Atlas bombed: Right-wing think tanks betray ignorance on energy

Atlas Shrugged movie still

Beautiful railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart can't believe that the beautiful oil refinery has gone up in flames. Photo: Atlas Shrugged: Part I.

I want to get this review out fast, because, by the time you read it, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, which came out in mid-April, may already have left the theaters. Critics have roundly panned the movie version of free-market goddess Ayn Rand‘s 1957 novel for weak acting by B-list actors and a script with dialogue so wooden it could only have been phoned in from the men’s room at the Koch Industries corporate offices in Wichita, KS.

And not one laugh in two whole hours.

At a whopping 1368 pages, Rand’s book is ridiculed by literary types but beloved by fans of supply-side economics because they think it shows that all good things in society proceed from a few entrepreneurial capitalists who provide the rest of America (ie, losers) with jobs, prosperity and a First World way of life that we so ill deserve.

The film puts forth the same point of view. But whether you agree with Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism or believe instead that the rich are a lazy and greedy bunch of parasites bleeding America’s working families dry and constantly whining for more corporate welfare, it’s clear that the people behind this joyless film apparently know next to nothing about energy.

And that’s not some nitpicking point, because this film has energy projected all over it.

Train of fools

It’s a tragic irony that one of the only places future generations may be able to see high-speed rail in America is in the computer-generated image of the bullet train on the John Galt Line speeding through the Rocky Mountains in Atlas Shrugged: Part I, a movie made by people who hate trains, high speed or any other kind.

Credits at the film’s end proudly announce that right-wing think tanks and corporate front groups from the oil-funded Cato Institute to the oil-funded Reason Foundation to oil-funded FreedomWorks partnered in producing the film. You’d think with all that oil money sloshing around the studio that this film wouldn’t be caught with its pants down in the way it works energy into its pathetic plot about the economy.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Pain at the pump

Gas has gone up to $37.50 at the beginning of the film. Yet, $5 will still get you coffee at a diner. Don’t the learned fellows at Cato know that when the price of gas goes up, it means the price of crude oil is up and that everything else is going to go up too?

Especially restaurant menu items — composed as they usually are of food or drink (made and transported with oil) and cooking (done with gas or electricity, both dependent on the price of oil) — will rise, maybe at an even higher rate than the price of crude itself. That cuppa joe should’ve been more like $20.

Though a single gallon of gas in the Randian dystopia costs as much as ten gallons today, and there’s a deep depression on, yet subways are full of commuters, stock markets are trading, stores are full of stuff to buy and TV and newspapers continue to pump out the news. People still come to work everyday in shiny glass office towers.

But if gas were really nearly $40 a gallon, we’d be lucky if the United States still existed as a country. We’d be lucky if civil order hadn’t yet given way to armies of mutant zombie bikers on the streets. Not to mention little things like the electrical grid, food supply and any transportation besides mule cart. And mutant zombie bike, of course.

Free energy, perpetual motion department

After they build their high-speed train, Dagny and Henry, the heroine and hero of the story, go in search of a tantalizing invention that could make them millions and solve America’s energy and transportation problems, a prototype engine that runs on electricity from the air. After a nationwide search, they locate the prototype just sitting on a shelf!

Turns out, it’s a type of perpetual-motion machine. But it was lost when its manufacturer, a factory in Wisconsin (sadly, only in a right-wing dystopia does America still have any domestic manufacturing left), went bankrupt because Commie fellow-traveling management got the idea to flatten the wage scale and pay everybody the same. So the smart, hard-working people left and the whole place went to hell.

For a supply-sider, it’s a good thing American companies would never try anything that crazy. In fact, they’ve been going in the exact opposite direction for fifty years — paying their CEOs and top managers ever more and more, in some cases hundreds of times more than a line worker. They’ve also been moving American jobs to China. But no mention of that in the film.

Keep your friends close and your oil closer

In a climax that would be touching if you were raised from birth in an barrel of crude, the film’s final scene (spoiler alert!) depicts beautiful heroine Dagny dropping to her knees and screaming, as if she had just stumbled upon Freddie Kruger with a bloody saw in one hand and a headless face in the other.

Why? Oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt had just been recruited to John Galt’s secret society of supply-side saints, and as a Parthian shot, he had set his own oil refinery afire, leaving a sign reading “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah” (I think it really said something like “This is how I found it. It’s all yours now”). The craziest part is that Wyatt built his Queen Anne-style macro-mansion right next door to his refinery with a great view of methane flares against the night sky.

Maybe the folks behind this movie know something I don’t about the real estate market. But with toxic chemicals in the air and water and high levels of asthma, birth defects and other health problems in the local population, I’ve never heard that “refinery-close” was a selling point for luxury housing.

I don’t care who is John Galt

OK, OK, I know it’s just a movie. What about artistic license? Sometimes a stickler for details is just a killjoy. But there’s a smart way to do fiction about energy and the economy. Then there’s a dumb way to do it. And the groups behind this film, who all claim either to be experts or else to represent the public interest, need to take responsibility for the silly things the movie says about energy and the economy.

Smart: Douglas Coupland’s Player One, a short novel about the day that oil spikes to $900 a barrel and planes are grounded, cars come off the road, the power goes out and society more or less shuts down. Or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which depicts a future world where oil is only available to the rich and powerful, wars are fought over coal reserves and renewable energy means genetically engineered elephants and tanks of toxic algae.

Dumb: A movie where all of society’s energy and economic ills radiate out from “socialism” and Big Government.

Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a fantasy world where factories are closed not because their owners moved them to China so they could pay sweatshop wages but because their owners are too soft-hearted towards their lazy-ass union workers; where Washington is so devoted to Soviet-style centralization that the “Department of Economic and Resource Planning” levies a special tax on the whole state of Colorado to redistribute wealth to neighboring states that just aren’t doing as well; and where a bunch of rich people dropping out of society is considered a bad thing rather than about the biggest blessing that the heavens could bestow on America’s hijacked democracy.

Don’t bother forwarding this article to your libertarian friend who’s worshiped Rand since he first read Atlas Shrugged in American Lit 101 at Bob Jones University. Any faults that you might find in Rand’s work or in this truly remarkable film will just make any Rand fan ever more rabid about this bizarre prophet’s greatness.

But do be skeptical next time you see the Cato Institute denouncing high-speed rail. Watch out when the Reason Foundation talks about green jobs and climate change. And when you hear some Tea Partier talking about why Obama stopping domestic oil drilling is the cause of high gas prices, ask yourself if he got his talking points from FreedomWorks.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    A pretty good review. I only disagree with not sending it to your libertarian friends. By all means send it to all of them. Anyone who really enjoys Atlas Shrugged intelligently should be able to think about it. Anyone who wouldn’t want to hear criticisms of it at least needs to know that there are people who see it in a different light. It is the isolationism of “us vs them” which is getting in the way of decent conversations. Survival is a team sport, even if you don’t like the other members of the team.

    Another point is that the fans of Atlas Shrugged all believe themselves to be the ‘smart’ ones who should be paid more than others. It takes time to realize that the ‘more’ pay comes from somewhere, if only from having a lot of customers to harvest. No matter how much of a genius inventor Jon Galt was, his invention is worthless to anyone but him unless they choose to buy it. That means he has to have some minimum respect for customers. People who have a cat don’t necessarily beat a path to your door for a better mousetrap.
    The world needs smart people everywhere, not just in universities or running corporations. When was the last time you heard a teacher encourage a brilliant student to stay home on the farm and make it a better farm?
    Yeah, think hard about that for a while. Capitalism is about taking from the future by simply not trading equitably (buy low, sell high). As long as the future has more than the present (even if it’s only imagined to have more), then capitalists will keep stealing from it, if they have to enslave their own children to do so.
    As for Jon Galt’s invention, it’s in a government warehouse next to a box with the Ark of the Covenant. Ref: “The Hunt for Zero Point” by Nick Cook

    • says

      Auntiegrav — If you do want to pass along my piece I certainly won’t object :) I hope that you’re right, that Ayn Rand fans are open to honest discussion. Meantime, I like the way you put it about capitalism being a way for the present to steal from the future. Looked at this way, it’s just another way that a powerful minority oppresses a powerless majority. Cheers, Erik

    • Nick099 says

      “Capitalism is about taking from the future by simply not trading equitably (buy low, sell high). As long as the future has more than the present (even if it’s only imagined to have more), then capitalists will keep stealing from it, if they have to enslave their own children to do so.’

      What is always fascinating (and troubling) about Marxists when they spew their perspective is how rigid and short-sighted. “Capitalism,” wealth creation, private property rights….none are fixed. There is no finite amount. That exists only in your mind to support an “us vs. them” mentality. Often you hear about massive wealth inequity that a small percentage of people control a larger share of the wealth… this is somehow horrific. Two problem with that juvenile viewpoint: 1) wealth is not static….it ebbs and flows like the tides. People lose and people gain fortunes as time moves along. 2) Wealth as stated above is not and never has been finite. It constantly grows and changes through work, industry and innovation.

      The thieves you speak of are not capitalists in the common sense. They are not interested in freedom nor free markets. They are corrupt crony corporatists in bed with corrupt politicians. Together they have sought to close the window of opportunity for all Americans in business while buying votes of primitive-minded imbeciles with public money…growing the welfare state to huge proportions. The protestors at OWS, the disenchanted youth and all the others who voted for Obama and his Dummycrats have all been the useful idiots in this scheme. You want someone to blame…look in the mirror. The same strategies were used not too long ago with great success. it involved the partnership of government and big business to advance the power and influence of the State/Corporations to a common goal. Can you say 1930’s Nazi Germany???? Government in bed with corporations: they called it fascism then, an offshoot of Marx’s socialism.

      It really is sad that people like you are incapable of seeing outside of your habitat. But that’s what happens when you are a 20 watt bulb in a 100 watt world. It’s only nature taking it’s course.

  2. B Dewberry says

    This Eric guy’s article about Atlas Shrugged is warped. He obviously has never tried to drill an oil well or build a business. Who would he sell his drivel writing to if there weren’t capitalist creating wealth, jobs and resourses with which to pay for things.

    • says

      Ah, an Ayn Rand fan. Welcome to our website! You’re right that I never tried to drill an oil well. That certainly is one experience I’d like to try someday. Meantime, I have actually started a business and I’m growing it now, so I guess I’ll have to settle for that. And as an entrepreneur, it’s very clear to me that the people I work with create as much value as I do or maybe more. So I don’t buy the Randian myth of solitary, heroic “job creators.” At best, successful businesspeople are smart and lucky. At worst, many of them are just parasites on those who create the real value — the community.

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