By Popular Demand: One Last Immersion in the World of the 'Atlas Shrugged' Guy

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Here we go:

  1. The "Atlas Shrugged Guy" made his first appearance in this item. In it, I quoted two self-identified small-business owners, one a tech-world person whom I actually knew, the other someone who wrote in over the transom, on what would happen if Barack Obama were re-elected.
  2. Much back-and-forth ensued. See here and here, with related links. 
  3. Then we had his stream-of-consciousness election-night posts as it became clear that his nightmare was coming true and Barack Obama would be returned to office.
  4. I have received 16 metric tons of response on this, virtually all of it hostile to the original writer. (Here is one exception.) Additional points before we go to sample messages after the jump:
  5. Is this a real person? Yes. I know his name, location, and that he has a business.
  6. Is he "trolling" or sending a deliberate parody of right-wing talk points? No. I have sufficient reason to believe these are actual his actual views. I'll mention more at the very end.
  7. Is he actually going to shut down his business? More on this later on too.
  8. What's the point here? I offer this -- and some of the guy's very latest reaction -- to illustrate the phenomenon discussed in Conor Friedersdorf's item: Members of the right-wing info bubble seem genuinely caught by surprise that their views seem extreme, unreasonable, or deluded, or unreasonable when removed from their hothouse environment. That may be the most important cultural-political effect of the election two days after: the right wing's version of what is (unjustly) known as the "Pauline Kael problem" -- the astonishment that Barack Obama could actually have won, when everyone they know and talk to shares the view that he's an utter-failure, different-from-us, business-hating socialist.
  9. How many am I using here? I got about 2,000 messages in this vein -- that's a very high response. I'll quote enough to illustrate a range of views. They are all AFTER THE JUMP, so stop now if you think this theme is overdone (as some correspondents did.) Otherwise, proceed at your own risk.

Why publicize this at all? Many messages in this vein:

Why would you give some rambling lunatic who "claims" to be the owner of a "high-tech" business, a soapbox to stand on?  The imbecile probably sells stuff over E-bay while listening to Rush all day.  His complaints are a laundry list derived from AM radio talking points.  Complete BS.  You'll make these people think they have a credible leg to stand on.

He's just a bad businessman. Also a popular theme:

The Atlas shrugged guy (I'll bet a couple rounds of beer the writer is a "he") sounds like one who wants to take all the credit when his business does well and blame the government when it isn't. For an "entrepreneur" to complain that taxes and regulations are hurting his business is missing a key point: his competitors work in the same tax and regulatory environment.

And:

This guy is too irrational or delusional to be a successful businessman.  I've worked in high tech for decades, someone who has built up a successful business with several high paying positions wouldn't just shut things down because he or she doesn't like Obama's re-election.  He or she would sell business and pocket the after tax profits.  

And:

Since he's such a clear-eyed realist, what exactly does he think Romney would do that would cause his business to grow? Repeal Obamacare? Besides that fact that it wouldn't happen, the effects on a small business focusing on aviation would appear to be minimal in the short term ...

Similarly:

If we zoom out and look at the reality of Obama the President, what he actually has done, his policies have been, in many ways, more conservative that Bill Clinton, Bush Senior, Reagan, Ford and Nixon. He actually signed a bill allowing guns in natural parks. His administration's regulations are not significantly more onerous than any administration that came before.  He has done palpably little to polarize the nation. On virtually every single issue which became polarized, the policy that he introduced or sanctioned was originally a Republican policy.

So whatever your Atlas Shrugged guy is responding to, it is not Barack Obama or his policies.  And if he decides to quit, it won't be because of Barack Obama and his policies. It will be because a particularly virulent and radical movement of political ideas got whipped up by the Republican Establishment and was allowed the hope of success.  It was the abandonment, by one half of the political establishment, of traditional boundaries that would not be crossed (filibusters, debt ceiling, voter suppression etc.) which have threatened the integrity of our national institutions.  The Republican party for years has talked about starving the beast. They seem now to be looking to throttle, maim and quarter the beast.

Fortunately, I happen to agree with your other writers that if Atlas Shrugs, no one will care. Because the vast majority of the American public, if the Republican agenda were put to them in a straightforward manner, would reject it.  So let them all move to Singapore. We'll do just fine thanks.

WTF?:

Your informant promising he will close up shop if Romney does not win has failed to explain how he has kept his head above water during the last 4 Obama years

WTF 2:

1) A payroll of "almost 500K per year"?  I don't know what they pay people in the Research Triangle, but in California that would be maybe 5-10 employees. Shutting it down isn't going to have a huge impact (in the larger picture, that is--obviously it's a problem for a few employees).

2) There's no way to prove what might have happened (as the President has noted, with some regret), but I would venture to say that a business of that scale would likely be dead anyway if the President hadn't acted to shore up the financial sector and get the stimulus bill passed. One could argue that any President would have done the former (and it was Bush who started the process)...but then again, remember McCain's dithering after the Lehman failure?  And the latter would almost certainly have been smaller and less effective as stimulus had it been crafted by a Republican President.  Both of these things were necessary to avert a depression, and in a depression Atlas Shrugged Guy's business would have been toast.  So where's the gratitude?

3) Whenever someone complains about over-regulation in a general sense, it's like Salieri complaining about "too many notes".  *Which* regulations is he talking about? Worker safety?  Environmental? Without specifics, the complaint is meaningless.  Maybe--just maybe--there are particular regulations that are a net negative--that are a burden on businesses, without corresponding benefit--but if so he needs to make a specific case about particular regulations.  (Also, too: some of the most burdensome regulations on any business are at the local level (business permits, zoning codes, etc.)--which is obviously outside the purview of the President.) 

4) Profits don't drive growth. Consumption drives growth, and growth drives profits.

Facts just don't matter:

For background, I'm an African immigrant to the U.S (from a country that has been demonized in relation to Obama), working in the high tech sector. I definitely see elements of extreme Libertarian ism in that letter and what I shall politely term 'taking extreme liberties with the truth' (also colloquially called 'bullshit' in less polite circles). But I also see a dog whistle appeal to racial resentment that makes these types of arguments appealing. When I hear 'Obama and his ilk' being called parasites I'm reminded of many other times I've heard similar arguments, all aimed at African Americans and minorities. I follow Ta-Nehisi Coates writing and he has dissected similar arguments in the past.

But what gets me is that every single point in the letter writers argument can be refuted by a simple Google Search or a minute of research. This is not a letter based on reality, it is someone looking for justifications for their bigotry and dis-regard for their fellow citizens. I have a belief that at the base of it Libertarian-ism is just a ideological framework to justify selfishness.

What kind of business is this anyway?

In his original rant, Atlas tells us he run[s] a high technology company with several very high paying positions In his subsequent self-defense in a later blog entry he is a bit more specific: now have a payroll of almost 500k per year.

Huh? Assuming that the 500K is actual salaries, not including benefits, FICA, etc,  it's still a joke unless he's only got two employees. The company I retired from, a truly world-class leader in engineering, is having trouble recruiting newly minted Ph.D's because starting salaries are "only" about $130K. It's been five years or so since a friend with a PhD in computer science and about 12 years experience went to Google for something north of $200K.

I'm not sure what sort of "high tech" Atlas is into, but he's obviously not paying very many people, and certainly not paying them what the tech community would call "very high" salaries. I can't imagine he'll be very much missed when he takes a hike after Obama wins tomorrow.

And:

Count me among the skeptical about Mr. Shrugged's bona fides.  Mr. Shrugged initially said that he runs " a high technology company with several very high paying positions".  In his pushback, he says he has "a payroll of almost 500k per year."  Maybe things are different in his part of the country, but the math isn't squaring with what I know of high paying positions in tech.  Then there's the complaint about how he doesn't want to deal with declining growth, right after he indignantly says he can't possibly be a spoiled child because he works long hours.  What kind of business owner thinks they're never going to have to deal with economic downturns?

Don't let the door hit you:

I am from India, and have advanced degrees in Engineering and Management.

If people in High-Tech industry in US decide to close shop, I am sure that many of my peers in India would like to take the opportunity to fill the gap in supply, if any.

Regional issues:

You suggested that the man is from a place like Middle TN. [JF note: Actually not there - I said "middle South"--but similar idea.]  If so, being in high tech here is quite difficult.  The labor costs are low, but the labor is also very poor.  I moved here from Silicon Valley over 10 years ago, and only now is there some movement towards the creative and innovative practices which make high tech "high."  I also want to underscore the sentiment of another respondent about how high tech is dependent upon federal R&D.

I have no choice but to stay because of family obligations.  However, talented individuals with skill tend to leave as quickly as possible.  The labor shortage for skilled people is considerable and the use of offshore Indian companies (often with horrific results) substantial.  The quality of work is also order of magnitudes poorer than the work I have been involved I on either coasts.  I also spent 10 years in New England working in high tech.  More people here work as programmers without a solid computer science background than I have ever encountered before.  This leads to very bad software design.

Middle TN is not a creative nor innovative place.  I have dipped my toe into the waters here a few times, but realized that I am tired of justifying what I do to bosses and employers like Mr. Shrugged based on ROI.  Even while working in a university ...  ROI, not principles, concepts, imagining for the purpose of designing for the future, etc.  If Mr. Shrugged leaves from a place like Middle TN, he won't be missed.  As I mentioned, if he has developed his employees well, allowed them to be creative, innovative, keeping up with changing skills, full family supporting young men AND women, then there are 100's of jobs available for them.  And maybe those employees will find a more innovative and thoughtful employer as well.

We're talking about a larger problem:

It seems to me that "Atlas" describes his problem, although none of his critics or defenders commented on it: "I have never seen it this slow and a second Obama term will spell the end." His business is going broke, and he blames it on Obama. All the rest is his explanation of how none of it is his fault. It may be that a stronger economy would help his business, but I have my doubts. I have no doubt that he is stressed by his failing business. It's unfortunate that he buys the Republican argument about the source of the (broader) problem rather than recognizing insufficient aggregate demand, calling for a stronger stimulus program, not a weaker one.

His defender, who equates imprisonment for a scientific opinion with a slightly higher marginal income tax rate, is milder than Mr. Schwartzman, who equated ending the carried-interest preference with the Holocaust. Still, it's difficult to not be embarrassed for him.

The long-named critic is surprisingly accurate in his assessment of job creation. Republicans try to make the whole thing more complicated than it is. Looking around, it's not difficult to identify work that needs to be done: There are people without homes, people without enough food, streets that should be repaired, parks that should be maintained, to name some obvious examples. The problem is *not* in identifying useful work to be done. The problem is having a social arrangement that rewards people for doing useful work. The people who do the arranging (managers and financial types, for example) deserve some reward, but only if it results in useful work actually being done.

I'll skip the discussion of what constitutes useful work, but note that it doesn't have to presumptively include an additional few thousand square feet of housing for someone who already has several thousand square feet of housing per family member.

Big deal:

This fellow is blowing too much smoke to be taken seriously. He uses every trope he ever heard on FOX & Limbaugh & Beck.  ONE KEY EX. :  If his biz is solid, he can sell it and the new owners will keep making things and employing people. Only he has left the workforce. Big deal; biz owners sell all of the time. He facetiously claims that if he closes his operations, then everybody suffers. But that's not true at all. If there is a demand for the product or process, then his employees are still able to work that business model. If there is no demand, he would have gone out of business anyway. This guy's rhetoric doesn't pass the smell test.

The hypocrisy of the defense contractor. This was the most popular category:

I can only assume that Atlas must be a defense contractor.  If Obama wins he'll fold up shop because he's that much less likely to have a contract.  If Romney wins and fulfills his promise to spend more on defense than the Pentagon requests, there will be more defense dollars from which Atlas can "build" (*ahem*) his business.  Maybe he should move his business to a less Socialistic country--one with more "freedoms," fewer leeches, and lower taxes. 

Canada?...no....Australia?....no....Singapore?....no.  I'm sure I can think of one in a minute.  When have we ever had a form of government that this guy insists he deserves?  What evidence is there that a Republican president will exert any sort of fiscal discipline?   The question isn't whether there will be too much spending, the question is "where do you want your tax dollars spent?"  Do you want them spent on weapons systems and farm subsidies or social services and education?  At least with Democrats you're more likely to have the tax revenue to cover the spending.

If Atlas is successful it's because he's lucky.  He certainly doesn't come across as thoughtful.

And:

An anti-government defense contractor?  I think you've been had. [JF: His current business is not defense contracting, though apparently that's in his background.]

First world problems:

I don't understand his reasoning except that he thinks he is somehow in a business where no one else will have the same expenses as he does. Either he finds ways to increase his prices and lower his expenses, or he closes. If his talents or skills or products are in high demand, the market will adjust.
 
The larger picture is that what he does--make something or sell something--happens in the context of the larger society we live in--rich, stable, confident, fairly predictable. We can make money in America, hand over fist, because we have a stable market and government and society. We aren't Somalia or India.
 
And the people of these United States have worked and paid for this stability. Returning tax rates to the onerous levels of the Clinton era does not seem like that much of a jump. We aren't even talking taking tax rates to the Eisenhowerian level.
 
It is expensive to live and produce in a rich, expensive, first world country. That is the price of making a living by having a business. A business owner would, or should, carefully consider all his costs before entering a business.

Back to hypocrisy:

Surely I won't be the only one to notice - even if Atlas doesn't - "missile technology", "GPS", "wireless telemetry" are all military technologies.  Does he have a single customer that isn't a federal contractor?  Has he made a single penny that didn't derive from tax dollars?  I can only hope he's not in that part of the middle South that derives all its power from the TVA.  Tony Stark has nothing on your Irony Man.  

And:

So he took nothing, and made something. Didn't this guy say he has a degree in physics? The refusal to acknowledge the foundation (laid in large part via the government) on which business success is had, and the eagerness to blame the government for any possibility of business decline is very telling of this person's worldview. If I succeed, it's because I'm so intelligent and worked so hard. If I fail, it's not because I wasn't intelligent enough or didn't work hard enough; It was the government's fault.

Tech people refusing to acknowledge the seminal role of military-driven government research in just about everything they do is like Paul McCartney claiming to have invented music spontaneously. Maybe no one had written Eleanor Rigby before, but not having to come up with an orchestra from scratch was pretty handy.

A few years ago my best friend was reading Atlas Shrugged and was going on and on about it. I asked my dad if he'd ever read Ayn Rand. He snorted, "Yeah." I asked "Well?" He said "Juvenile." I haven't been able to come up with a better one-word description for the way these people think.

And:

His hypocrisy at other people's "handouts" is endlessly amusing when he built his company around gps, the missile guidance system of the US military that Mr. Shrugged certainly did not build. He has made a living out of a system built with taxpayer's money (all $12 billions of it, for the initial system, plus the ongoing maintenance costs), and now throws a hissy fit because he has to pay some back.

He adds: "Is it so unreasonable to advocate a government to leave me alone and live within its means?" Yes, it is, when you depend on that same government to keep the satellites in orbit that keep you in business. If he were a gold miner that dug by hand and walked to his buyers, then he'd have a leg to stand on. But as a technologists that depends on universities to come up with the ideas and the US military to build them, he hasn't.

In general, as a non-US citizen, I must say that these fervent "small government" advocates come through as utterly ignorant of the world they live in. He really sounds like he believes that the police, and roads, and satellites he depends on to run his business are services he shouldn't pay for, and that he has never needed (!).

And:

Your latter day John Galt makes all the same chest thumping arguments that I've been hearing since I read Atlas Shrugged in my Sophmore year of High School in Orangevale California (Class of '69). I really had to laugh when he boasted about putting himself through Seattle U (me: UW, paid for it) and then added that he was putting his children through college too. What? Is he trying to turn them into wimps? Shouldn't he have the courage of his convictions and tell them to move out, get a job and create their own futures? Why does he allow these slackers to pick his pocket?

And then there is the usual assertion that he can allocate his profits better than the government. Added to which are complaints about regulation and, in his follow up, redistribution of wealth. But I am just wondering, he claims that his business develops some sophisticated avionics & etc., the kind of stuff I wouldn't understand. I bet my brother would though. He's a GA Tech grad, works for Boeing and has spent a fair amount of time building smart bombs and drones and so on. Which is to say that when he was doing so, he was working on a government contract. I'm betting that this guy does some not unrelated government contract work, works with Boeing more often than not and that most of the regulations he complains about have less to do with sales taxes or Worker's Comp and more to do with the delays and cost overruns that are inevitable when fitting various sub-contracted sub-systems together.

So, I imagine he's got a nice thing going on doing business with a company whose single largest customer is the U.S. government. Nothing wrong with that. I suspect it would be pretty hard to manufacture and sell advanced avionics without working alongside other advanced avionics guys....

The John Galts of the world take great pride in their personal accomplishments, and justifiably so. But, to borrow Clinton's quote of Bob Strauss, "every [John Galt type] wants every[one] to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself." It just ain't so.

Segue:

I think the most interesting dimension of the "Atlas Shrugged" saga is whether or not your correspondent will in fact close his business if Obama wins. Please, I beg you, follow up with him and hold his feet to the fire... make him prove that he has in fact entirely closed his business in response to Obama's re-election. And then follow-up with his employees, and see how how they fare. To me, this smacks of the "moving to Canada" canard so many on my side of the aisle thundered on about in 2000 and especially 2004. I think sound money says your correspondent may be exaggerating, but you really should work to keep him honest in the coming months. And if he does fold up shop, you'll have a great story following the fallout.

This now leads me to a bait-and-switch policy announcement. Contrary to what I said several thousand words ago and in this headline, it turns out that the above is only about half of the sample I plan to use. But at the moment it is all I can manage, especially over Amtrak's I'm-grateful-to-have-it-at-all but-ever-shaky wifi coverage. Also, I have heard back from our understandably somewhat-taken-aback small businessman, with his second-thought reactions about the controversy he has provoked. I'll get back with that, plus a few more reader messages, as soon as feasible. For now plenty to digest.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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