Simultaneously enlightening and depressing, The Age of Selfishness is a powerful example of the aptitude of the comic art form for cogent and potent polemic. The book deftly sums up the shaky state of the economy both before and after the huge financial downturn of 2008. Cunningham traces the origins of the crisis to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and how its embrace by the powerful and privileged helped wreak havoc—and the threat that allegiance to this philosophy and its convictions still poses today. Examining Rand’s life and legacy, Cunningham offers, above all, a cautionary tale of the perils of self-certainty and blind orthodoxy.
The book is divided into three sections, each one informing the next: "Ayn Rand", "The Crash", and "The Age of Selfishness". "Ayn Rand" is a concise biography of Rand, who was born in 1905 to a relatively bourgeois family in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was twelve years old when her family's comfortable upper-middle-class existence was obliterated in the sweep of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Though she later insisted otherwise, it was in her family’s struggle to regain their previous level of economic comfort that the seeds of her Objectivist philosophy took root: forever after, Rand would loathe and resent the possibility that her life course could be determined by others, especially by those she felt beneath her. Eventually she moved to America, and by sheer force of will found work as a junior Hollywood screenwriter, married a minor movie actor, Frank O'Connor, and became established in the literary scene. In her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand played out the tenets of her Objectivist philosophy. Among them: Objectivism upholds the individual as paramount, selfishness as a virtue, and altruism merely a tool to enslave the individual to the collective; the collective mindset itself made up of inferior people who use government to steal the fruits of the individual’s labor. Furthermore, taxation is theft, and the path to freedom and prosperity can only come from an unrestrained free market.
Rand, a woman possessed of a powerful personal magnetism as well as growing literary fame, began to draw a small and passionate group of followers. She eventually struck up an enduring affair with one of her acolytes, a young married man named Nathan Blumenthal, which damaged both their marriages. Also in the group was young Alan Greenspan, who was later to become the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve (1987- 2006).
Greenspan’s passionate belief in Rand’s free market philosophies would result in dire consequences in 2008 and in the book’s next section, “The Crash”, Cunningham gives a coolly detailed breakdown of the events that led to the financial crisis. He describes complex financial systems and concepts such as derivatives, mutual funds, and credit default swaps (CDSs)—subjects that usually make my eyes glaze over—in elegantly spare cartooning language, making these models easily comprehensible, and yes, even interesting. Cunningham is especially critical of Greenspan’s insistence on loosening decades-old regulations put in place to protect against unscrupulous business practices. He maintains it was Greenspan’s naïve confidence in the marketplace to self-regulate that played a large part in the creation of all sorts of dubious moneymaking schemes (such as fraudulent mortgage securities), which weakened banking systems worldwide. Banks were given the green light to make short term gains for all sorts of complicated but dubious loans that turns out could never have been paid back. When these toxic mortgages reached critical mass, the housing bubble burst, creating a gruesome domino effect, bringing the worldwide economy to the brink of collapse.
In the third section, which shares the book’s title, Cunningham explores where we are in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown, delving into the psychology of those who share and follow Rand’s philosophies and principles. He also looks into the differences between conservative and liberal values. He points to studies that show that people on either side of the political divide tend to process information differently: “research shows conservatives are comfortable with inequality. They are quick to judge others, and have little problem dismissing any science that runs counter to their beliefs, no matter what the evidence is, or how well argued… whereas liberals tend to be more empathic, see more complexity in the world, and are more likely to change their opinions when presented with evidence they are wrong.” He does hold liberalism accountable for much of the excesses of the countercultural movement that took hold during the sixties, excesses that lead to an erosion of certain traditional values that keep behaviors in balance. In fact, one of the book’s central themes is that both sides of the political and social divide function best with mutual limitations and regulations in place to keep behaviors and mores in check, and hold financial/cultural/social chaos at bay. Human beings are like that.
Cunningham’s art is simple, even childlike, but lively and effective, presented in various bright, two-or-three color schemes. This would be a challenging narrative to illustrate (hey, you try visualizing concepts like CDCs and derivatives), but Cunningham generally handles it with ease, clarifying complex financial terms and systems in easily comprehended visual language. For example, he renders the evolution of the mortgage lending agency Fannie Mae from a government institution into an increasingly privatized, for-profit institution with a sequence of red, tentacle-like arms seething forth onto a placid neighborhood, possessively wrapping themselves around houses, eventually completely blotting out the entire neighborhood. Earlier in the book he depicts Rand, gazing at the Manhattan skyline of 1935, proclaiming it “the greatest monument to the potency of man’s mind.” In the closing pages, over his panoramas of modern skylines and towering skyscrapers, Cunningham describes the present day situation of huge financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley buying up and controlling things like airports and “whole industrial processes.” The towering monoliths that looked so magnificent to Rand look far more ominous here, transformed into avatars of pitiless, consuming greed, exerting more and more control over our lives. Cunningham effectively sums up his stance: “Ayn Rand was wrong. Selfishness is not a virtue. Altruism is not a moral weakness. Taxation is the price we pay for civilization.”