Friday, June 15, 2012

Ayn Rand on unemployment

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

I have been inspired by the idea of a "calling," the old notion that we are called to a particular vocation or profession as if by divine guidance from deep within our souls.

I guess this is why one of my favorite literary characters is Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect who chooses work as a laborer in a stone quarry rather than alter his modernist designs to please a very wealthy and manipulative client.

Roark, the protagonist of the 1943 novel "The Fountainhead," chooses to toil in dusty obscurity until he gets another opportunity to spring his design masterpiece upon the world. He is beset again and again by people who assume they have the power to buy him out or thwart his idealism.

When I read the novel in 1982, I was not told that it carried a Trojan horse pill of American conservative idealism. I just thought it was cool that Roark stuck to his guns and didn't mind rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty when things didn't work out.

Roark is rumored to be based on the real-life architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Rand and her Objectivist philosophy have become a major influence of libertarians and conservatives. As a Russian émigré fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, Rand reacted strongly in her writing against religious "mysticism" and state control, and in favor of laissez-faire capitalism.

But what if Rand's hero had instead left the quarry and applied for food stamps and unemployment insurance while looking for a job more befitting of his professional training? Well, for one thing, he probably would not have wound up slapped in the face with a riding crop by a mounted heiress on a dirt road, an event that marked the beginning of the romantic drama in the novel.

But perhaps more importantly, Roark may have more readily put his talents to good use. According to groundbreaking new research by Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty, such a move may also benefit society in general, especially during extended economic recessions like that of the present.

To think of Howard Roark on unemployment, surfing at the public library, would no doubt give Rand fits, but Chetty, 32, the youngest tenured economics professor at Harvard, has made a case for extending unemployment benefits during the current recession. Chetty says it makes sense for trained professionals to take time to find the right job, rather than jump at the first opportunity for work.

Rand likley would have chastened Chetty for taking the wind out of Roark's sails, quashing his human spirit and spoiling him with socialism, but Chetty comes from no such premise. His father, V. K. Chetty, was an economic adviser to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, helping her privatize the government-run cement industry as India's economy began to make the transition from socialism to free-market capitalism.

Using unusually complicated mathematical formulas and naturally occurring economic experiments in Austria, Chetty Jr. showed that even in normal times, the benefits of unemployment insurance are high relative to work-disincentive costs. He showed that these benefits are increased during long recessions and periods of long-term unemployment due to the secondary risks of depleted assets, foreclosures and potential collapses of credit markets.

Howard Roark may not have been ruined had he received a hand up when he needed it most. It may have also helped the rest of the economy get on its feet.

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