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Capital Shrugged

LOS ANGELES – Capitalism’s greatest strength has been its resiliency – its ability to survive the throes and challenges of crises and business cycles to fuel innovation and economic growth. Today, however, more than four years into a credit crisis, a conspicuous enigma calls this legacy into question.

Despite recent hopes of recovery in the US, including an inventory catch-up in the fourth quarter of 2011, real US GDP growth has remained persistently below trend. Moreover, although seasonally adjusted January employment data have brought the unemployment rate down to 8.3% (while total jobs were actually lost in January), the more realistic rate of “underemployment” remains over 15% and the labor-force participation rate is at a record 30-year low. And the US is clearly not alone in its malaise, with the eurozone fighting a far more urgent sovereign-debt crisis.

So, why is this time different? The answer lies in Ayn Rand’s rhetorical invocation of despair in her 1957 epic Atlas Shrugged: “Who is John Galt?” Simply put, when the state seizes the incentives and drivers of capital investment, owners of capital go on strike.

Rand portrays innovative industrialists as akin to Atlas in Greek mythology, carrying on his back a dystopian world of growing and overbearing collectivist government. The hero, John Galt, calls for them all to shrug, to “stop the motor of the world” by withdrawing from their productive pursuits, rather than promoting a world in which, under the guise of egalitarianism, incentives have been usurped in order to protect the politically connected from economic failure.