Five years have passed since Alan Greenspan stepped down from the most influential
banking job in the world. (Now that’s how to leave at the right time.)
Described in books, interviews and profiles too numerous to mention as ‘the most powerful regulator/person on earth’, he served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve for 19 years. For
reasons of sheer longevity, perhaps Greenspan deserves to be called the architect of the modern global economy more than any of his elected contemporaries.
So it’s not insignificant that, by the accounts of his friends back in 1950s New York, Greenspan was something of a fruit-loop as you will discover tonight if you watch ‘All Watched
Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’, the new Adam Curtis documentary which begins on BBC 2 at 9pm.
The first film in a three-part series, this episode features interviews with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Now, you might be able to dredge these names up from the bottom of your memory, because
Branden was a student – and indeed lover – of Saint Peterburg’s most infamous chain-smoker Ayn Rand. Their story has been well covered – not least in the odd movie – but in tonight’s programme, Branden doesn’t just talk about Rand,
he also talks about his old friend Alan Greenspan. This is what he says:
“You have to realise that Alan Greenspan was, and is, a brilliant mind doing brilliant things in the real world but in his 20s he is sitting with me in my apartment telling me that he
cannot say with certainty that he exists, he cannot say for certain that I exist and he cannot say for certain that this conversation exists… That aside he’s got lots of opinions about
everything… My challenge became to persuade him that he can be certain that he exists.”
So Branden introduced Greenspan to Ayn Rand. Their meeting, and Greenspan’s intellectual conversion from an extreme type of logical positivism to Rand’s cause, objectivism, almost certainly
changed the course of history.
Branden’s wife, Barbara, picks up the story: “Ayn did not like him at all, but Nathaniel did and began discussing ideas with him. Every Saturday we met to hear what Ayn had written of
Atlas Shrugged that week. Finally, Nathaniel persuaded Ayn to include Alan in that and he loved the book and became a loyal member of her collective.”
Greenspan was such a loyal friend to Rand that they continued to meet in her New York apartment until her death. And, broadly speaking, Greenspan’s ideas continued to be informed by what she
described as "rational self-interest" – that "man’s highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness. That each man much live as an end in himself". Ayn Rand was a
The first episode of ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’ does not just confine itself to the story of Greenspan’s intellectual journey. It is a remarkable piece of
contemporary economic history which zips through the Clinton White House, the ideas behind the ‘New Economy’ and breaks new ground in its analysis of the most recent banking crash. And
Curtis’ thesis – that Western humans have begun to resemble the machines they operate – is illustrated in ways you might not expect.
In amongst, Rand’s ideas are skewered, but I can’t help but wonder if it was Greenspan himself who most undermined them. After all, following the crash, he admitted that unregulated
financial markets don’t seem to stabilise themselves. This, he said, revealed what he called “a flaw in the model that defines how the world works”.
Watching Curtis’ new film, you can’t help suspecting that this flawed model began to emerge decades earlier in Rand’s Saturday night readings of ‘Atlas Shrugged’.