Executives find relief from post-Enron funk in 'Atlas'
By Del Jones
In these post-Enron days of corporate scandal, some of the millions of copies of "Atlas Shrugged" that have been sold over 45 years are being dusted off by executives under siege by prosecutors, regulators, Congress, employees, investors, a Republican president, even terrorists.
Executive headhunter Jeffrey Christian says many of his clients are rereading the 1,075-page novel to remind themselves that self-interest is not only the right thing to do from an economic standpoint but is moral, as well.
CEOs put the book down knowing in their hearts that they are not the greedy crooks they are portrayed to be but are achievers who do far more to lift the world's standard of living, cure disease and end starvation than Mother Teresa and altruists who believe a full life requires self-sacrifice and serving the needs of others.
The Atlas Society, devoted to "Atlas Shrugged," "The Fountainhead" and other fiction by Ayn Rand, saw Web site visits suddenly double to 23,000 a month this summer after holding steady for years at 10,000 to 12,000. Traffic started creeping up in January and February as the Enron scandal blossomed. The Objectivist Center, which focuses on the philosophy spawned by the books, saw user visits rise 159 percent to 78,397 in August 2002 from 30,247 in August 2001.
Book sales, while still remarkable for a novel published in 1957 and written during the early years of the Cold War, have not seen a significant spike this year, says publisher Penguin Putnam. And "Atlas Shrugged" ranked No. 429 on Amazon.com June through August this year, but some weeks it threatens to crack the Top 100 among more than 2 million listed.
Every month or so, a group of 15 or 20 Kansas City CEOs get together to share advice and corporate war stories. It's nothing like a book club, but membership requires a working knowledge of the novel.
These aren't executives who rose through the corporate bureaucracy but are out of the Bill Gates mold and sit atop companies they built. The premise of the book is that such innovators become so fed up with the "moochers" who regulate, tax and otherwise feed off of those who achieve, that the achievers go on strike. They withdraw their talents from the world, threatening to send it back toward the Dark Ages.
After Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and other scandals that have created a public backlash against industry and its captains, the Kansas City group has fantasized of a modern-day strike of thinkers and creators, says Neal Patterson, a group member and CEO of Cerner, a big health care information technology company.
"We are the producers of society," says Will Koch, CEO of a development company that owns the Holiday World & Splashin' Safari theme park in Santa Claus, Ind. "We take resources that would be idle and put people to work."
"Atlas Shrugged" fans note that they despise any illegal behavior. Fighting crime, foreign invasion and protecting property rights are the legitimate functions of government, and they welcome jail terms for white-collar criminals, says Ed Snider, chairman of the Philadelphia sports teams Flyers and 76ers and an "Atlas Shrugged" devotee. Indeed, Rand wrote: "Neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud."
But instead of punishing the guilty, executives say that recent scandals have unleashed an executive witch hunt.
"Business is an available scapegoat," says Frank Bond, founder of Holiday Health Spas, now Bally's, and a developer and manager of real estate, an industry that he says is overtaxed and "regulated to death."
If you're looking to attack a group of people and still be politically correct, executives are about your last target, says Bond, who has read the book twice.
"They're going after all CEOs, capitalism itself," says John Aglialoro, CEO of Cybex International, a producer of exercise equipment.
"Atlas Shrugged" reads like a mystery that takes readers from a steel mill to high society and includes a strong female character in Dagny Taggart, a top executive ahead of her time. Critics consider "The Fountainhead" to be Rand's better work of literature.
But "Atlas Shrugged" is more point blank with Rand's philosophy. It is the second-most-influential book of all time, a distant second to the Bible, according to a survey of 5,000 Book of the Month Club members taken a decade ago by for the Library of Congress. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a friend of Ayn (pronounced EYE-n) Rand's before her death in 1982, is among its best-known proponents.
Greenspan declined comment for this story.
Rand, a Russian immigrant to the United States in 1926 at the age of 21, spent much of her career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. She quit writing fiction after "Atlas Shrugged," spending the rest of her life promoting the objectivist philosophy.
Many business leaders say "Atlas Shrugged" influenced their lives more than anything they have read. Joe Stafford, the 40-year-old CEO of supply chain management company IC Solutions, said he was a liberal before reading Rand at 23. Chip Joyce, the 31-year-old president of Ulla Bazant, a maker of high-end women's apparel, says the book has been his "frame of reference."
Or is it far-out idealism?
Others see it as pie in the sky. "Ayn Rand creates a perfect capitalism, which in my mind relies too heavily on individual integrity to work," says Nicolas Boillot, president of ad agency Hart-Boillot. "There are those who are looking for a quick buck and willing to compromise their integrity for a price. Perfect capitalism is as attractive and impossible as perfect communism. The greedy and lazy will ruin either system for the rest."
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Leadership Institute at Yale University, said executives who take refuge in the capitalist utopia of "Atlas Shrugged" are "reading themselves into a trance of defensive self-delusion."
He says great American industrialists were in fact community-minded going back to the pioneer frontiersmen who circled their wagons and built barns together. The philosophy of "Atlas Shrugged" does not explain successful CEOs such as Milton Hershey, who during the Depression provided employees of his chocolate company with free medical care and paid off the mortgage of every church in town, Sonnenfeld says.
"Ayn Rand did not anticipate CEOs who would loot their firms for hundreds of millions of dollars before bankrupting them," Sonnenfeld says. Rand, the screenwriter, "should have written less and watched more Frank Capra to better understand the real values of her new adopted country."