temporary situation, one suspects, before the prison camps are constructed.
Eddie will tell no one where she is, although keeping a secret doesnt seem to be one of Eddies strong suits. The fellow would make an awful Mafioso or spy. We learn, however, that his friends shoulder will be unavailable for a month as he a manual laborer, mind you takes his annual month-long vacation in parts unknown. We may recall that the chief engineer of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century Motor Company did the same thing. It is certainly a bit odd, but the track-worker has done so for his entire employment with Taggart Transcontinental, which turns out to be twelve years. Twelve years since but there we would be getting ahead of ourselves.
Hank Rearden takes a walk. After dark, in the countryside, and with a revolver in his pocket it isnt the act of a prudent individual but by now Hank really doesnt care. And he is waylaid by a blond highwayman who presses a gold bar into Hanks hands representing a down payment on all the money that was stolen from him by the looters in this case, through income taxation and it is one of Rands better dramatic moments when we learn his name. He is none other than the pirate Ragnar Danneskjold.
It is an interesting conversation, another outreach by a Destroyer, and yes, there do appear to be three of them, which should surprise no one at this point. It is amusing to learn that Danneskjold wishes to slay Robin Hood not the real character, but his false contemporary image promoting the virtue of stealing from rich and giving to the poor. In fact, Danneskjold is not stealing from the poor and giving to the rich but stealing from the looters and returning the loot to its rightful owners. Hence the gold bar. And he goes just a bit further in preventing Orren Boyle from profiting from the theft of Rearden Metal by shelling the factories Boyle had readied, knowing that the theft was imminent.
Danneskjold is uncharacteristically far inland, standing in for a friend who would otherwise have been at Reardens side. Suicidally so, in fact, for the cops are hot on his trail, and Hank, although he expresses open contempt for criminal activity (this is a fellow who would not snitch a piece of fruit when, at age 14, he was starving), finds himself covering for Danneskjold by claiming him to be a new bodyguard. It is, in at least a sense, not altogether a lie. There is one jarring moment:
[Policeman] Did you happen to see a man anywhere around these parts, a stranger moving along in a hurry?
Hed be either on foot or in a battered wreck of a car thats got a million-dollar motor.
No, no, no, this wont do at all. The clear implication is that Danneskjold is running his jalopy on the sort of mystery motor whose wreckage was discovered in the Twentieth Century rubble, whose tragedy was that nobody recognized it for what it was. It isnt impossible that its inventor made another one for Danneskjold, but it is quite impossible for a policeman to know of it. That editor that Rand did not use should have spotted this one. Its a tiny point, really (curable by the excision of a single phrase) but a telling one in the overall consideration of whether Atlas Shrugged could have used a sympathetic editor with an unsympathetic axe. In my opinion the novel would have been the better for it, or at least shorter, which is frequently the same thing.
We move to the consideration of one Mr. Kip Chalmers, who is on a tight schedule he has been granted a private car attached to the transcontinental express train, the Comet, for his trip to California, where he hopes to solidify his position in the Aristocracy of Pull by being formally elected a Legislator, although it is a little vague what that title might entail. He isnt even from California. How absurd to imagine that someone could simply move into a state and become a senior elected official merely because political operators found it convenient, especially a state as large and important as California or New York, where one Hillary Clinton did precisely that. Maybe not so absurd.
Chalmerss place in the bureaucracy depends on this election and he has dawdled to attend a cocktail party and now finds himself on the wrong side of the Rocky Mountains with the campaign rally looming. It shouldnt be a problem, really, at least until a rail splits and the engine pulling the Comet ends up on its side.
There should have been a spare diesel. That locomotive was plucked from its pre-positioning at the mouth of the eight-mile Taggart tunnel by Dagnys replacement, for whom pleasing a VIP took precedence over having a diesel in reserve. It was an expedient move and a fatal one.
Chalmers must get through, and he knows what strings to pull, and through a systematic abdication of responsibility by everyone in the chain of command the Comet is sent into the tunnel behind an old coal-burning locomotive.
Rand spends some time on each stage of the decision-making process and why each one in turn failed to halt the fatal proceeding. Lest we consider this overkill we might step back and consider the chains of events resulting in other such industrial disasters. Chernobyl, for example. There, dozens of mistakes and misfortunes combined to create an unholy amalgam of total catastrophe: safety measures deliberately overridden (for a legitimate reason albeit a bad one), wrong or inexperienced personnel in place, decisions made from incomplete and conflicting information. The incredible heroism that followed only compounded the tragedy.
In the case of the Taggart Tunnel disaster Rand presents us with each detail and relates it to the toxic culture that has been created over the years and now resides in the highest seats of power as well as in the berths of the Comet. The knowledge that the tunnel ventilation is suspect is suppressed. Experienced personnel have quit or been replaced by hangers-on. The spare diesel, as we have seen, has been expropriated by political pull. And no single individual in a decision-making capacity is capable of intervening, right down to the unfortunate switchman who finally directs the train into the tunnel knowing of the danger.
In the moment when he threw the switch and saw the headlight jerk sidewise, he knew that he would now hate his job for the rest of his life.
At least hell have one. For the occupants of the train the rest of theirs is measured in minutes.
Rand expends some effort two pages of it in sketching the lives of the victims, all of whom are participants after one fashion or another in the septic culture that engendered the catastrophe.
These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatts Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.
An eerie and symbolic image, and into the darkness they go, never to return. We are left unsatisfied by Rands description of grim recompense. There were at the very least two children aboard whose only crime was to be those of a bureaucrat, and Rands nascent theology does not include the idea of Original Sin. Or does it? Some chapters ago I posed the question of whether there are, in the act of Atlas shrugging, no innocent victims. Rand here implies that there are not, at least insofar as this particular tragedy is concerned, yet her narrative clearly describes them. For the rest it is a form of cosmic justice, for the children it is a tragedy. There will be more, far more, as the country collapses. The true cost of the culture of looting is measured in the blood of the innocent, and the redemption, if any, had better be worth it.
It is a grim and disturbing chapter, and it was meant to be.
Have a great week, Publius!
The Robin hood myth is not a viable socioeconomic model. Rand takes the very core of the tale 'steal from the rich and give to the poor' to task.
All of our social ills we see today, such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, divorce rates, and the destruction of the family in general has resulted from the failure to perceive the simple notion that all actions have consequences.
As actions have consequences, so does inaction. The political vs. nature battle will always be won by nature. The flimflam man can warp our perception of reality for a period of time but at a cost due at a later date, he cannot change the laws of nature. As for our current economic fixes, they will be paid for at a later date. Prepare now.
Robin Hood is about stealing from the tax collector what was taken from serfs and giving it back to them. If anyone was rich, that was incidental to the story. He didn’t steal from King Richard, only his brother John.
Actually, if you think about it, only people with “pull” are able to get on cross country passenger trains in “Atlas Shrugged.”
The people on this train consider themselves to be above the “common man” and entitled to their privileges.
This type of arrogance tends to be rudely crushed when the real world jumps up and slaps them with reality. In this case, the reality they’re about to be hit with is what happens when coal is burned in a poorly ventilated area.