The Long View 2007-03-06: Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

I will admit that I went through an Ayn Rand phase when I was young. Here a repeat of the best thing I ever said on the subject:

I like the late 90s idea that devotees of Ayn Rand might prove to be unusually resistant to the false religion of the Antichrist, because of how sweetly naive it is. Rand built up a formidable cult of personality around herself that is probably only limited by intentional eschewing of religious elements. Thank God.

I have some inkling of this, because I too felt the siren call of Rand's individualist philosophy as a teenager. The scholarship programs aimed at high school students that encourage them to read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are persuasive genius. Intelligent high school students are the perfect targets for this kind of thing. Some small percentage are probably hooked forever.

As a teenager, I read everything I could find by and about Rand. And then I discovered how weird she really was. The best story [recounted by Greg Cochran in his recent interview] is how her adulterous lover Nathaniel Branden decided to end the affair they had been carrying on and marry a normal woman. In response, Rand required all remaining members of her inner circle [including future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan] to denounce Branden, and forsake all future association with him.

That incident, above all else, helped me see how batty it all was. I also fondly remember my parents, sweetly pooh-poohing this bosh.

Which is just as well. I think the Objectivists are about as likely to end the world as anyone.

This line from John J. Reilly recapitulates my opinions on writing:

Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

Various Book Reviews, and That Cranky Spengler

Yes, it does seem like 50 years since Atlas Shrugged was published, for the excellent reason that 50 years seems like just enough time to read a book that long. In any case, Mark Skousen of the Christian Science Monitor has some useful comments about the great anniversary:

NEW YORK - When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans...Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset.

Skousen says in that piece that "children do not appear" in Rand's world of Objectivist Capitalism. That's not quite true: I seem to recall that one of John Galt's colleagues, the Norwegian one, is described as having two kids. Nonetheless, Skousen does have a point if he means that Objectivism does not do a particularly good job of connecting the present to the future. The philosophy would work best for a race of immortals, which I suppose explains the Randian streak in Transhumanism.

Something else that I would argue Atlas Shrugged does not do particularly well is critique totalitarianism, or even describe it. The book is about the implosion of the welfare state, but a welfare state with no particular ideology, and certainly without any ideological connection to developments abroad. Atlas Shrugged is devoid of geopolitics. In the Objectivist perspective, perhaps, war is just another form of socialism. A military might exist in Rand's capitalist utopia, but as an anomaly: its ethos could have nothing to do with the larger society.

George Bush is by no means a Randian, but perhaps it is not an accident that his Administration's War on terror, especially in Iraq, has always been just such an anomaly in the context of his fiscal and immigration policies.

* * *

Asia Times Spengler also faults President Bush, this time for failing to coordinate the different branches of his foreign policy, as we see here:

Washington had the opportunity at the turn of 2007 to isolate and neutralize the Mahmud Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, but through stupidity and arrogance has made war the most probable outcome.

Misreading Russia...may have been the irreparable blunder. Meddling in the Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prompt Russia to step on Washington's toes in the one place that hurts, namely West Asia...[T]his has an unintended consequence: it has led Iran to believe that without Russian support, the United States will be isolated and impotent to act against it. That is not true, for the US can and will act to forefend a nuclear-armed Iran, alone if need be.

For myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone could perceive NATO as threatening, though its expansion to the east does diminish Russia's ability to make costless threats to the rim of states on its western border. Russia's unhelpfulness with regard to Iran is, perhaps, overdetermined by many other considerations. I rather doubt that the Russian government is any better than the US at coordinating policy in Europe and the Near East.

* * *

There is another early online review (in addition to my own) of John Crowley's Endless Things, this one by Kestrell Rath at Green Man Review. Yes, that review is favorable, too, but perhaps more appreciative than I am of the complex structure of the tetralogy. Rugs should be richly textured; prose should be lucid.

* * *

Here is a brief reply to all reviewers, offered by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion:

In the BBC TV adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ 1986 novel The Old Devils, John Stride gives a gleeful, roaring performance as Alun Weaver, a celebrity novelist and professional Welshman recently returned from London to his native clime. There’s a scene set at a book-signing for mostly effusive customers, to whom Weaver responds with a glance up from the table and some labored demurring: “No, no, you are too kind. This is mere hack work.”

And then an intense young man appears. “I’m a great fan,” he begins, “but I didn’t think this book quite captured the lyrical freshness of Mumbles Boy.”

There is the briefest of pauses, just time for a malicious smile from the novelist. “Why, thank you very much,” he replies. “And what on earth makes you think I’m interested in the opinion of young shags like you? Bugger off now, and a very good afternoon to you.”

A word to the wise: it is best to devise comebacks to remarks like that before they happen.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-04-18: Omens: Libertarian & Papal

This seems like a good opportunity to link to this week's most striking graph. The libertarian corner is almost wholly unoccupied by actual voters, but it figures heavily among the intelligensia and the ruling class.

Omens: Libertarian & Papal


People looking for bad omens were no doubt pleased by Jeffrey Rosen's piece in yesterday's New York Times MagazineThe Unregulated Offensive. The piece dealt with the well-funded libertarian movement, sometimes called "The Constitution in Exile," aimed at reviving all the "substantive due-process" jurisprudence that the Supreme Court was forced to abandon in the 1930s under pressure from the Roosevelt Administration. When I was in law school, the general consensus was that substantive due process was perhaps the stupidest thing the Supreme Court ever did. Based on little more than its own imagination, the Court used the power of judicial review to strike down laws governing wages and work hours, the protection of endangered species, and pretty much everything else that 20th-century states did in peacetime. Oliver Wendell Holmes was not keen on much of that social-welfare legislation himself, but he forcefully reminded his colleagues on the Court, in a long line of ringing dissents, that their economic and social theories were not in the constitution, and that there would be no end of trouble if the Court pretended they were.

What we have here is yet another instance in which the Right has become as unprincipled as the Left. We should note that the current libertarian project is beyond even the widest definition of conservative. Justice Scalia, whose views on the welfare state are not so different from Holmes's, has said that the libertarians are asking the courts to embrace the sort of judicial overreaching that he has been arguing against for his whole career. Rosen is of similar mind:

But a political transformation in [the libertarians'] favor remains, for the moment, remote, and they appear content, even eager, to turn to the courts to win the victories that are eluding them in the political arena. Advocates of the movement are entirely sincere in their belief that the regulatory state is unconstitutional as well as immoral and that a principled reading of the Constitution requires vigorous enforcement of fundamental limits on state power. Nevertheless, it is a troubling paradox that conservatives, who continue to denounce liberals for using courts to thwart the will of the people in cases involving abortion and gay marriage, now appear to be succumbing to precisely the same temptation. If the lessons of the past 60 years teach us anything, when judges try to short-circuit intensely contested democratic debates, from the New Deal cases to Roe v. Wade, they may provoke a fierce political backlash that sets back the movement they are trying to advance. In this sense, even if the Constitution in Exile movement manages to transform the courts before it has transformed the country, it may find that it has won less than it hoped.

Let me make the last point explicit: The power of constitutional judicial review may or may not survive the morbid insistence of the cultural Left on maintaining the autonomy right of the Griswald-Roe-Casey decisions. Should the Supreme Court begin to strike down economic legislation as it did before 1937, the Court's jurisdiction will be quickly and radically reduced.

* * *

On the subject of bad omens, rarely have we seen such a motley collection of them as in the NBC miniseries, Revelations. The Bible does give signs of the apocalypse, but the writers for the series seem to have found theirs in The National Inquirer. Actually, if you are interested in some popular apocalyptic sign-spotting, and don't mind anti-Catholic polemics, you might take a look at Endtime Insights. Better still, go to Carolin Esser's Apocalyptic Ideas in Old English Literature. The gallery will be of interest to those readers looking for graphics to incorporate into really alarming greeting cards.

* * *

I have read quite a bit of John Paul II's writings. The content was important, even dramatic, but there was something about the "voice" of this prose I could never quite put my finger on. Had the text been part of a novel, it would have been more like an explanation by an omniscient narrator rather than the thoughts of a character. Now Joseph Bottom, who has lately risen to the dizzy eminence of editor at First Things, has also noticed something of the sort. Writing in The Weekly Standard (April 18), he says:

"We have millions of words from the man: the 14 major encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, and 45 apostolic letters; the popular books like Crossing the Threshold of Hope, scribbled on yellow pads during long plane flights; the scholarly works he wrote as a young theologian; the thousands of prayers and exhortations he delivered during the innumerable audiences he tirelessly gave as pope. And in all those words, there is hardly a hint of what a psychologist would demand: a persona that somehow stands apart from the history through which he lived and the intellectual growth he experienced.

Something else: JPII was often conciliatory, but never defensive. Perhaps only John XXIII had as little use as John Paul II for the Church's post-revolutionary defensive crouch of the last two centuries.

* * *

There will probably be a new pope by the time you read this. Here are a few quickly falsifiable predictions:

---Although a new pope often takes the name of his immediate predecessor, there does not seem to be a single case in which the same name was used by three popes in a row. So, the odds are that there will be a revival of an earlier name. "Pius" is a possibility, but a pope who declared himself Pius XIII would begin his reign with a lot of unnecessary baggage. I suggest that another Gregory might be in order; the last one was in the 19th century. Such a name would recall Gregory the Great, who founded Christendom, and Gregory XIII, who sponsored the reform of the calendar.

---The last two papal conclaves were very quick, just a day or two. Within the confines of orthodox thought, as distinguished from what the newspaper editorialists are saying, there is actually rather less to discuss this time around. It would be surprising if this conclave lasted past midweek.

----Again, the chief argument against Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope Gregory XVII by noon on Wednesday is that so many people are on record as predicting just that (well, not the Gregory part). Neither the College of Cardinals nor the Holy Spirit like to be told what to do.

Whatever does happen, we may be sure that we will never see the like of Pope Hilarius (461-468) again. Well, relatively sure.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Downsizing Is Easy; Government Is Hard

When I turned 18, I registered as a libertarian. Then I found out how weird most libertarians are, and I switched back to mainstream American politics. Joking aside, a big philosophical difference that I have with libertarianism is the idea that government, as such, is evil. This is an idea with a long pedigree in American politics, and lots of examples. The kind of governments that really took this idea to heart are known mostly for the poverty of their citizens and the corruption of their civil servants.

A libertarian critique of the wastefulness and inefficiency of government is often on point. The failure of the FAA Advanced Automation System that John discusses here is an excellent example. The challenge is that libertarian solutions have been tried, and found wanting. Privatizing the FAA, or at least it's air traffic control function, probably would work. But there isn't any reason to think that would have made the development of satellite based air traffic control any faster. 

Downsizing Is Easy; Government Is Hard


Why We Failed to Upgrade the Air Traffic Control System

In this campaign year of 1996, the airwaves and the newspapers are full of criticisms of big government and promises to return power to the people and to the states. Since the downfall of the Nixon Administration, American politics has been increasingly dominated by the theme that government itself is an evil. Responding simply to the polls, politicians echo what people say about the corruption and incompetence of public officials, even while seeking to occupy public offices themselves. Almost the only changes they can bring themselves to recommend are to make the organs of civil government smaller, more cautious, less able to affect the lives of ordinary citizens. Apparently, the chief duty of public officials is to restrain the ferocious ambitions of government bureaus, especially on the federal level.

This state of mind is lunacy. The chief responsibility of public officials is to govern. Government is hard. It requires the full attention of very smart people just to maintain those functions of the state that are necessary for civilized life. When officials are concentrating on something else, whether their own careers or some ideological nostrum, then the streets are not fixed, kids are not taught to read, and the country loses control of its borders. On the federal level in recent years, the textbook case of disaster-through- inattention was the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s. The cause was simple. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation continued to insure the deposits at savings-and-loans as it always had, but it stopped doing serious inspections of the savings- and-loans to see if they merited the insurance. All the FSLIC had to do was maintain the inspection standards it had maintained for fifty years. The minds of the agency and of Congress were elsewhere, however, and the inevitable happened.

Now it seems that we have another scandal fit to set beside S&L Hell. The effort to create a new air traffic control system, called the Advanced Automation System, lasted 15 years and was originally supposed to be completed in 1990 at a cost of $3.6 billion. It was cancelled two years ago. It wasted half-a-billion dollars without improving the existing system. Now the FAA is working on a more modest upgrade for only $898 million, which it hopes to begin in 1998. This project is supposed to be on schedule. It, too, is an outrage. The problem with planning to simply upgrade the existing air traffic control system is that the one we have now is fundamentally obsolete. The matter goes beyond the old hardware and software. The system is based on controllers passing off aircraft from one imaginary point to another, following a system of radio beacons that goes back to 1941. Today, of course, when you can tell where you are to within a few meters by using the satellite technology of the Global Positioning System, there is no need for this clumsy relay. The upgrade now in the works makes no provision for this technology, though it might be adapted to use it in the future.

How did this Third World humiliation come about? Most of the information for this piece comes from a story by Matthew Wald that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on January 29, 1996. He proposes various causes, from the Reagan Administration's profligate ways with research and development money in the era of Stars Wars to the FAA's unrealistic safety requirements. However, it seems to me that the most important cause is more basic and more frightening. It increasingly menaces the legitimacy of our public institutions. The problem is that our elected officials have lost the ability to discern the core functions of government, the ones that must be maintained at all costs. They have lost the ability to discern these vital functions because the people who elect them have lost this ability, too.

The impetus to begin the overhaul of the air traffic control system was the air controllers strike of 1981. The controllers themselves were striking in part because even then they knew the system was inadequate to the demands placed upon it. In any event, the strike converted the FAA to the need for a more highly automated system, one that would be less vulnerable to walkouts. Most important of all, the explosion of air travel that accompanied deregulation clearly required a fundamental upgrade in the system.

Now think about this. The basic predicate of everything else the FAA might hope to accomplish is reliable air traffic control. There is no function, none at all, more central to the FAA's mission. However, having decided in 1982 to build an improved system, the FAA still managed to take until 1988 to choose a contractor for the software (the heart of the project) and to write the specifications. After all that effort, they chose IBM. This was like pouring over a menu at an ice cream parlor for fifteen minutes and then ordering vanilla.

You might think that control of the FAA would rank in importance with the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve or the directorship of the FBI in terms of the attention it receives from Congress and the President. It is a job that deals with life and death issues in an industry that just about everybody has contact with at least a few times a year. This sort of job needs incumbents who serve for long terms so they can attend to long-term policy. This is not the case with the Administrator of the FAA. Since the Administrator who began the Advanced Automation System project left office in 1984 until the current Administrator, David Hinson, killed it two years ago, the office has had three other occupants. It was also vacant for twenty months. This is the sort of indifference that make-weight jobs like Surgeon General get.

Political attention at the level of long-term policy is necessary for an important organ of government, because it lets the bureaucracy know what is politically possible. The staff at the FAA has not had this advantage, to the cost of us all. The original plan of the Advanced Automation System was to consolidate the controllers in its 250 Terminal Radar Control facilities, called "tracons," into 20 major control centers. This would have required not just new hardware but a dramatically increased level of computing power, since the enhanced control centers would have far more work do. Long after the project was underway, the FAA realized that consolidation of this sort was as politically difficult as closing an Army base; no member of Congress likes to have a federal facility closed in the home district. So the FAA told IBM to forget about the consolidation. The current upgrade plans involve only the control centers. This decision, of course, had the incidental effect of making the years of work already done largely irrelevant.

We know that it is possible to do complicated research and development in a reasonable period of time and at a predictable cost. While IBM was working simply on its proposal for the Advanced Automation System, for instance, Apple Computer conceived, developed and marketed the Mac, operating system and all. In times past, the government too knew how to coax good research and development from contractors. A good example is the contract that the Army made with the Wright brothers in the early years of this century to develop a spotter plane. It had few specifications. The ones it did have were enforceable and made perfect sense, such as that the machine had to be operable by a person of normal intelligence. The contract came to under ten pages.

The contract between the Department of Translocation and IBM for the new air traffic control software, in contrast, ran to hundreds of pages. Not only was it the longest contract in the DOT's experience, it was the longest in IBM's. Now, as anyone knows who has ever dealt with a complicated set of rules, the more rules you have, the more likely you are to overlook the important ones. The FAA, for instance, wanted the software to be upgradable while the system was in use. This requirement ("continuous operation") was perhaps implicit in the specifications. Unfortunately, nowhere in the hundreds of pages did it ever actually state this requirement. IBM had been working on the project for years before the engineers became aware of the requirement, which meant that hundreds of millions of dollars of programming they had already done had to be redone. By the early 1990s, confusion like this was putting the project's completion date back three and a half months for every month that passed. A new system was receding into the infinite future.

The Advanced Automation System suffered from that peculiar form of dissociation from reality which seems to happen only when lawyers try to tell engineers what to do. According to an one engineer working with the FAA, some of the specifications in the contract may have violated the laws of physics. The FAA asked for a system that was 99.99999% reliable. This is the actual figure; it would have meant a system that malfunctioned only about three seconds a year. Every further increment of reliability, of course, is harder to achieve than the one before. When you are talking about five decimal places, you are talking about spending an immense amount of effort (and money) to achieve almost nothing. As it happened, nothing was what the programmers achieved.

A report by independent consultants, the CNA Corporation, also lays a large share of the blame on IBM itself. The project involved dozens of programmers, whose work IBM made little effort to coordinate. (Despite the length of the contract, no one seems to have given much thought to compensating IBM in such a way that it would have been in the company's interest to spot problems beforehand.) IBM has great strengths in the design both of hardware and software, but they are not necessarily the first company you would think of if you wanted software that would have to be used by exhausted people in stressful situations. The software engineers seem at every stage to have had little interest in making the control interfaces user friendly. The flight controllers wanted to be able to move images and information around on their screens with a recessed button. IBM wanted them to type code. This is a perfect example of what is known as "corporate culture."

The National Transportation Safety Board recently affirmed that the current air traffic control system is safe, but acknowledged that the system is increasingly prone to delay. The major airlines say these delays cost them around $5 billion a year. As we have seen, there are no plans to build an up-to-date system. The best we might hope for, a few years for now, is a system that is obsolete but not actually made of junk.

The problem with the air traffic control system is not big government, over-regulation or the need for privatization. One might be forgiven for suspecting that a privatized FAA would work about as well as the Post Office and Amtrak, both of which are run by semi- independent corporations. In fact, privatizing the FAA would be just the sort of phony solution that has come to substitute for competent administration since the 1970s. Sometimes in some situations we need smaller government. What we need now is ordinary good government.


This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Business Travel Executive magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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Bioshock Videogame Review

2K Games
PC, XBOX 360, PS3

Caution: This review contains difficult themes and spoilers.

If I could choose one word to describe Bioshock, it would be disturbing. I mean that very deliberately. After I finished playing the game for the first time, I actually felt kind of dirty. By this, I don't mean that the game actively promoted violence or that it is going to turn children into homicidal maniacs. I simply mean that it protrayed an awful situation with frankness and fidelity, and I found that the experience was sufficiently real that I felt a little ill. There was nothing cartoony about it, just gritty realism. Not all 'M' ratings are created equal; Bioshock deserved it's rating. That being so, if I had kids, I would not let them play this game. Half-Life 2 has an M, but I would let a 16-year-old play that game. The minimum age for this game might well be 25.

Let me back up. Bioshock is a first person shooter (FPS), a genre of which I have played a great deal. In fact, I have probably wasted enough time on first person shooters to cure cancer or discover cold fusion. As game types go, this kind often relies on fast reflexes and makes for a particularly immersive experience, since the game attempts to show everything exactly as the character sees it. Bioshock is an FPS that eschews cut-scenes entirely, in favor of maintaining the illusion. Like Half-Life, the protagonist also never speaks, unless one counts grunts of pain. In this game, this technique works well, because Bioshock also allows you to choose your path. Cut-scenes with dialogue would make this more tricky. Jack's silence is your freedom.

Bioshock begins in media res, with a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic. Jack, our point of view for the game, surfaces near the entrance to Rapture, a city built far beneath the sea. Rapture is strikingly beautiful. Despite the game being set in 1960, Rapture is constructed in an Art Nouveau or Art Deco style throughout. This style fits the city, and the story, perfectly. Part of the reason may be the creator of Rapture, Andrew Ryan. Ryan is pretty clearly intended to be the archetype of the kind of character Ayn Rand created for her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. When you are descending to the seafloor to enter the city, a video is played for you in which Ryan explains why he created a city on the bottom of the sea. He wanted to be free of the artificial constraints imposed by governments and religions, so he fled beyond their influence, in order to create a city where a man truly earns his bread by the sweat of his brow. This brief video is masterfully done, and it encapsulates the perennial appeal of Rand's work. "No Gods, No Kings, Only Man."

By one of those strange coincidences, shortly after I played this game some spirited discussion of Rand's life and work appeared on websites I frequent, providing plentiful fodder for this review. I take Bioshock to be a fictional commentary on the kind of world that would result from a serious attempt to create a new society on Objectivist principles. I actually read a plot synopsis that insisted that this could not possibly be the case, because things occured in Rapture that were not in accord with Objectivist principles. I take this objection as seriously as the one that claimed that the USSR had nothing to do with real Communism, because real Communism was never implemented there. Bioshock asks a much more interesting question, which is what would happen if we tried to follow Ayn Rand's ideas given the way that we actually are?

Bioshock's answer is: straight into the Hell Rand did not believe in. This becomes apparent as soon as you step out of the bathysphere. You see a deserted and devastated city, littered with placards of protest and the detritus of street fighting. Just exactly what happened here is something that only gradually becomes clear. Much of the story of the game is told by means of audio diaries that lie scattered around the city. By means of these diaries, the city's swift descent into madness is chronicled from the points of view of a small cast of major players, plus a few random souls who found themselves trapped as the situation deteriorated. Rapture actually ran well for over a decade. Ryan completed the city shortly after the Second World War. For a time, everything worked as planned. Ryan attracted the best and brightest the world had to offer. Science in particular benefitted from the freedom of Rapture. Genetics was advanced to a level where new abilities could be purchased from a vending machine. Unimaginable wealth and power were available to the gifted.

However, there was one small problem. What about everyone else? Even in Rapture, some people were smarter than others. This is a difficulty for Rand. Her supermen are often generous, such as Ragnar the pirate. However, there really is no good reason for them to support the truly pitiful and worthless, given that while Rand repeats Kant's dictum that every person be treated as an end, not a means, that does not mean for Rand that they have a claim to part of your surplus. As Rapture's other leading industrialist, Frank Fontaine says,

These sad saps. They come to Rapture, thinking they're gonna be captains of industry. But they all forget that somebody's gotta scrub the toilets. What an angle they gave me- I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup, and they give me their lives. Who needs an army when I got Fontaine's Home for the Poor?

This conflict is the proximate cause of the fall of Rapture. The poor and disenfrancised rise up against Ryan, led by a revolutionary named Atlas. This uprising starts on New Year's Eve, thus illustrating a theme of Bioshock not often emphasized: millennialism. New Year's Eve is a symbolic Millennium. On that day, the old year dies, and the rules that normally bind us are temporarily suspended. Thus the custom of wild parties at the end of the year. One of the first places you come across in Rapture is the shattered shell of a nightclub that was bombed that fateful New Year's Eve. Throughout the rest of the game, one finds the some of the few remaining living residents of Rapture still wearing their masks from the party that shattered their world.

Shattered is the only world that can apply, because Rapture never recovered from that day. Complete madness did not set in immediately. For a time, life and business continued as usual. However, Rapture had experienced an introductory apocalypse, and the Millennium was upon them. In the Time of Troubles leading up to the New Year's Eve party, Ryan had eliminated his chief rival, Fontaine, in a fiery shootout. Fontaine's crime was never quite laid out specifically, but one finds crates of Bibles and cruxifixes in Fontaine's businesses and held as evidence in the police station. Whether Fontaine was using religion as a cover or that was actually what he was smuggling is never explained. It may actually be both, since Fontaine was in the business of providing hope to the hopeless, an underserved market in Rapture. Ryan does go to the trouble of crucifying a man caught with Bibles for the benefit of the public, however. After the nightclub bombing, Ryan cracked down on the dissidents, and relegated them to a ghetto. Those who attempted to escape were summarily executed.

This kind of brutality really is directly contrary to what Rand meant, thus seemingly pointing to the conclusion that Rapture really needed more Objectivism, not less. Rand rejected any use of force that was not direct self-defense. However, the problem is that Ryan saw religion as a threat to his Objectivist ideals, and correctly perceived that a religiously grounded public order would mean that Rapture would become like the outside world. Thus religion was in fact a threat to his city, and he responded in kind. Rand never really thought this sort of thing through, because she was not really a rigorous thinker. An imaginative one, to be sure, and very gifted. However, lacking a formal education in philosophy, she never truly engaged the classical tradition she thought she was preserving, or any serious criticism. Rand was as completely modern as the collectivists she fought against, and shared much more with them than with Aristotle.

Ryan's reaction, or over-reaction, to a challenge to the principles of his city is thus clear. But what happened to everyone else? Whatever their initial sympathies in the conflict between Atlas and Ryan, the residents of Rapture eventually simply turned on one another. All throughout the city one finds barricades and spent shells. And bodies. Everywhere. Not simply cut down and left in the streets, but increasingly the violence seems to have turned into depravity, with the citizens of Rapture beginning to prey upon one another because they enjoy it. It is particularly chilling that the medical professions in Rapture were often at the forefront of this switch. That was perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the game: the sheer volume of violent death that was depicted. If you can see that and not feel something, you have no heart.

The genetics research that marked Rapture is the strategic enabling technology in all this. Millennialism by itself is capable of causing things like that happened in Rapture, but part of what makes Millennialism work is that it relies upon the kinds of stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. What was the story of Rapture? Rapture was very much intended to be a fresh start for humanity, free from the influences that had corrupted men on the surface. Thus Rapture was a kind of New Jerusalem, a promised land where all wrongs would be righted. Along with a new heaven and earth comes a new man, the man created by splicing. The powers that were granted by the genetic technology of Rapture increased the power of the citizens, but did not improve their characters. How much easier is it to kill a man when all you have to do is think it? Like the millenarian episode in Münster in 1534-35, without the iron wills at the top enabling all the madness, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots could never have escalated that far.

Some of the scientists who immigrated to Rapture had been employed on all sides of the Second World War, and they used the freedom of Rapture to perfect genetic modification using a substance called 'ADAM' isolated from a sea slug. ADAM makes genes more malleable, allowing greater changes to them than would otherwise be possible. All life on Earth shares a substantial fraction of their genes. Things that work tend to be conserved, because small changes in critical proteins can easily be disastrous. Thus your genes are not designed to be easily malleable. ADAM changes that, but at a price. The use of ADAM allows gene splicing, but also promotes mutations and disfigurement. More ADAM can be used to offset these side-effects, but this quickly leads to a vicious spiral. Thus, everyone in Rapture soon needed ADAM.

ADAM is produced by implanting the sea slugs into little girls, creating a symbiotic bioreactor referred to as a Little Sister. This was another point of contention between Ryan and Fontaine, because Fontaine used his orphanages to produce ADAM, while Ryan produced many of the plasmids and gene tonics that did the actual modifications. Thus, they needed each other, but hated each other. Ryan solved this problem by taking over Fontaine's businesses after he had Fontaine killed. Then Ryan had a complete monopoly. Ryan also turned the conflict between him and Atlas to business purposes, because one of the resident mad scientists discovered that ADAM could be recycled from the dead. Thus Ryan actually benefitted from feeding the conflict in Rapture.

This is where your primary moral dilemma in Rapture arises. When you come to Rapture, the little girls have been freed from their orphanage, but not from bondage, because they are employed by Ryan to harvest ADAM from the casualties of war. However, the girls can be harvested themselves by the depraved citizens, so they are protected by massive armored men, Big Daddies, who accompany them everywhere. In order to protect yourself in Rapture, you must collect ADAM yourself, but the only way to do so is to eliminate the Big Daddies and capture the Little Sister. Then you are presented with a choice, save, or harvest? The maximum amount of ADAM is gained by killing the little girl, but they can actually be freed from their bondage thanks to the efforts of a mad scientist with a guilty conscience.

As it turns out, this is the only choice you really have, because your presence in Rapture is not an accident. Jack turns out to be the child of Andrew Ryan, part of an elaborate plot by Fontaine to kill Andrew Ryan, and take control of Rapture. The same genetic technology that allowed scientists to grant new abilities allowed Fontaine to create a man who could be entirely bent to his will, with the added bonus of growing up very quickly. Jack is the ultimate test tube baby, as well as ultimate weapon. For Andrew Ryan had chosen to key control of the city to his DNA, but didn't bother to make it accurate enough to distinguish between him and close relatives.

Andrew Ryan actually discovers Jack's true provenance before you do, and in a final display of the willfulness that made Rapture come to be, actually uses Jack's conditioning to force you to kill him, telling you, "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" The game is thus clearly structured around the choices that we make, and who that makes us. Surprisingly (for me), this really is not the typical namby-pamby "it is good because you chose it!" kind of thing, but rather a very meaty illustration that you can choose right or wrong, and that if you do choose wrong, what usually happens is that you benefit while someone else suffers. This is told through the fate of the Little Sisters.

You can progress pretty well through the game with either choice, to save the innocents, or to sacrifice them, but the ending makes the personal consequences of evil very clear. You become an unadulterated monster, worse than the men who ruined Rapture. I admired the frankness of this, in many games it is now possible to choose "good" or "evil" but mostly this comes down to what color your hat is rather than some fundamental difference in what it means to be human. Sometimes there is a real "evil" ending, but it more along the lines of saturday morning cartoons than anything interesting. Bioshock was different, and that is why I found it so fascinating.

I saved the little girls.

Images Copyright © 2K Games 2007


Rational Economic Man is a Bastard

Also known as Homo Economicus, rational economic man is the staple of economics, game theory, and libertarian fantasies. And you should be glad you don't know him. Or maybe you do.

Rational economic man, that construct beloved of many economics textbook authors, is hardly a superhero. Indeed, a nontrivial fraction of the population behaving as him can seriously weaken a number of our social institutions.

For instance, imagine that rational economic man is getting up in years and wants to leave his estate to his heirs, but to avoid all estate taxes and the like. Normally, we don't allow this, imposing a rather stern estate tax on large estates. But rational economic man is clever, and gives not a damn for any transcendent properties of our institutions. So he strategically divorces his wife, strategically marries his granddaughter in law with a clever prenuptial agreement, and then divorces her to remarry his former wife while his grandaughter in law remarries his grandson.


But rational economic man is just getting started. During the real estate boom, he purchased a house valued at 400,000 dollars, taking out a standard 30 year mortgage in a non-recourse state (California of course). Owing to the housing market collapse, his house is now valued at 200,000. Rational economic man therefore stops bothering to send his mortgage checks (which he can still easily afford, as he is RATIONAL economic man, and did not take a mortgage that he couldn't afford). He knows that it'll be upwards of a year before he is foreclosed upon, and might even accept a principal reduction (to 200,000) if such was offered by the lender. He's quite the ruthless borrower. He knows that inside 7 years any damage to his credit rating will be effaced, and rationally values the 200k (and the 12-18 months of rent-free living) more than it.