The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand: A Personal Statement

Courtesy of Nathaniel Branden @ Redbarn:

Abstract: For eighteen years I was a close associate of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand whose books, notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, inspired a philosophical movement known as objectivism. This philosophy places its central emphasis on reason, individualism, enlightened self-interest, political freedom — and a heroic vision of life’s possibilities. Following an explosive parting of the ways with Ayn Rand in 1968, I have been asked many times about the nature of our differences. This article is my first public answer to that question. Although agreeing with many of the values of the objectivist philosophy and vision, I discuss the consequences of the absence of an adequate psychology to support this intellectual structure — focusing in particular on the destructive moralism of Rand and many of her followers, a moralism that subtly encourages repression, self-alienation, and guilt. I offer an explanation of the immense appeal of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, particularly to the young, and suggest some cautionary observations concerning its adaptation to one’s own life.

Background

I was fourteen years old when I read Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead for the first time. It was the most thrilling and emotionally powerful reading experience of my life. The only rival to that event might be the experience, some years later, of reading Atlas Shrugged in manuscript.

I wrote Miss Rand a letter in 1949 when I was studying psychology at UCLA and she was living in San Fernando Valley and was writing Atlas Shrugged The purpose of my letter was to ask her a number of philosophical questions suggested to me by The Fountainhead and by her earlier novel, We The Living. The letter intrigued her; I was invited to her home for a personal meeting in March, 1950, a month before I turned twenty.

By that time anyone could read any sentence in The Fountainhead and I could recite the essence of the sentence immediately preceding as well as the sentence immediately following. I had absorbed that book more completely than anything else in my life. Continue reading

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Cut benefits? Yes, Let’s Start With Our £85bn Corporate Welfare Handout

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Courtesy of Aditya Chakrabortty @ The Guardian:

Last week, as the Tory faithful cheered on George Osborne’s new cuts in benefits for the working-age poor, a little story appeared that blew a big hole in the welfare debate. Tucked away in the Guardian last Wednesday, an article revealed that the British government had since 2007 handed Disney almost £170m to make films here. Last year alone the Californian giant took £50m in tax credits. By way of comparison, in April the government will scrap a £347m crisis fund that provides emergency cash for families on the verge of homelessness or starvation.

Benefits are what we grudgingly hand the poor; the rich are awarded tax breaks. Cut through the euphemisms and the Treasury accounting, however, and you’re left with two forms of welfare. Except that the hundreds given to people sleeping on the street has been deemed unaffordable. Those millions for $150bn Disney, on the other hand, that’s apparently money well spent –whoever coined the phrase “taking the Mickey” must have worked for HM Revenue.

Politicians and pundits talk about welfare as if it’s solely cash given to people. Hardly ever discussed is corporate welfare: the grants and subsidies, the contracts and cut-price loans that government hands over to business. Yet some of our biggest companies and industries operate a business model that depends on them extracting money from the British taxpayer. The operators of our supposedly privatised train services are kept afloat by billions in public money. Or take the firm created by billionaire Jeff Bezos: last year it emerged that Amazon had paid less in corporation tax to the UK than it had received in government grants.

The bill for corporate welfare is huge – and largely hidden. We know a lot about the people who claim social welfare: we know how much each benefit costs the public, the government sets strict rules for eligibility – and we even have detailed estimates for how much cheating goes on. Between them, Whitehall, academia and NGOs have churned out enough surveys on social welfare claimants to fill a wing of the Bodleian library. But corporate welfare? The government has itself acknowledged: “There is no definitive source of data about spending on subsidies to businesses in the UK.” The numbers are scattered across government publications and there is not even any agreement on what counts as a corporate handout. Continue reading

Does Quantitative Easing Mainly Help the Rich?

Silly question but of course it does, the central banks of the world are privately owned banks and they benefit….not me or you. Courtesy of CNBC:

Last month, the Bank of England issued a report that must have made Fed chairman Ben Bernanke squirm.

It said that the Bank of England’s policies of quantitative easing – similar to the Fed’s – had benefited mainly the wealthy.

Specifically, it said that its QE program had boosted the value of stocks and bonds by 26 percent, or about $970 billion. It said that about 40 percent of those gains went to the richest 5 percent of British households.

Many said the BOE’s easing added to social anger and unrest. Dhaval Joshi, of BCA Research wrote that “QE cash ends up overwhelmingly in profits, thereby exacerbating already extreme income inequality and the consequent social tensions that arise from it.”

The BOE countered that the benefits of easing may have trickled down, and that “without the Bank’s asset purchases, most people in the U.K. would have been worse off.” Continue reading

5 benefit changes the government don’t want you to know about

While the 1% continue to see their wealth grow, the much less well off and those without access to meet MPs for dinner, for a fee, are feeling the pinch. This is not The Big Soceity idea lauded by Cameron and his cronies but something much more insidious and malevolent.

Courtesy of New Statesman:

It used to be that when politicians wanted to bury bad news they’d orchestrate its release to time with a distracting event. Seeing Iain Duncan Smith publicly criticized for wasting at least £140 million of public money over Universal Credit at the start of this month, it struck me how we’ve slowly reached another level. “Unmitigated disaster”? “Alarmingly weak”? These words were used to describe Universal Credit but could easily have been levelled at a number of largely unreported changes to the benefit system. Nowadays, bad news is buried by even worse news. The sheer volume of inefficient and unethical changes to social security this Government has enacted means some of it doesn’t even get noticed. Which, for a set of politicians hacking at vulnerable people’s support systems, is worryingly convenient.

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So, here’s five benefit changes the government doesn’t want you to know about. Continue reading

British Propaganda

People’s perceptions are shaped by the news and political speak but the truth, which should shape perceptions is often the opposite of which is spouted. Courtesy of The Conversation:

People are wildly wrong when we ask them about many aspects of life in Britain, as shown in a new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London.

We think one in four of the entire population is Muslim (5% in reality). We believe 31% are immigrants (the official figure is 13%). We have an extraordinary view of teenage girls, believing that on average 15% under the age of 16 get pregnant each year (0.6% in reality). We think £24 out every £100 of benefit spend is claimed fraudulently (it’s actually 70p). We think crime is rising (it’s been falling for years). And we’re more likely to pick out foreign aid as a top item of expenditure than state pensions (we spend 9-10 times more on pensions).

The scale of our errors is startling – but this isn’t particularly new, similar patterns have been seen in other surveys. So the more interesting questions are why these massive misperceptions arise and what, if anything, can we do about them.

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Four reasons to be wrong

On why, I’d group the explanations into four. First, there are simple measurement and definitional problems. It’s difficult to get across what can be quite complex and precise issues in simple survey questions.

But probably more importantly, the public are not always thinking about the things we think they are. For example, when we ask people what they were thinking of as benefit fraud when they guessed at its scale, they select items that can’t be counted as actual fraud. In people’s minds, it includes claimants not having paid tax in the past and people having children so they can claim more benefits.

Second, there are a whole range of cognitive errors, simple mistakes we make when answering these types of questions. This includes problems of statistical literacy – for example, we just struggle with very big or very small numbers, and find it hard to distinguish between rates and levels.

But there are also explanations from social psychology on the biases and shortcuts in how we think: for example, we know we’re more likely to focus on and remember negative information.

Third, there is certainly an impact from the media and political discourse. The links are complex and difficult to prove categorically, but the association between attitudes and media coverage is often strong. Of course, the media also reflects our concerns and tastes for types of information: to a large extent we get the media we want. The focus on vivid stories rather than straight facts is because we pay more attention to those vivid stories ourselves (we admit we rely on personal experience and information from those around us more than representative data).

Which leads onto the fourth key explanation – that these misperceptions may be an effect of our concerns rather than a cause. That is, we overestimate partly because we are worried about these things, rather than being worried because we believe we know their full extent. Academics call this “emotional innumeracy”: we’re making a point about what’s worrying us, whether we know it or not.

Getting it right

What we decide to do depends on which of these effects we think are mostly to blame. The boring, but probably accurate, answer is that it’s likely to be a bit of each, so we need a range of responses. In particular, we need to avoid a convenient conclusion that because over-estimates are partially a reflection of our concerns, we shouldn’t even try to correct them. That just leads to a vicious circular argument that perceptions are reality even when they are plainly wrong.

So we do need to improve statistical literacy – which is as much about improving our confidence to question both statistical assertion and anecdotes as improving simple maths skills. This needs to start in schools, with more use of real-life data rather than abstract problems. Given the disproportionate effect of the media and politicians, steps to improve their understanding of statistical stories should be a focus too. The Royal Statistical Society’s getstats campaign targets each of these.

Alongside this, we need to continue to challenge the misuse of data by politicians and the media, through bodies like the UK Statistical Authority and FullFact. Of course, this will have a limited direct impact on public perceptions, given it is working against the weight and habits of the media and political rhetoric. But the aims of these bodies are at least as much preventative as corrective: the more those using statistics badly are pulled up, the less likely they will think the risk is worthwhile.

Even so, these steps will always struggle to get to a key part of the problem. There are many instances where the information provided by politicians or the media may be perfectly factually accurate, but vanishingly rare. The vivid anecdote is the only thing people remember. This is part of the reason why “myth-busting” exercises alone are likely to have very limited impact on perceptions.

So just as important as providing a correct picture of scale is providing a narrative that appeals to people, with its own role models and vivid stories.

The power of facts

We also shouldn’t entirely give up on changing people’s minds with facts. We regularly run deliberative workshops on tricky policy issues where information is provided, experts give evidence and people have time to reflect on things they don’t normally get the chance to. And views do often shift. This serves a useful purpose in its own right, if it means policies are based on what a more informed public thinks.

But it’s obviously not very practical to get the whole population in a workshop for a day or so. However, new communication technology does provide easier ways to do this. It won’t be as cathartic and will only reach a subset, but online mass deliberations by independent organisations (say, the BBC) could play its part in improving our currently badly informed debates.

Just don’t expect a public epiphany any time soon – those many thousands of phantom pregnant teenagers will be with us for some time yet.