Thursday, January 30, 2014

Philatelics: the objective virtues of stamp collecting

“Those bright little pieces of paper will carry your words across oceans, over mountains, over deserts, and still more difficult: over savage frontiers (the most savage of which are not on the underdeveloped continents). ... Think of the human ingenuity, the technological development, the large-scale synchronization of effort that were required to create a worldwide postal system.”

“While the world politicians are doing their best to split the globe apart by means of iron curtains and brute force, the world postal services are their quiet, unobtrusive way...what is required to bring mankind closer together: a specific purpose cooperatively carried out, serving individual goals and needs.”

“It is the voices of individual men that stamps carry around the globe; it is individual men that need a postal service; kings, dictators and other rulers do not work by mail. In this sense, stamps are the world's ambassadors of good will.”

“The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one's mind. Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people...because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world. A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression toward a goal.”
“The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward. They are accustomed to working long-range; to them, the present is part of and a means to the future; a short-range event or activity that leads nowhere is an unnatural strain on them, an irritating interruption or a source of painful boredom. Yet they need relaxation and rest from their constant, single-tracked drive. What they need is another track, but for the same train...that is, a change of subject, but using part of the same method of mental functioning.  Stamp collecting fulfills that need.”

All quotes are from “Why I Like Stamp Collecting,” by Ayn Rand, Minkus Stamp Journal, 1971. You can find the Minkus article archived at several sites, among them, Kenmore Stamp here.

On December 11, 2013, the U.S. Postal Service honored Ayn Rand with an essay in the series "How they Collected."

The hobby is called “philatelics” or “philately.” Phil<love of. A<not. Tela<tally, count, tax:
The stamp shows that the tax or fare has been paid.  Rand’s comments apply to many, perhaps most, collecting interests, certainly to numismatics.  The same sort of moral arguments could be made for collecting pens and writing instruments, watches, or antique tools.  Ultimately, the moral context comes not from the object, but from the person who pursues it.

The Art of Finance
Money as Living History
Numismatics: History as Market

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Love, Loss, and Redemption in Atlas Shrugged

Although she personally hated surprises, Ayn Rand admired O. Henry for his plot twists.  Atlas Shrugged is too easily perceived as a linear girl-finds-boy story: Dagny Taggart’s lifelong goal is to find a man she can look up to; and she finds John Galt.  Having found him, she abandons him, breaks down and betrays him, then rescues him in a shoot-out against soldiers of the United States government.  Her true quest was not just for a man but for her highest ideal, the embodiment of her virtues.  In that, Atlas Shrugged is a novel of self-discovery.

More than any of the heroes, John Galt is a self-made man.  He has no family. He came from “somewhere in Ohio.”  Before becoming an employee of Taggart Transcontinental, he had been an employee of 20th Century Motor Company.  Francisco d’Anconia, of course, represents a long, aristocratic line.  While her own family tree does not have such deep roots, it does run at least three, perhaps four generations.  Hank Rearden – also a self-made man – runs an industrial empire, as does Dagny. Like Dagny, Rearden has a family of questionable merit.  However, even in the Valley, where Galt runs the generator plant, he has a single, part-time employee who has other interests of his own.  Galt is a loner.  During the strike, he hides in plain sight, his laboratory behind a door in his tenement apartment.  Unlike D’Anconia and Rearden, Galt is completely outside of Dagny’s personal experience.  Therefore, she must seek him, not knowing exactly what (whom) she is looking for.

It is a multi-dimensional irony that Dagny Taggart is searching for the inventor of the motor, the “destroyer” who is removing the men of ability, and also anyone who can bring to working life the model of the motor she possesses.  Although Quentin Daniels does reverse-engineer the device, he does not understand its theory of operation.  When Galt writes a key equation on Daniels’ blackboard, it is not the answer, but an indication of the direction in which the answer lies.  The inventor of the motor is the destroyer and is the only one who truly can create this prime mover. 

The depth of meaning in Dagny’s parallel pursuits is contrasted with her brother’s demise.  Dagny is serially monogamous. She has two affairs. The first with Francisco D’Anconia began as a teenager. D’Anconia leaves her, and does so without an acceptable explanation, specifically refusing to explain himself.  She lives alone until about twelve years later when she begins her affair with Hank Rearden.  James Taggart apparently engages in a series of meaningless nights with just about any woman.  We glean this only in one scene with socialite Betty Pope.  At the top of his career - as the stage is set for his political downfall - he picks up a store clerk, Cheryl Brooks.  That they have nothing in common is obvious. She has the true character of a true millionaire. She never flinches from facts.  James is just a rich lout; and whatever might be in his head is probably marked with stop signs and warning lights.  The full meaning of those many differences becomes apparent as we view the tragedy of Cheryl Brooks. And it is a Greek tragedy.  Like Oedipus, she is a good person, brought down through no fault of her own, as a consequence of seeking the truth to a mystery.

Dagny’s executive assistant, Eddie Willers, grew up with her, as his father had been an employee of hers.  He admires Dagny. Professionally, his job is to deflect demands that would waste her time.  Only near the end, when he accidentally discovers her affair with Hank Rearden, does he realize that he loves her and always has.  (Fans of Atlas Shrugged suggest that in an alternate alternate world, Willers marries Brooks.) That sudden understanding is less than the shock when he later realizes that he has actually described to John Galt how Dagny looks when she is asleep.  Willers knows Dagny with an intimacy most commonly reserved for a spouse.

Today, millions of political conservatives understand Atlas Shrugged as a denunciation of socialism.  (In The Romantic Manifesto Rand explained some of the nuances that necessarily bind the artist to the audience.  Neither knows the intentions of the other. Each brings themselves to the work.) Dagny’s quest is on a different metaphysical plane entirely.  Rand’s egoism is not merely that of a suburban homeowner insisting on the political property rights that allow a fence between his rose bushes and those of his neighbor.  Although Rand abandoned Nietzsche early in life, late in life she titled her tribute to the U.S. Space Program, "Apollo and Dionysius."  Dagny Taggart gives no more metaphysical meaning to the Washington gang than she does to snowstorms and floods.  One of her discoveries is that unlike natural disasters, the Washington gang actually is out to destroy her: it is personal. Nonetheless, Dagny never intends to save the world or defeat the looters. Her goals serve her own needs.

Dagny’s quest for the ideal man reveals a conflict between her values. It has nothing to do with the people actually in her world.  It is an open question.  She always had held the railroad as the embodiment of her virtues.  In one early scene, as a child, she stands with Eddie looking down the infinity of parallel tracks. In answer to his question, “What is the best within us?” She replies, “I don’t know.” Eddie says that they will have to find out.  She stands looking at the track.  Ultimately, she is forced to choose between her railroad and the man she loves. The first time, she opts for the railroad, believing that if she can save it, she can have both.  She chooses to leave Galt’s Gulch.

After Galt’s Speech, Eddie Willers identifies the speaker as a worker for Taggart Transcontinental whom Eddie has known casually for years, “Johnny something…”  Dagny finds his name in the personnel roster and goes to his apartment.  She has been followed by government agents who arrest Galt.  Her betrayal was not intentional. It was nevertheless material. When the striking industrialists rally to rescue Galt, Dagny is with them.  In the ensuing battle, she is the only one who takes a life, shooting a soldier who was paralyzed by fear.  She trades the life of a non-entity to redeem the life of the person most valuable to her, the living generator who embodies her deepest virtues and highest aspirations. 


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Dagny Two Point Oh

Coletta Anne Cannon and I met in Lakewood Park on Labor Day, 1969. A decade ago, when she turned 50, I sent her a card and we talked on the phone.  “Considering how close we are in age,” I said, “it is hard to understand what your parents were so mad about.”  She replied, “The fact that when I was 16, you were 20.”  We dated for two more years, mostly under the radar. When she turned 18, she moved in. A couple of weeks later, we flew to Chicago, and got married, and returned to work the next morning.  On May 15, 1972, we moved to Lansing to be with Linda and Morris Tannehill, authors of The Market for Liberty.

Magnificat High School Prom 1971

Coletta read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and other Rand works before we married. When we met, revolution was in the air.  The old road was rapidly fading.  Atlas Shrugged was already non-fiction in the 70s.  From the Nixon Wage and Price Freeze, to the loss in Vietnam, and the resignation of Nixon, followed by economic stagnation coupled with inflation (“stagflation”) that sent precious metals prices soaring, we expected the end of civilization as we knew it.  The Iranian Hostage Crises capped the decade.  And, then came Reagan.  It was not perfect, but it made a difference.  In the mean time, Coletta and I followed separate paths. 

I never loved her more than the moment when I watched an 18-year old girl close a business deal with a man twice her age.  She set up his publishing business. 
My present wife and I threw a party for ourselves
when we completed our bachelor degrees in 2008.
We invited all of our friends. 
She had started after high school printing on a tabletop Multilith for an insurance company.  After we moved to Lansing she worked in quick print shops before going into business for herself.  That was when we separated and divorced.  I wanted to move out west and picked Las Cruces, New Mexico.  She stayed in Lansing.  We both remarried.  But we remained friends over the years.  And she called on me to do computer projects for her. 

She had moved to Pittsburgh when I returned the favor by recommending her to crack a tough nut for a Coin World newspaper when we were changing the database formats for Trends pricing.  As a leader in the Quark Xpress national user group, she knew about the Ferengi before I did.  Here in Austin last year, when our local Filemaker club brought in a guest speaker, I dropped Coletta’s name and got a nod.
With a regulation
Taggart Transcontinental shirt
from an admirer on her 60th birthday.
Most people cannot imagine what kind of relationship Dagny, Francisco, Hank, and John could have had after the end of the book.  We can.  It is easy when people are rational and realistic, and adhere to values that enhance their lives. 


Friday, January 24, 2014

The First Dagny

We met in the student lounge through a friend of hers.  Another friend of mine from Young Americans for Freedom had handed me Anthem as we passed between algebra classes. After I read it, I gave it to Jan. 
Prom Night 1967
 In 1966, Janet M. Matyas was my high school sweetheart.  She was a year younger than I, and in the “major work” program of Cleveland Public Schools for gifted and talented students.  (I was not. I went to summer school to catch up.)  She played the violin.  After Anthem, we went on to read all of the existing books. I subscribed to the Objectivist Newsletter and took the “Basic Principles” class.  Several of our friends also had read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead.  High school romances are transient; and I changed schools the following year.

Cleveland as seen from Lakewood
For that year, we had the steel mills and trains, a high rise apartment for viewing the city from the lake and some penthouse parties (though no Penthouse Legends) with our friends.  At a spring dance that year, we were there with everyone else and happy to be on a date, but oddly enough, the band played "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" which is in 6/8, and we danced it as a waltz -- not a big deal, but, when we were done, we looked around to find the floor empty, except for us.

Winton Place is the tallest. At the left in front is
Edgewater Towers where we lived
(but not where I grew up).
Janet and I cringed at the classical architecture of the banks.  We had great universities, corporations dedicated to electrical research, and John D. Rockefeller as the model of the hometown boy who made good.  Riding into downtown on the Rapid, we entered beneath the Terminal Tower, staring hard and deep into the many tunnels into which other train tracks disappeared.  The Terminal had a concourse with a tobacco shop.
It does not get more romantic than this.
About 1989, we found each other through FidoNet.  We exchanged a few letters. The last I heard from her was in 1996. 


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Inspecting the Objectivist Theory of Government

American libertarians generally believe that the only proper functions of government are an army to protect the nation from invasion, police forces to protect citizens from aggression, and courts of law to settle disputes.  That comes directly from Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Nature of Government” published originally in The Objectivist Newsletter (Vol. 2, No. 12, December 1963) and reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal.  Beyond that, little work has been done.  When asked in public forums about gun control and capital punishment, Ayn Rand specifically demurred. She had no answers and left it to the future of legal scholarship and jurisprudence.

Post Modernist Antithesis
of Objectivism
 The Objectivist theory of government rests on philosophical foundations in ethics, morality, epistemology, and metaphysics.  (Rand conflated ethics and morality. We do so commonly, but they are different.  Morality is personal. Ethics are social.)  Any assertions about what is proper or improper must be consistent with the rational-empiricism of a self-interested individual, whom Rand called man qua man.

Your rights can only be violated by volitional actors, by other people.  If you are injured by a horse, the animal did not violate your rights. The police can only act in retaliation to a violation of rights.  So, if the police see a pack of coyotes surrounding a child, are they morally obligated to act?  (I believe that they are. Others disagree.) If the police know from emergency systems that a tornado is approaching, and if they see picnickers on the public square, are they morally obligated to warn people of the danger?  (I must insist that they do. Others claim laissez faire/laissez passer.) If you have an absolute right to self-determination, and you threaten suicide by jumping from a tall building, are the police obligated to intervene? 

According Ayn Rand, a truly capitalist society depends on government. Government holds a geographic monopoly on the use of retaliatory force.  A government also enforces a single body of law within that geography.  Rand specifically denounced Murray Rothbard’s theory of “anarcho-capitalism” touted later by Linda and Morris Tannehill in The Market for Liberty (1971), and Jarret Wollstein in Society without Coercion (1969) among others.

One of 300,000 Securitas
employees in 52 countries
We had governments before we had police forces.  The word “police” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The first police force was the London Metropolitan formed by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.  American cities followed. Today Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago argue about who had the first by whatever definitions that the traditional "night watch" or "fire watch" evolved to copy the London "bobbies."  It was only after the Civil War that the policeman in a blue uniform became an integral part of large cities.  It is also true that the U.S. Marshals were created in the first session of the first Congress. The Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789, established one marshal for each federal district court. (Image at the Library of Congress here.)  The distinction may make a difference.

Today, we have private companies providing police services, armies, adjudication, negotiation, and arbitration, and doing so in competition and cooperation with each other and in competition and cooperation with traditional nation-state governments. These market entities create their own laws, such as the Uniform Commercial Code.  Businesses and individuals also choose among governments, shopping for laws. Read your mortgage, the bank loan for your car, the terms of your credit cards. It is how a Japanese company, buys parts made in Ireland, by a company headquartered in Germany for installation in cars made in Ohio, to be sold by a dealer in Indiana to a customer from Kentucky. And if pirates in the South China Sea hijack the cargo, the owners will call on a private company to retrieve their property.

In 1972, Edwin Newman interviewed Ayn Rand for his show “Speaking Freely” on NBC-TV. Among other statements, Ayn Rand said: “But on the matter of protecting people from physical danger, if certain conditions of employment, let us say, are unsafe and it can be proved that there is a physical risk – I don’t say that we have to wait until somebody dies – then the employer who is creating this risk can be sued, and can be severely punished financially. In other words, there can be a law protecting a man from physical injury by another man. In this case, the employer who puts men into conditions of danger – not accidentally, but intentionally or carelessly – can be penalized because he is infringing the right of his workers not to be injured physically.”  (That and other transcripts are collected in the anthology Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz; Lexington Books, 2009.)

That can bring back the question of the person who threatens suicide. There are many ways to take your own life and rational reasons for doing so; and it is better to face the end under your own control.  But when someone goes to a roof to commit suicide, they are being publicly dramatic. By definition, a person in an irrational state is not capable of making a rational choice.  Anyone in that circumstance has the same legal status as a child.  They get protection they have not asked for.

Discussing these and related problems with other Objectivists I have been accused of being an anarchist, a nanny state progressive, and a totalitarian.  I take that to mean (1) these questions cut to the core of the philosophy; and (2) the problems are not easily resolved; and (3) no one else has a consistent development. 


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Money as Living History

Pictures of a Distant Country: Seeing America Through Old Paper Money by Richard Doty (Whitman, 2013, 296 pages, $24.95) is a "coffee table" book replete with enlarged, full-color images of banknotes and other fiduciary paper from the 19th century. Dr. Richard Doty is the senior curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection where he has had 27 years to study, organize, and display the tangible artifacts of our nation’s financial history.
Millville, New Jersey, Millville Bank, $2 1857 (proof)
Numismatics delivers the substantial evidence of our economic history.  Even great scholars such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Murray N. Rothbard blundered because they never collected, and therefore were ignorant of the basic truths of what money is, and how people use it. Unlike otherwise very nice but run-of-the-mill efforts that organize the subject either by denominations by year of issue, or by series of issue by denomination, this book honors the American people according to our occupations, families, classes and social statuses, as well as by our own views of whimsy, entertainment, accelerating technology, and national mythology.  
1815: Doty indicates the power drive at the left.
 Doty begins by explaining the origins of our paper money.  For 200 years Europeans found everything in North America except the one thing they hoped most to find: precious metals.  (Gold was finally discovered in North Carolina and Georgia in the early 1800s.)  Tobacco, wampum, and other expedients were short-lived substitutes.  Paper money, backed by public authority was the lasting solution.  Massachusetts was first in 1690.  By the middle of the 1800s, paper money was established as the traditional medium of large-scale commerce.  Paper money also achieved a consistency of design and presentation with “a central vignette, or more portraits to the left or right of the central scene, and a smaller representation bottom center.”  These illustrations are now our windows to the past.
Mechanics Bank, Memphis, Tennessee $10 1855
The simple fact is that few teachers or professors even know about the rich array of private bank issues in the 19th century. This only opens the door for the student who chooses to pursue an independent path to discovery.  Here we have images of how Americans perceived themselves, and (more importantly) how they wanted to be seen. 

Ten chapters including "The People in the Way",
"The People in the Middle", "Childhood and Family", "Whimsy",
"You Can Trust Me", "Progress", "An Age Now Ending"
Our nation expanded urban civilization, as it also was built by yeoman farmers, and, admittedly, by an agrarian society carried by slave labor.  Industry and manufacturing play a large role, of course, as do shipping, railroads, and farming.  
Above: Adrian Michigan. Adrian Insurance Company $1. 1853.
Below: Winsboro, South Carolina. Planters Bank of Fairfield $5. 1855.
While the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, she did not design the banknotes of the 19th century that portrayed woman as “temptress, saint, and helpmeet.”  By the 1830s, women had been astronomers, mathematicians, even pirates, but we do not meet any of them on banknotes, which, like many women themselves, were considered the property of men. The deeper problem of portraying "woman as..." would not have been understood.

Nonetheless, here is a deep treasury of images narrated by a person whom it is easy to nominate as America’s leading scholar of money.  In 2011, Richard Doty received the Huntington Award of the American Numismatic Society “in recognition of outstanding career contributions to numismatic scholarship.” 


Wednesday, January 1, 2014


William Smith (1769 – 1839) drew the first geological maps of England. He was born into a culture that was certain that the world had been created at 9:00 AM on Monday, October 23, 4004 BC.  He died twenty years before The Origin of Species was published.  Yet, he invented the predictive science of geology by marking time with fossils.  In the hour of his success, his work was stolen shamelessly by the gentlemen of the Geological Society.  He was forced into debtor’s prison and spent 20 years homeless, working as best he could in the rural countrysides and counties far from London.

William Smith’s father was a blacksmith and so his formal education was minimal. But he was determined to make something of himself; and by 1794, he worked as a surveyor for the construction of canals.  Eventually and soon he was recognized as the man who could solve practical problems in draining farm fields and predicting where profitable coal fields were to be found.  He recorded his daily work in a continuous multi-volume journal. 

Those notes let him create a series of huge colored maps showing the rocks and strata of England.  (He eventually included more of Britain.)  The keys to his work are two interlocking discoveries.  First, the rock strata are uniform.  Everywhere the strata are the same. Even if some (unknown) process or force (apparently) has displaced or tilted the layers, they can be logically reconstructed into a continuity.  Second, while sandstones and marls and limestones and all the others are to be found repetitively layer upon layer in succession they can be differentiated one from another by the fossils within them. No identical fossil forms ever appear in two different layers of the same kind of rock.  Simpler forms of the same animals are found lower down. 

We know now that cycles running millions of years repeatedly created land, drowned it, and then lifted it up, separating some plates as others collided.  Smith knew nothing of that; and neither did anyone else.  The dilettante gentlemen who robbed Smith of his creation debated whether all rocks precipitated from the ocean or whether all rocks were born of volcanoes.  Anything more complex was beyond their range.  Smith, however, was not at all a British Empiricist.  The men who stole his work were.  Their chief, George Bellas Greenough, denied the validity of theory.  But Smith’s work depended on it. The gentlemen of the Geologic Society attempted to produce their own map (from Smith’s work) without theory, and failed.  They had to admit to the correctness of Smith’s method, as well as to the value of his labors.

Simon Winchester’s biography of William Smith takes you into the fields of England.  He stops to explore and explain.  His college degree from St. Catherine’s Oxford is in geology.  However, after exploring Greenland, among other adventures, most of his career has been in journalism.  (His website here.) Winchester has several popular books to his credit. I read The Professor and the Madman about the Oxford English Dictionary over a decade ago.  His most recent book is The Men who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.