What Caused Atlas Shrugged Sales to Soar?

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen sharply this year, and various observers from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Economist have attributed the jump to “uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day,” in the words of ARI’s Yaron Brook. The Economist writes,

Whenever governments intervene in the market, in short, readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social-networking site: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”.

Brook told CNN:

“So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ “

But is this story right? Do news headlines generate book sales? How did people who read about TARP or bank nationalizations know that those events were reminiscent of a novel published in 1957? Maybe their friends told them “It’s just like Atlas Shrugged,” and they ran out and bought the book.

Or maybe something more direct is required. One Atlas Shrugged fan suggested to me that the real boost came in January, with a Wall Street Journal article by my former colleague Stephen Moore. So I decided to investigate, using the sales figures in Nielsen’s Bookscan. And indeed those figures seem to point in a different direction. The boom in sales of Atlas Shrugged really took off in mid-January, after Steve Moore’s essay ”‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years” appeared in the Journal on January 9. Steve wrote:

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957….

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises – that in most cases they themselves created – by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs … and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism….

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas, explains that “the older the book gets, the more timely its message.” He tells me that there are plans to make “Atlas Shrugged” into a major motion picture – it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. “We don’t need to make a movie out of the book,” Mr. Kelley jokes. “We are living it right now.”

Here’s a chart taken from Bookscan’s data on weekly sales of the mass-market paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged:

The sales in late 2008 are very similar to those in 2007, with a Christmas bump that was higher in 2008. But sales started to diverge after January 9, suggesting that it was in fact the Wall Street Journal essay that kicked them into high gear. Then they slowly fell, and then there was an even bigger peak in early March. Why? That’s not so clear. Perhaps it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecy and the accumulating effects of media buzz. ARI put out its press release about soaring sales on February 23, and the Economist picked up the idea five days later, as did many bloggers. Then on March 2 and 5 the popular blogger Michelle Malkin talked about the idea of “Going Galt” – pulling back on work and investment in response to projected tax increases and regulations – in her blog and syndicated column, and the New York Times picked that up. Both Malkin and the Times’s Opinionator blog linked to the original ARI story about soaring sales, giving the idea further legs, and the Freakonomics blog picked up the Economist’s story. On March 14 the Wall Street Journal ran another op-ed on the contemporary relevance of Atlas Shrugged, this one by Yaron Brook. There’s a reason that publishers put “bestseller” on their book covers – people like to read what other people are reading. And there’s no question that once this media buzz got started, the sales have remained much higher than last year.

It seems that Greenspan, Bernanke, Fannie, Freddie, Barney Frank, Bush, Paulson, Geithner, and Obama all created the objective conditions for an Atlas Shrugged sales bump, but it took Steve Moore and subsequent commentators to create the “subjective conditions” – actually talking about the relationship of Atlas Shrugged to political and economic events – to set off the actual boom.

Two other minor points: The weekly sales in late 2007 were somewhat higher than in late 2006. So if you think, as the Economist suggests, that sales of Atlas Shrugged in the United States were pushed up by the British bailout of Northern Rock and the U.S. Treasury’s pressure on banks to assist subprime borrowers, then maybe the 2007 sales figures were already reflecting the impact of economic policy events. But the total sales in 2007 were barely ahead of 2006, and obviously the real jump has come this year.

Second, the bestselling edition of Atlas Shrugged is the mass-market paperback, which is of course the cheapest. That’s the edition whose sales are tracked in the chart. But the bestselling edition on Amazon is the more expensive trade paperback, which is the one whose sales the Economist analyzes. Why? Are Amazon customers older and more affluent, so that they prefer the larger book even at a higher cost? Do many local bookstores carry only the mass-market edition?

Thanks to C. Alexander Evans and Tom Firey for help in compiling and presenting these data.

Revenge of the Laffer Curve

Steve Moore and Art Laffer have an excellent column in today’s Wall Street Journal. They explain that high-tax states drive repel entrepreneurs and investors, leading to a pronounced Laffer Curve effect. Productive people either leave the state or choose to earn and report less taxable income. And because growth is weaker than in low-tax states, there also is a negative impact on lower-income and middle-class people:

Here’s the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states. …Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts. …Dozens of academic studies – old and new – have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses. …Examining IRS tax return data by state, E.J. McMahon, a fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, measured the impact of large income-tax rate increases on the rich ($200,000 income or more) in Connecticut, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 5% from 4.5%; in New Jersey, which raised its rate in 2004 to 8.97% from 6.35%; and in New York, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 7.7% from 6.85%. Over the period 2002-2005, in each of these states the “soak the rich” tax hike was followed by a significant reduction in the number of rich people paying taxes in these states relative to the national average.

Interestingly, the Baltimore Sun last week published an article noting that the soak-the-rich tax imposed last year is backfiring. There are fewer rich people, less taxable income, and lower tax revenue. To be sure, some of this is the result of a nationwide downturn, but the research cited by Moore and Laffer certainly suggest that the state revenue shortfall will continue even after than national economy recovers:

A year ago, Maryland became one of the first states in the nation to create a higher tax bracket for millionaires as part of a broader package of maneuvers intended to help balance the state’s finances and make the tax code more progressive. But as the state comptroller’s office sifts through this year’s returns, it is finding that the number of Marylanders with more than $1 million in taxable income who filed by the end of April has fallen by one-third, to about 2,000. Taxes collected from those returns as of last month have declined by roughly $100 million. …Karen Syrylo, a tax expert with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the millionaire bracket, said she has heard from colleagues who are attorneys and accountants that their clients moved out of state to avoid the new tax rate. She said that some Maryland jurisdictions boast some of the highest combined state and local income tax burdens in the country. “Maryland is such a small state, and it is so easy to move a few miles south to Virginia or a few miles north to Pennsylvania,” Syrylo said. “So there are millionaires who are no longer going to be filing Maryland tax returns.”

With President Obama proposing higher tax rates for the entire nation, perhaps this is a good time to remind people about the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve that I narrated. If you have not yet had a chance to watch them, the videos are embedded here for your viewing pleasure:

Church of Universal Coverage Begins Its Campaign against that Pesky CBO

Last Monday, when lobbyists for the six biggest health care industry groups joined President Obama to announce their support for reducing health care spending by $2 trillion over 10 years, I penned and voiced my suspicion that the real motivation was to pressure the Congressional Budget Office to assume that Democrats’ health care reforms would reduce spending, despite the lack of evidence.  My wife said that hypothesis sounded a little … conspiratorial.

Last Thursday, when it was revealed that there was no actual agreement and that the White House basically manipulated the industry to get a week’s worth of good health care press, I started to doubt whether strong-arming the CBO was really the goal of that media stunt.  Then Jonathan Cohn set me straight.

In an article for The New Republic aptly titled, “Numbers Racket,” Cohn acknowledges that the biggest problem facing Democrats is that the $2 trillion cost of universal coverage has to come from somewhere.  Cohn, like many Democrats, complains that the “curmudgeonly” CBO isn’t letting reformers off the hook by assuming that universal coverage will (partly) pay for itself.  Cohn also acknowledges that pressuring the CBO was a likely purpose of last week’s media stunt:

The CBO took nearly the same positions back in 1994 – a fact not lost on either the White House or congressional leaders, who have communicated their concerns publicly and privately. One apparent purpose of bringing industry leaders to meet Obama this week was to showcase the potential for cutting costs; see, the administration seemed to be signaling, even the health care industry thinks it can save money by becoming more efficient.

Democrats have set their sights on legislation that would give government enormous power over Americans’ earnings and medical decisions.  The main political obstacle to those reforms is their cost, thus Democrats are pressuring the CBO to pretend that those costs don’t exist.  The CBO (and everybody else) should resist the Democrats’ effort to make truth yield to power.

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

Cultwatch: Union Station, New York Times

obamastoreSnapped this pic at DC’s Union Station this afternoon, on my way from the Amtrak platform to the Metro (where the machine dispensed a metrocard featuring a grinning BHO). Readers planning to visit DC will be happy to know that you can get all your Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans in one convenient locale right after you get off the train.

Say what you will about hapless Jerry Ford, but he had this going for him: nobody ever thought of making an action figure in his image.

In other cult-related news, today’s New York Times has an “Op-Extra” sidebar,with “excerpts from Opinion Online.” Our friend Judith Warner, last seen discussing cougar fantasies about “sex with the president,” weighs in about the shirtless Obama cover on the current Washingtonian:

“Just as having a president who can string a sentence together with subject-verb agreement makes us all look a little bit smarter, just as having a really admirable family in the White House makes us all seem a little less dysfunctional, perhaps having a president who can look good in a bathing suit is in some bizarre way good for the nation.”

Yeah, I mean, God knows it’s been good for Russia.

Elections in India

Despite being hit by the global recession, the ruling Congress Party-led coalition swept to an unexpected victory in India’s general election, mainly because of rural prosperity in a country where 70 percent of the population is rural. Good monsoons and high agricultural prices—linked partly to the global commodity boom—helped agriculture grow at a record annual rate of almost 4.5 percent for five years. The combination of high prices and high output yielded a happy peasantry. High food prices did not outrage rural workers because of a new rural employment scheme guaranteeing up to100 days work, and this helped despite corruption in implementation. Many states raised minimum wages too, raising worker pay faster than prices, and this was sustainable because of high crop prices. The government had partly or fully forgiven bank loans to small farmers, and this too won its votes.

However, this policy will encourage loan defaults in future: far better would have been cash payments to the needy, while maintaining loan discipline. The world commodity boom made it possible for the government to hike its support prices for crops as well as minimum wages, but such happy conditions will not last. India needs agricultural reform that focuses on raising productivity rather than loan waivers and hikes in controlled prices. And it must carry on its good work in improving rural infrastructure.

Most election forecasts predicted a hung parliament and an unstable government. But Congress’ victory means India will have a stable government for five years. Unlike last time, it will not depend for survival on the Marxist parties, which thwarted several economic reforms and opposed the nuclear deal and defense framework agreements with the USA . Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s courage in risking his government on this issue has been vindicated, and the two countries can now raise cooperation to a higher level. This could be especially important in checking Islamic terrorism, a serious problem for both countries.

The Congress must now proceed with legislation earlier thwarted by the Marxists—on pension reform, allowing private investment in coal mining, and raising foreign investment limits in insurance, telecom and retail. Victory and stability should also make it politically possible to avoid brazenly protectionist measures advocated by some sections of industry. The new agenda should include education reform—school vouchers to promote choice, liberalized rules for private schools, permission for foreign universities to set up shop in India . India badly needs administrative reforms to make civil servants and the police more accountable to citizens. A perceived lack of justice is an important cause for Maoist insurrections in some states, to which force alone cannot be the answer.

Obama’s Unerring Instinct for Aides with Authoritarian Instincts

President Obama has appointed New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden to head the Centers for Disease Control. Public health is an important issue, but as Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, Frieden has a weak grasp of what’s “public” in the world of health:

Frieden, an infectious disease specialist who is known mainly as an enthusiastic advocate of New York’s strict smoking ban, heavy cigarette taxes, trans fat ban, and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menu boards, embodies the CDC’s shift from illnesses caused by microbes to illnesses caused by lifestyle choices. “Dr. Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies,” Obama said today, ”and has been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and in the establishment of electronic health records.” Some of these things are not like the others. When it comes to justifying the use of force, there is a crucial difference between health risks imposed by others (such as bioterrorists or TB carriers) and health risks that people voluntarily assume (by smoking or overeating, for example). In the former case, even those who believe that government should be limited to protecting individual rights can see a strong argument for intervention; in the latter case, intervention can be justified only on paternalistic or collectivist grounds. Frieden either does not recognize or does not care about this distinction.

Frieden told the Financial Times in 2006 that “when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.” That’s a breathtaking vision of the scope and power of government. If you eat butter or salt, or smoke, or climb mountains, or ride a motorcycle, or bungee-jump, or run with the bulls in Pamplona, Dr. Frieden feels that he and the government are personally responsible. This isn’t paternalism; your parents usually let you make your own decisions along about the age of 18. And it isn’t fair to nannies to call it “nanny state” regulation: after all, nannies are paid to take care of children until they can care for themselves; they don’t barge into your home or your bar or your restaurant uninvited, issuing orders to adults. Maybe the right term is food fascism, for the attempt to use force to tell adults what they can and can’t eat, smoke, or purchase.

More on the distinction between public health problems and health problems that are merely widespread here.

And more about Obama’s appointment of “a bunch of statist ideologues who have been waiting years or decades for an election and a crisis that would allow them to fasten on American society their own plan for how energy, transportation, health care, education, and the economy should work” here.