Avnery & Krugman

Weirdly enough on the same day (yesterday — while I was listening to Žižek on Hegel) I received the weekly Uri Avnery column (which talks about Ayn Rand), Paul Krugman’s column in the NYTimes also adressed Rand. The obvious link  is Paul Ryan, of course. Here is Avnery’s piece:

Uri Avnery

August 25, 2012

 The Fountainhead

I WAS not interested in Paul Ryan, the man about to be nominated by the Republican party for the office of Vice President, until the name Ayn Rand popped up.

Ayn Rand, it was said, was one of the main inspirations for his particular philosophy. Since Ryan is being represented not as an ordinary, run-of-the-mill politician, like Mitt Romney, but as a profound political and economic thinker, the inspiration deserves some scrutiny.

 

LIKE MOST people in this country, Ayn Rand first entered my life as the author of The Fountainhead, a novel that came out four years before the birth of the State of Israel. It quickly became a bestseller. The movie based on it, with Gary Cooper playing the main role, was even more popular.

It is the story of an architect of genius (roughly similar to Frank Lloyd Wright) who follows his own individual style and disdains the tastes of the masses. When his architectural design for a housing project is altered by the builders, he blows the buildings up, defending his actions in court in a stirring speech in defense of individualism.

(Honest disclosure: I have often dreamed of doing the same to certain buildings in Tel Aviv, especially the luxury hotels built between my home and the sea.)

I started to read her second bestseller, Atlas Shrugged, in which she set out her philosophy in detail. But I must confess, to my eternal shame, that I never finished it. It bored me.

 

ONE DAY IN 1974, my friend Dan Ben-Amotz called me and demanded that I immediately meet a young genius he had discovered called Dr. Moshe Kroy.

Ben-Amotz was a character by himself. A man of my age, he was at the time Israel’s most conspicuous humorist and an icon of the generation that fought in the 1948 war and created the new Hebrew culture. Ben-Amotz, like many of us, was not only a self-made man, but also self-invented. He was known as the ultimate Sabra (native-born Israeli). Much later it transpired that he was actually born in Poland, arrived in Palestine as a boy and adopted the very Hebrew-sounding name to replace his original name – Moshe Tehilimzeigger (“reciter of psalms” in Yiddish).

He brought Kroy to my home and I was impressed. Here was an unusually erudite 24-year-old youngster, already a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, with thick glasses and very outspoken philosophical views.

It appeared that he was a True Believer in the teachings of Ayn Rand, which she called Objectivism. This proclaimed that egoism was the basic duty of every human being. Any kind of social commitment was a sin against nature. Only by serving his own interest and cleansing himself of any trace of altruism can a person truly fulfill himself. Society at large can progress only when it is based on such individuals, each one striving to serve only himself (or herself).

Such an outlook can be hugely attractive to a certain kind of individual. It provides them with a philosophical justification for the extreme exercise of egoism, not giving a damn for anyone else.

Kroy, and of course Ben-Amotz, were religiously devoted to this new creed. (This is, of course, an oxymoron, since Ayn Rand was a total unbeliever, condemning any form of religion, including the Jewish religion of her parents.) When I caught Ben-Amotz doing something which could be construed as beneficial to others, he went to great lengths in justifying it by proving that in the long run it was to his own ultimate advantage.

Kroy himself was obviously a very disturbed being. At the age of 41, he committed suicide. I was not certain whether Ayn Rand disturbed his mind or whether he was attracted to her because he was disturbed to start with.

 

AYN RAND was born as Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg, which later became Petrograd, which later became Leningrad. She was 12 years old when the Bolshevik revolution broke out in that city. The pharmacy of her parents was taken over by the regime, and the bourgeois family fled to the Crimea, which was held by White Russian forces. Later they returned to their native city, where Alisa studied philosophy and even published a book in Russian. In 1926 she reached the US, leaving her parents behind.

She adopted the name of Ayn (rhymes with “swine”, as she herself was wont to explain). She probably took the word from the Hebrew, where it means “eye”. The surname Rand may be a contraction of her original German-Jewish family name.

Her early history may in some measure explain her abiding hatred for Communism and any kind of collectivism, including social democracy, as well as any kind of religion or statism. For her, the state was the enemy of the free individual. This led her naturally to embrace an unbridled laissez faire capitalism (what Shimon Peres called “swinish capitalism”) and to reject any form of welfare state or safety net.

All this was well structured in her philosophy, which was adopted by believers all over the world. She once called herself “the most creative thinker alive”. On another occasion, she asserted that in all the annals of philosophy, there were only three great thinkers, all starting with an A: Aristotle, Aquinas and Ayn Rand.

She must have been an unabashed racist, too: during the 1973 Yom Kippur War she said that it was “civilized men fighting savages”, comparing Israelis to the White Americans fighting the Red Indians.

No wonder that she posthumously became the darling of the Tea Party fanatics who are now dominating the Republican Party. And no wonder that Paul Ryan proudly cites her as one of his most important mentors. (Ayn Rand herself died in 1982 at age 77. Her funeral was attended by her devotees, including Alan Greenspan, one of the gravediggers of the US economy.)

There is something in the teachings of this Jewish White Russian preacher of extreme egoism that appeals to the primitive American myths of rugged individualism, gun-toting Wild West self-reliance, suspicion of the domination-hungry state (going back to King George the Third). But this is not the 18th century, for God’s sake.

 

I NEVER studied philosophy, though on my path I have picked up a few dozen books about it here and there. But Ayn Rand’s theories always struck me as, well, juvenile.

There is a picture in my mind. The late Israeli writer Pinchas Sadeh described how once, as an adolescent, he had climbed a ladder in the library of his kibbutz, taken out a book of Nietzsche’s and stood there, at the top of the ladder, for several hours, unable to stop reading. It was, I suppose, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a dangerous book for young people. It also had a huge impact on Ayn Rand in her younger years.

Nietzsche castigates the “Jewish pity morality”, which has infected the adorable “blond beasts”. Compassion for the weak is a sin, because it blunts the capabilities of the strong, those on the way to becoming supermen. Which young person does not see themself as a potential superman (or, I suppose, superwoman)?

When Dan Ben-Amotz tried to convince me of the “rational egoism” of Ayn Rand, I countered with a simple argument: when I was wounded in 1948 and lay completed exposed to enemy fire, four soldiers of my squad came up and rescued me, risking their lives. Their egoism must have told them that this was an extremely silly thing to do. Risking their most precious possession – their very lives – for another human being was inexcusable according to Ayn Rand. They had nothing to gain from it. They had everything to lose.

I have seen in my life innumerable acts of altruism, large and small. Indeed, what is love, real love, but a pure form of altruism?

Sure, every person is, to some extent, an egoist. But every person is also, to some extent, an altruist. Human beings are social animals, their social instincts deeply imbedded in their nature. Without them, human society could not function.

 

I TOO was captured by Nietzsche in my youth. But “Jewish pity morality” won. That’s why I, like many Israelis, cannot even begin to understand American social attitudes, as illustrated yet again in the present election campaign.

For us it is self-evident that the state has a duty to help the sick, the old, the children, the handicapped and the disadvantaged. An ancient saying goes “Israel (meaning all the Jews) are responsible for each other”. Long before the State of Israel was born, we already had a strong system of health insurance and social services. Social insurance, instituted in Germany by the right-wing politician Otto von Bismarck in Nietzsche’s time, is for us Israelis self-evident.

Binyamin Netanyahu is an American-style Republican, a strong supporter of Mitt Romney. He has done incalculable damage to the Israeli social net, both as Finance Minister and as Prime Minister. But not even he would advertise himself as a disciple of Ayn Rand. He has, however, one thing in common with Paul Ryan: both are pushed forward and financed by Sheldon Adelson.

I can think of no purer personification of Ayn Rand’s vision than this Casino billionaire. She would have adored him. He is the perfect egoist. He has become super-rich by exploiting the pitiful addiction of weak human beings. His business practices have been questioned. Yet even here there is some room for doubt: does Adelson spend hundreds of millions on people like Romney, Ryan and Netanyahu only to further his own business interests? Or do we detect even here a trace of altruism, a desire to fulfill his national and social visions, objectionable as they may be?

SINCE AYN RAND was an atheist and abhorred anything that was not purely rational, while the Tea Party is strictly religious (never mind what religion), Ryan is now compelled to distance himself from his mentoress, who was also a militant advocate of abortion.

Actually, I don’t believe in either the intellectual prowess or the political honesty of the man. He looks to me slightly phoney. I am not sure that Ayn Rand would have liked him either. If only Gary Cooper could play him, he might look more convincing.

 

 

 

 

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2 opinions on “Avnery & Krugman”

  1. It seems painfully obvious that people in public life shouldn’t comment on their youthful reading matter. What would the masses think of my teenage obsession with Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, or Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ or, gasp, gasp, Donleavy’s ‘The Ginger Man?’I was also hopelessly mired in Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I still like them! I could go on. Suffice to say, my early reading matter is far from Prime Ministerial or Presidential, nor should it be even if I do still reread them.
    I fully understand Avnery’s boredom with Rand. I tried to read her as a youth and failed. I failed as an adult too. Oh well. I may try again, who knows. I do have a copy of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ Avnery bores the bejeezers out of me as well but I believe I have mentioned that a time or 2 so I’ll pass on his juvenile sophism this time.
    But the Krugman reference I cannot resist. This is why I love this blog. It makes me think. Krugman appears with some regularity as a commentator on CNN, which I often watch between 2 Canadian cable news channels. His appearances may only serve as comic relief but he is there chortling all the way through. He thinks he’s funny too!
    Krugman’s decline as a serious economist began when he started writing a populist column (twice a week no less) in the New York Times in 1999. So over the top was it that The Economist felt compelled to say in 2003 that it should be read “not for its economic rigour but its political partisanship.”
    For years now, Krugman has been roundly criticized in economist circles (and what fun filled circles they are too) for musing outside of the area of international trade where he was once one of the leading economists and a Nobel Prize winner to boot. No less an authority than Harvard’s Robert Barro states that Krugman isn’t “qualified to comment on macroeconomics.” Estonia’s president, Toomas Ilves, questioned whether “a Nobel Laureate in trade matters means you can pontificate on fiscal matters.” They are but 2 of many.
    Economics, like medicine, is highly specialized. I see a neurologist for my epilepsy and a cardiologist for my heart. To see a proctologist for either or both ailments would be stupid and likely painful. Krugman’s status as an able oracle of macroeconomics is indeed questionable. In 1994, he claimed that the East Asian growth miracle was a “mirage.” He proclaimed loudly and often on CNN in 2008 that Europe, now circling the bowl, was “the Comeback Continent.” I suppose that in the fullness of time any prediction may turn out to be true. He seems to believe that in the U.S. today,“the recession may have ended, the depression has not.” No economist this side of high school believes you can be in in a depression but not a recession.
    In his new book, ‘End This Depression Now’ he misrepresents Hyman Minsky’s research, taking conclusions he likes, omitting those he does not. Minsky warned of the perils of the increasing reliance on government spending to temporarily soften a downturn. Minsky knew that such action would ossify the existing debt structure. It would also further lock in an inefficient industrial structure which in turn would lead to steadily worsening cycles of inflation and recession. Minsky also cautioned that bailing out banks would create a moral hazard, leading to ever more speculative financial behaviour, which it, of course, has. Krugman carefully fails to mention all this as it runs counter to his ill founded beliefs, out of his field as they say. He is, as noted by many, an expert in search of a “field.” Experts at the National Bureau of Economic Research identify the 1930s as consisting of two separate recessions. The only reason to dramatize the current slow economic recovery in the U.S. as a depression is to sell books,newspapers and garner more tv exposure which in turn will sell books and newspapers. It is unethical behavior for a renowned economist at best, sleazy at worst. But hey, don’t take my word for it. The ombudsman at his own paper, The New York Times, said Krugman had a “disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantial assaults.”
    Despite historically low interest rates, unprecedented quantitative easing and trillions of dollars of fiscal deficits, Krugman berates the timidity of U.S. monetary and fiscal policy in responding to the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. Like President Oborrow, Krugman has never seen a loan he didn’t like. The fact that debts want repaying eludes him. The downturn, according to him, is due to a cautious policy not irresponsible borrowing and lending. Keynes, like Rand, is dead. Pass it on!
    This U.S. slump is different. It is a financial crisis. Keynsian pump priming has not supported incomes and spending. Nations with ballooning deficits are still suffering. Austerity in countries such as Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, Canada and the Netherlands has been followed by near to complete recovery. Complaints that austerity is the problem completely ignores the wild and irresponsible spending sprees that preceded it. Ask yourself how Canada has avoided complete and utter collapse. Our 2 largest trading partners, the U.S. and Europe, are mired in recession at best and yet our unemployment levels are relatively in check, our banks are sound and optimism is high. The U.S. federal government is, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt. Its debt is $16 trillion and growing by a trillion a year. Don’t forget to factor in all the accumulated debt of the states and municipalities. Oh yes, and all the citizens too. Something’s going to give. There aren’t enough billionaires and millionaires to pay for all this no matter what you may think. There isn’t the revenue generation in the entire economy to pay for all the promised entitlements let alone anything else. Krugman wants to borrow more and hire more government workers. Who is he kidding? Who lends? Who pays? What is keeping the U.S. treading water is the size of the economy and the possiblity that some sector may take off on its own due to the interest, effort and expertise of hearty entrepreneurs, American or otherwise. There’s lots of Greek, French, Italian and Spanish money flowing out of their homelands into Switzerland, England and yes, some into Canada. The U.S. needs to grab this money for business start ups rather than bonds with low yields and no employment benefits.
    Krugman deliriously believes that “the vested interest of the 1%, or better yet the 0.1%, has colored the discussion among academic economists.” As if the Democrats and their union buddies are not a vested interest.
    Maybe Krugman will find his way back to his “field” this year. Or maybe he’ll get 4 more years of encouraging debt that can never be repaid. I guess “oracle” was a good choice. He can “oracle” as the U.S. joins Greece, Spain and the rest.
    Can an unfunded retirement at age 50 with a greater pension cheque than your income ever was be far off? Shame I’ll miss it. Oh that’s right, I’m Canadian. I’ll have to make do on what I get.

  2. Are we forgetting the tax break for the 1%, especially the .01%? Isn’t that at the root of the problem and a reversal of it the solution to the problem? Entitlements are the problem, not the war and the military-industrial hegemony? Entitlements are the problem and not the deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher epoch that re-instituted the boom-and-bust cycle after half a century of relative stability? Welfare barely exists now in several states of the union where it’s needed, but we need the cuts to school lunch programs? These entitlements are peanuts. It’s the issue Roosevelt saw at the heart of things: whether the government is to serve the public or vice versa. Only the government is now a chess piece for a tiny group looking over the planet like a board game.

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