Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas

“Like almost anyone who lives in Texas, I have visited the town of West, uncountable times. Nobody drives I-35 through the middle of the state without stopping for the famous kolaches[1]. Hardly anyone else knows much about the little community. But it is about to become an icon of our failures to properly oversee dangerous businesses and manage our governments.

Let's concede the remote possibility there may have been a criminal act involved. David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel was only 15 miles distant, and, as we already know, the Oklahoma City bombing was a criminal response to the federal government's actions. This week in April, as has been shown by events like the Boston tragedy and the Ruby Ridge shootout, can deliver us unto evil in America.

But what happened in West is probably more about government inactions.” 

These are opening paragraphs of James Moore’s excellent essay in the Huff Post. The title of course refers to Any Rand’s controversial[2] book Atlas Shrugged[3]. This book has informed the philosophy of the radical conservatives[4] in the U.S. leading to reduction of funding of government and loosening of controls on business. Its title is derived from the myth that Atlas[5] holds the world on his shoulders. One of the characters asks the question of what happens when the load gets too heavy for Atlas. Another character answers that he shrugs.

Moore is correct, but I don’t think his essay tells the whole story. It is also a tale of two complex systems, each in disequilibrium. 

One system encompasses the ammonium nitrate, ammonia gas, and other, at this point unknown, chemicals and combustible materials in the factory. Ammonium nitrate has one of the classic characteristics of a critical state complex system, that of positive feedback. When ammonium nitrate burns, one of its by products is oxygen, which in turn encourages the fire to burn more, possibly leading to an explosion.

The other is the complex system encompassing the government regulations, the procedures that regulators follow, the funding of these programs and finally the response of the owners and the day to day actions of the employees.

Complex systems in disequilibrium have two annoying characteristics – cause and effect are not linked and the probability of a large event is much higher than normal statistics would predict. As a result the impact of a perturbation of the systems like cutting funding can have a measurably larger impact than might be expected. Add this, to the large errors committed by the owners detailed in Moore’s article, and a simple error in the factory, and kaboom.

“Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas”, James Moore, 4/18/13,

[1] We like the Czech-American Restaurant in town as well.
[2] Paul Krugman alluded to an oft-quoted quip by John Rogers in his blog: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs." Wikipedia (
[3] “The book explores a dystopian United States where many of society's most productive citizens refuse to be exploited by increasing taxation and government regulations and disappear, shutting down their vital industries. The disappearances evoke the imagery of what would happen if the mythological Atlas refused to continue to hold up the world. They are led by John Galt. Galt describes the disappearances as "stopping the motor of the world" by withdrawing the minds that drive society's growth and productivity. In their efforts, these people "of the mind" hope to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create and profit is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where every person is a slave to society and government, and that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry.” Wikipedia (
[4] “In the late 2000s, the book gained more media attention and conservative commentators suggested the book as a warning against a socialistic reaction to the finance crisis. Conservative commentators Neal Boortz, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have offered high praise of the book on their respective radio and television programs. In 2006 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas cited Atlas Shrugged as among his favorite novels. Republican Congressman John Campbell said for example: "People are starting to feel like we're living through the scenario that happened in [the novel] ... We're living in Atlas Shrugged", echoing Stephen Moore in an article published in The Wall Street Journal on January 9, 2009, titled "Atlas Shrugged From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years". In 2005 Congressman Paul Ryan said that Ayn Rand was "the reason I got into public service" and later required his staff members to read Atlas Shrugged. In April 2012 he disavowed such beliefs however, calling them "an urban legend" and rejecting Rand's philosophy.” Wikipedia (

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