Megan McArdle saw the word "entitlement" and, like a certain dog with a bell and a doggie treat, sprang to attention.
Conor Friedersdorf recently posted this thought:
Though it isn't defensible, it is unsurprising that a lot of people who eschew offers to work at these firms, favoring public sector work instead, imagine that they are making an enormous personal sacrifice by taking government work. The palpable sense of entitlement some of these public sector folks exude is owed partly to how few of 'our best and brightest' do eschew the big firm route (due partly to increasing debt levels among today's graduates, no doubt).
Which has drawn a lot of email defending the right of government employees who gave up Big Law or McKinsey to feel like they made a sacrifice, and like they're a little hard used by the current US income structure.
McArdle can't help herself, she just has to defend the elite. But an elite journalist condemning public sector employees is a bit, well, in bad taste. The elite journalist would look foolish, and would be disagreeing with a friend of hers as well. (The latter being a phenomenon that her circle is quite aware of.)
So McArdle simply says that she is not an elite journalist. An obvious, idiotic lie, but what else is a shill to do under the circumstances? Tell the truth, or throw out a knee-jerk, self-justifying lie?
Speaking as someone who attended one of these lustrous graduate institutions that allegedly produce our "best and brightest", I'd like to say . . . knock it off. Stop patting yourself on the back. You can seriously damage the ligaments in your shoulder that way, as I discovered when pursuing an ill-placed mosquito bite too vigorously.
Shame on them, praising themselves for choosing public service over money. That's just vanity and sour grapes.
You know how much credit I deserve for giving up highly paid professional work in order to spend my days boring the hell out of you all with my breezy explanations of present value calculations?
Heh. McArdle just said she gave up a lucrative career that should have been invested in her by the power of the holy Birth Lottery so she could dedicate her life to public service at low pay. She's such a joker.
None. Am I performing a public service? I hope so. I take my profession seriously, and like to think that I am adding something to the public understanding. But that was my choice. I knew what I was giving up when I made it, and I also knew what I was getting. Which is to say, a job that I absolutely love more than anything I've ever done, a chance to speak to interesting people and see amazing things all the time.
I think someone would beg to differ with McArdle's recitation of events. Namely, Megan McArdle.
But that doesn't mean I don't understand how awful and terrifying it is to have expected a certain life, and have it stolen away from you by a fate you do not very well control. In June 2001 when I graduated from business school, I had a management consulting gig that was scheduled to pay over $100,000 a year and had just moved back to New York. Two months later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, killing a number of people I knew and leaving the rest of us traumatized. Four days after that, I was working at the World Trade Center disaster recovery site, trying to come to grips with what had happened. Four months after that, the consulting firm, having pushed back my start date twice, called my associate class and told all of us that our services would not be required.
For the next eighteen months, I struggled to find a job, in the teeth of a recession that kicked MBAs especially hard. It was awful in a way that is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't been unemployed long term; the thing makes you question everything about your life. I remember going to see Avenue Q on a date, and writhing in humiliation, thinking that my date must be identifying me with the aimless failures on stage. I was 29 years old, and living at home. I had money--I always managed to work. But as far as I could tell, I had no future.
When I finally did get a job, with The Economist, it paid about a third of what I'd been expecting as a consultant. I had about a thousand dollars in loan payments, and of course, I had to live in New York, where my job was. For the first time in my life, I understood what Victorian novelists meant when they described someone as "shabby". Over the years since I'd had a steady income, my clothes had stretched out of shape, ripped, become stained, gone out of style. I couldn't afford new ones. And I wasn't one of those whizzy heroines who can make over her own clothes. Instead, I frumped around in clothes that never looked quite right, and felt the way my clothes looked.
It took me a long, long time to crawl out of that hole. I'll never make what I expected to make as a consultant. I'll never have the job security that I had learned to expect in the pre-9/11 world. The universe will always seem a potentially malevolent place to me, ready to unleash some unknown disaster at any moment.
Horrible, Just horrible. The humanity! But it seems that journalism was a happy accident, a relief and last resort, not a choice.
(And let's just draw a polite veil over the fact that McArdle doesn't believe in job security:
Nor am I a fan of seniority rules and job protection. Most of us function perfectly well without these, and I don't think that advancement solely by time-in-grade, or protecting everyone who does not actually set the plant on fire from being sacked, is either reasonable, or economically desireable. I understand that people want these things, but I would also like to be able to force other people to buy me dinner at will; this does not mean that I should be given that right. I too, would enjoy being protected from ever losing my job no matter what, and having all my raises based on my ability to keep my butt in a chair. But I don't think this would be good for my employers, my readers, or for that matter, me.
We are becoming accustomed to the way McArdle's advice contradicts McArdle's actions, but that is another post, as Kipling would say.)
McArdle never intended to go into "public service." It just happened. And her idea of public service is an extremely strange one. She works for a multi-millionaire's pet magazine and is routinely pimped out to corporations. She doesn't inform the public, she propagandizes to it--for a very nice chunk of change. We don't know how much and don't care, but since she brought it up---:
If you're a journalist in a two income couple that makes $300,000 and still has to give up vacations in order to pay school tuition, it hardly seems fair that LeBron James and you are in the same tax bracket--not while you're living in less than 2000 square feet.
I also note, just as an aside, that the definition of "very rich" [$373,000] seems increasingly to be set at "just above the level a top-notch journalist in a two-earner couple could be expected to pull down".
Back to McArdle's sacrifice:
Getting to do those things involved a tradeoff. I don't get to spend my vacations at charming Provencal cottages or swank Caribbean resorts. I don't get to buy the $1.1 million dollar mansion in LeDroit Park that I daydream about. (Hey, the owner could be my long-lost great uncle . . . ) I have to watch the food budget, and I can't buy the designer clothes I'd really like to wear.
As I have often mentioned, she just bought a row house in DC, where the median listing price is $300,000. P. Suderman, lately boy intern and now employee at Reason, most certainly makes a great deal less than McArdle. Therefore her salary is north of $100,000, and probably closer to $200,000. So spare us the po' mouthing about how McArdle has to give up million dollar estates for half a million dollar townhouses.
I took the job because I think this is a great tradeoff.
It is if you're a corporate shill.
My classmates who went to banks and consultancies mortgaged their late twenties and early thirties doing work I would have found much less rewarding; they are enjoying the payoff now--at least the ones who didn't simply lose everything when Lehman and Bear went down. I don't want to say they "deserve" it, because almost anyone in that sort of position has had an enormous amount of luck along with their hard work, starting with being born to the right family. But I don't begrudge it to them. I think I got the better end of the deal.
Yeah. Right. Once again little lies are slipped into greater lies. McArdle is still paying off her student loans at the age of 37 and was nearly crippled by them when younger.
I know how easy it is to do it. I graduated from business school with nearly $100K of student loans, and a nice chunk of change on my credit cards that was supposed to be paid off with the lucrative consulting job that strung me along and finally dumped me without ever starting work. (This happened to my entire associate class, not just me, she pointed out defensively; I was not being singled out). For a couple of years after graduation, my whole life was nothing but massive debt payments, as I lived with my parents and shoved every spare dime I had into getting that debt down. This is not a period of my life that I remember fondly, and I am deeply sympathetic to people who find themselves in a tough spot. But I also know that I was at least in part the architect of my own fate. B-school students, with their high income expectations, live very well on borrowed money; I could have taken fewer trips, gone without a car, and in other ways cut down my debt load considerably. Why should my creditors be the ones to pay the price for my folly?
So all those top-notch people who work in the private sector for the good of humanity should show some humility, like McArdle does.
And so do the folks who took jobs in government or academia or the non-profit sector. Maybe a few of them really "made a sacrifice" for some obscure reason involving widowed mothers and villanous landlords with a penchant for late-night visits to the railroad tracks, but most of them took the job because they thought they'd like it better. The kind of people who are actually willing to make the sacrifice of doing something they hate in the name of the greater good tend to join monestaries or the army, not the Political Science department at Penn State.
Maybe they made a mistake about how much they'd like their job, but it's not any more unfair than realizing you wish you hadn't broken up with your college girlfriend.
If you have a job more interesting than doing ten years of document discovery, or proofreading pitch books, and you can afford all the health care and calories your heart could want, then it seems to me that you're way ahead of the game. It's downright greedy to think that you ought to have the great job, and the great salary (or that you shouldn't have to compete for things like nice houses with people who do pull in serious cash, which is really another way of saying the same thing).
I'm not saying that everyone who gave up better-paying jobs thinks they're entitled to some sort of public applause, but one does run into this every now and again. One especially runs into the feeling that salaries are not fairly distributed--that it's not fair that the work they love is so badly paid. But that is the essence of fair; they get money, and you get to do the work you love. Gains from trade!
I'd also like to take a secondary swipe at the notion that graduates from Ivy League schools are "our best and brightest". The Ivy League may represent the cream of a very small segment of incredibly affluent Americans. But there's a lot more cream out there, and it's a pity that American institutional structures seem so apt to exclude it from the mix.
We are awed by the modesty of our heroine, who works selflessly day and night to protect the public welfare of private corporations, and we wish her a long and happy career, despite the suffering she must be enduring.
Added: See also.