Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Atlas Shrugged – A Three-Paragraph Book Review

As any of our analysts will tell you, the amount of technical reading needed to keep up with the markets is enormous. We have daily, weekly, and monthly investment research to digest and it leaves little time to read (or write) books. However, recently I decided to get caught up on some of the reading that I have been putting off, and the book that made it to the top of the list was Atlas Shrugged, the famous book by Ayn Rand. The book is about Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which holds that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of your own happiness or rational self-interest. The story is about a powerful group of industrialists who go on strike and retreat from the world until the rest of the world sees the error of their ways. The oath to join this powerful group says it all, “I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” To say the least, the book has become a rallying cry for those who believe in free markets.

For the past two years I have been hearing more and more people in the financial industry referring to this book, and now I know why. Ayn Rand is perhaps most well known for being one of Alan Greenspan’s early “gurus” and a major influence on his philosophy about free markets. Knowing that the country is about to focus on regulating financial markets (see last Friday’s sell-off on news of the $1 billion lawsuit against Goldman Sachs) where the rhetoric will be all about the social good, Atlas Shrugged certainly becomes a very relevant book to read. It’s worth mentioning that my version was 1,168 pages long (with no pictures) and throughout the book Rand’s characters give several speeches that are so long that they are exhausting to read (I will never admit to skimming any of them). Once you get started, the book is a surprisingly good read. It’s a surprisingly good story. Here are a few other insights into the book you are not likely to get on Wikipedia.

The villains in the book are unbelievably evil. They are witless, spineless, and totally and completely without any redemptive qualities. The heroes of the book, the industrialists, are saintly in their goodness. Clearly Rand wants us to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The book was copy written in 1957, and the characters all smoke cigarettes like chimneys. It is very weird to read. Every scene involves someone, good or evil, chain smoking. Finally, the heroes, the captains of industry, who are the protagonists of the book, are industrialists who run railroads, copper mills, steel mills, and manufacturing plants of all kinds. Considering how the American economy has evolved, these swashbuckling leaders of industrial production seem strangely out of place.

Next up on my list: Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.