Friday, March 06, 2009

Go Ahead, Go "Galt"

There's been some buzz recently on the Internets about businessmen, entrepreneurs, and other assorted monied types "going Galt." Jesse Taylor talks about it here, and McArdle (especially her comments boodle) deals with it here.

John Galt, of course, is the jackass from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged who decides to just say "fuck you" to society and its stupid rules and leave it behind, taking all those he refers to as the "productive" people - by which he means inventors, entrepreneurs, executives, etc. - with him. (I haven't read the novel, just the Wikipedia page, so I'm probably oversimplifying here. I'm sure Jacob will correct me sooner or later.)

Of course, the problem with this idea is that it assumes that the upper echelon of society is irreplaceable. That is, if someone who would sell widgets decides to leave society instead, no one will sell widgets. This is foolish - of course someone would end up selling widgets if people wanted to buy widgets. In a society of 300 million people, it's somewhat fallacious to assume that profitable market niches would go unfilled because someone decides to abandon said niche.

As for inventors - if Edison hadn't invented the light bulb, do you honestly think we wouldn't have incandescent light right now? Of course we would. Someone else would have come up with the idea. If Bell hadn't invented the telephone, Gray still would have done so. If Google didn't exist, Yahoo would be dominating the internet advertising market (possibly with a slightly different algorithm, but whatever).

Put differently: what do you suppose would happen if, say, upper management of Google were to bail en masse? Here's what would happen - middle management would start running the company. And current programmers (and a few MBAs from outside) would become middle management. And Google would hire a bunch of programmers. The pyramid would remain in place - there would just be a change of cast.

So you know what? If you top-dogs want to "go Galt," that's fine by me. Get your bitter asses outta here. You leave, and someone else will gladly take your job. And someone will take that person's job. And someone who's currently unemployed will take their job. In fact, with the labor market as slack as it is, rich people "going Galt" and taking themselves out of the labor market might be the best job creation program of them all!


Mike said...

Actually Jeff, you pretty much got the gist of it. Honestly, as long as "going Galt" doesn't mean they will at one point take over all broadcast media and launch into an interminable speech about the evils of society that takes me about two weeks to get through, then yeah, I agree with you.

Jacob said...

You get the plot basically correct but you sort of miss the point. The strike is meant to be overly dramatic and unrealistic; it's purpose is to call attention to the virtues of innovation and business and detail (rather keenly) the way politicians and regulators ineptly respond to crisis. In the real world the differences aren't nearly as stark, but that doesn't mean Rand's perspective is worthless.

You're also being a bit cavalier about losing talent. Economic gains, like compound interest, are more than cumulative over time. A .5% reduction in the rate of economic growth rate over one year doesn't seem like much; over decades it leaves us substantially worse off. To the extent that current policies reduce the long-term rewards to innovation, this is something that deserves much greater consideration than it's currently being given.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jacob -

Doesn't that assume a limited amount of talent? I think Jeff's point is well made - someone else would have invented the lightbulb, we'd still have the phone, an only slightly different search algorithim would dominated, and we'd be in largely the same place. And who knows, maybe even a better place. The issue isn't incentives and talent. There's plenty of both. The issue is opportunity. If "top talent" disappered, we'd realize that there was plenty of top-level talent that had never been given the opportunity, and, when given that opportunity, they'd run with it, just as their predecessors did, and just as their successors would.

Jeff - fantastic post.

-Dave said...

I think Jacob's point about things compunding over time is important, though. Maybe someone else would have invented the lightbulb, but 5 years later. How dose that shift in the timing of the invention of the bulb affect other discovories and innovations around it?

The point you make is not that the top tier can be replaced with 100% efficiency, which would be plainly false - if everyone at every level is perfectly replaceable, why are people at the level they are at?

Your point is that people are mostly replaceable - but the cumulative effect of those changes becomes more noticeable over time.

In the short term, there's probably little noticeable change. In the long run, I think it's an assumption that simply makes no sense, because small changes in circumstance can add up over time, and to assume then that we'd be right where we are now if the specific innovators of the past hadn't done their thing would be to assume that at every point in inventive history there's been multiple people with the same idea, and only the record-keeping determined who we credit for an invention - that there were, in other words, no uniquely inspired inventions that fundamentally changed our society.

Irreplaceable and imperfectly replaceable are two different things, and the difference is compounded over time.

-Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew B. Novak said...

Dave -

I take your point. If all our top talent went Galt there would be gaps that would then compound over time, and there are certainly uniquely inspired ideas that we would never get.

But there's a very compelling flip side to your point: lots of times "top talent" either incidentally or specifically attempts to keep other top talent from success. One of the most compelling cases is the Tucker auto, which was hugely innovative, but kept from reaching the market by the big 3. Many of those innovations came to grace our cars decades after their introduction. How much better off would we have been if the big 3 had let someone else have the opportunity?

Edison himself was successful in preventing the advance of AC current for several years. Tesla had actually worked for Edison but his ideas had been dismissed and he wasn't given a full chance to utilize his talent. How much better off would we have been if there had never been the "Current wars"?

So your point is certainly valid - "imperfectly replacable" compounds over time. But we don't have any indication that we're dealing with imperfectly replacable. There's just as good a chance that if talent ran off the people who stepped in would come up with better solutions to our problems. Maybe the light bulb built 5 years later would have been superior in every way?

There's just no way of knowing. So the issue isn't whether the people at the top can or cannot be replaced with 100% efficiency. The issue is merely one of opportunity. Who has been given the opportunity to advance/create/invent/succeed, and who's opportunities have been disallowed as a result? The only certainty of top talent "going Galt" is that new people will be given opportunities. I don't see that as a bad thing in itself.

Miguel said...

Interestingly enough, you could apply your theory to some government functions "going galt" as well.

Anonymous said...

Who cares if some MBAs (100% useless) go Galt along with a small number of right leaning doctors (replacable by expert systems and nurses 9 times out of 10) "go Galt".

The more apt literary allusion would be the Golgafringens from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's guide... which BTW is much better sci-fi comedy than Atlas Shrugged ~