Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rich People Hate You

At the very least, they think you are poor because you are weak. By blaming the victim, so to speak, they can ignore any guilt they might feel for working to ensure that even more people will suffer poverty.  They can also enjoy that very special little thrill that social dominators enjoy so, the thrill of knowing that they can preach virtue to the millions they grind into poverty. It's not enough to have oh, say, an eclair. You have to have the eclair and then eat it in front of a starving child while lecturing her on gluttony.


As I wrote in an op-ed for the Daily that came out today, it's all too common for well-meaning middle class people to think that if the poor just had the same stuff we do, they wouldn't be poor any more (where "stuff" includes anything from a college education to a marriage license to a home). But this is not true.

You silly liberals  might think that the poor just need money and then they wouldn't be poor anymore but you are wrong.

 Welfare reform, by pushing mothers into work, produced real if modest improvements in most measures of average well-being. But as Jason De Parle documents, it didn't make them act like middle class parents. They were still single mothers with a lot of kids and no very helpful men available, and their kids did not start going to school more--in fact, more work hours meant the kids were less carefully supervised, and the daughter of one of the three women he followed got pregnant at 17, continuing a major portion of the "cycle" that welfare reform was supposed to break.
There is a cesspool of underlying assumptions built into Miss Megan's worldview. She assumes that the poor is made up entirely of Black women and their (presumably illegitimate) children, who actually make up 41% of the families in poverty headed by a single mother. (She could always look up the information but that would cut into her "me time." ) 
If poor people did the stuff that middle class people do, it's possible--maybe probable--that they wouldn't be poor. But this is easier than it sounds. As John Scalzi once memorably put it, "Being poor is having to live with choices you didn't know you made when you were 14 years old." Which often means, he might have added, spending your whole life doing the sort of jobs that middle class people sometimes do when they're 14. It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently. But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly. There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.

Here McArdle assumes that the poor chose to be poor because they are incapable of doing otherwise. McArdle chooses to believe that everyone gets what he deserves because she wants to think that she deserves everything that she has. McArdle publicly aired her feelings of guilt for making an expensive, utterly unnecessary purchase in the Wall Street Journal so she could emphasize how it was a reward for her hard work, work that she, as a "middle class" person, performed due to superior work ethic and strong moral fiber. McArdle earns a living by writing propaganda for corporations. It is not like being a journalist, where you supposedly want to tell the truth, or an advertising copywriter, where you are up front about your motives and status as employee. It is lying to unsuspecting people in the hopes of secretly achieving your political/economic gains. It is stealing from the poor to give to the rich, the antithesis of all moral teachings.

McArdle is not a sociopath and is capable of experiencing guilt and regret, whether or not she chooses to do so. Naturally she usually chooses to not do so. McArdle frequently writes about how people cannot overcome their baser instincts, as she does in this piece, no doubt because she makes little effort to overcome her own. She is morally lazy, part of a class that cannot be bothered to think about others because she has created a lovely imaginary world of superiority that she would rather live in instead. Her moral self-indulgence leads to genuinely evil acts, such as taking Koch and Bradley money to write propaganda. Evil people are usually not serial killers lurking in the city shadows or plucking banjos by the crick. They are callous, morally lazy, greedy, pleasure-loving, self-indulgent and deeply insecure people who always take the easy way out. They are the Juice Box Villagers, the Pentagon pencil-pushers, the money-grubbers, the casually cruel. They are the people who were never loved, do not know how to love, and will spend their entire lives trying to find some way of killing the emptiness that never goes away.

And some problems are collective problems. It's all very well to say that poor women shouldn't have kids unless they can find a solid man to help raise them. (And I agree that this is a superior strategy). But men with solid jobs are rather scarce in many poor communities, not least because we've imprisoned so many of them. What you're asking poor women to do is actually, for most of them, to not have babies. This is an easy edict to deliver from a comfortable middle class home where you have all the kids you want. It probably sounds pretty shitty, however, to the poor women who you are blithely commanding to spend their lives alone.

This bizarre little bit of fake sympathy is supposed to undermine your middle class bourgeoisie morality and liberal sympathy for the suffering of minorities and reinforce McArdle's point.
Poor people are people who make decisions.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of evil. One soft little sentence, a sad-yet-brave sentence that manfully faces the truth and sorrowfully accepts it, wishing only that you, too, will accept this simple fact--that the poor chose to be poor and therefore deserve to be poor. Of course she is too cautious to say exactly what she means, which is that poor people are people who make poor decisions. That is a much more quotable line, and McArdle knows that propagandist must be exceptionally cautious and never overplay their hands or people will stop believing their lies.
They are not a combination of circumstances that can be tweaked to make them stop acting like poor people.I'm not arguing against incentives, or a safety net--I favor a generous EITC, substantial (if usually brief) unemployment benefits, etc. I think that the low salaries available to people who are not cut out for school represent a real problem for our society (unfortunately, not one I have any idea how to solve, which is why I rarely blog about it). And I also think that welfare reform was a good idea. But I chafe at the supposition that anything as simple as "jobs" could fix the problems in poor schools, or poor lives.

Nobody can do anything ever, so don't raise my taxes to help the poor.
A girl I grew up with basically voluntarily dropped out of the middle class and into the underclass, complete with a baby by her 30-year-old drug dealer boyfriend who then went to jail. She got her GED because she didn't like the strictures of school. She has worked at a series of low wage jobs--sometimes quite hard, working two jobs at a time. She's also lost a lot of jobs, and it's hard to believe that it's all bad luck. She's on the Section 8 waiting list, and has at various times been on other forms of state assistance. She buys her 5 year old daughter a cell phone and a television for her birthday, but takes little interest in her education. Her family is completely horrified.

Well, that proves it. If an acquaintance of McArdle was too stupid or undisciplined to stay chaste and in school, that means that all poor people chose to be poor, such as the mentally ill, the physically ill, the elderly, widowed mothers, men who can't find work, and children with unstable parents.  And now McArdle is telling us that not only do the poor make bad choices, they do so because they have poor characters. But since argument by anecdote is a valid method of argumentation, I can tell the story of a girl I am acquainted with who had a baby in high school but did not end up poor because her very wealthy, very Republican parents supported her and the baby. She ended up living happily ever after amid great wealth. Her pregnancy was, of course, an accident, not a choice, and despite her history of reckless choices her parents supported her instead of cutting off all contact.  McArdle does not address why her acquittance used drugs and had a drug-dealer daddy-substitute because such thoughts might lead to uncomfortable questions that would undermine her belief that wealthy people such as herself earned everything they have through personal merit.
What program would fix this festival of dysfunction? Would a higher paying job make her get out of bed even when she doesn't feel like it? To assume that there is something that could change her behavior is to assume away her agency.

Oh, those silly, paternalistic liberals!
Obviously, most poor people did not choose to be poor in the same stark way: she doesn't have racial prejudice against her, grew up in a middle class home which would happily have paid for college (and which sent her sister through a PhD program), and still has access to cultural and (limited) financial capital that people who grow up in a housing project don't. But I use her story to illustrate a point: while she may have had far more choice in the matter, she is poor because she does the things that poor people do. Is it meaningful to say that she has agency in her poverty, while "real" poor people (ie., people who grew up that way) don't?

A middle class parent after a long and crappy day at work struggles to deal with the kid's school because other parents expect it, because they were raised to treasure education, and because people will work harder to avoid loss (a kid who drops out of the middle class) than to achieve gains (a kid who makes it into the middle class). Also, that middle class job probably isn't as miserable as changing diapers on Alzheimer's patients, or cleaning houses, so you have more psychic energy to spare. Or you can blame a "sick culture" or personal laziness, as some conservatives do--at some level, it doesn't matter. Poor people are actually choosing not to hassle with their kid's school. It's a real choice that they have made. There is no reason to assume that you will be able to override it if you just get the policy levers in the right position.
McArdle did not do very well in school by Ivy League standards. She has admitted that she was pushed and prodded and coddled the entire way by private schools that were making a small fortune on her tuition. Her parents were able to buy that special treatment for their little darling because they had a lot of money. And if you are rich enough you don't have to hassle with your child's education at all; that is what headmasters, teachers and tutors are for. But, despite the fact that the poor are poor because they make bad choices, it doesn't matter if parents make bad choices or just don't have the time and energy to help their children succeed in school. Either way the poor are poor because they-or maybe their parents or grandparents--chose to be poor.
If little lower class Megan McArdle had drifted through school she would have ended up in a state school at best, competing for average-paying jobs with all the other middle-of-the-road young people. Money made all the difference in her life but that little fact doesn't flatter her ego.

What I am struggling to say is that however much those choices are now inflected by what went before--and the problems of other people in their families and communities--they are choices. We understand that the middle class girl I grew up with is driving her situation by behavior that is probably not very amenable to outside influence. Why do we assume that people who grew up poor are somehow more pliable?

It is her own fault; she was not pliable and led astray by circumstances of birth.
As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.
And you wouldn't want to objectify the poor, would you? That would be wrong, and we all know how much liberals care about morality.

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.
Oh, those creepy liberals, with their eugenics and social engineering! It is much better to let the poor continue to be poor because it is exactly what they chose to be and no more than they deserve.

McArdle reinforces her statement that not having a job has little to do with being poor in the comments.

I don't even think it's that--certainly not for education. Many of the largest problems in the lives of the poor stem from being around other poor people. The majority of poor people are not criminals, but the majority of criminals are poor people, preying on other poor people, and if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will be troubled by your proximity to that minority. Living in a poor neighborhood means your kids have greater opportunity to find a peer group that valorizes dropping out of high school. Etc. What does adding "jobs" do to this mix? It's a solution that can work for one person, who can move away from the problems. But if we chopped off the top of the income distribution, and distributed it among the poor, they would still be forced to live near poor people and go to school with them. There would be actual problems that money fixed--dentistry, better cars, less hassle with the various problems that acute money shortages cause. But not most of the big ones.
Excuse me, I have to go take a shower now and try to scrub the cloying self-love and callous selfishness off my skin.


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

if we chopped off the top of the income distribution, and distributed it among the poor, they would still be forced to live near poor people and go to school with them.

Huh. I guess those years of the 50s and 60s, when we did precisely that, didn't see unprecedented upward mobility, massive expansion of the middle class, and reduction in diseases and poverty.

What a monster McArdle is.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Also, apparently the argument that the poor are unwilling to take a jobs is inoperative, now that there are no jobs, so poverty must be the result of something else. It's just a matter of flailing about until Megan figures out what that is.

It was easier back in the day when it could be claimed that they are poor because of the color of their skin; even if McArdle gets close as dammit to stating that explicitly in this one.

Susan of Texas said...

It's funny that no matter what someone's circumstances might be, poverty is still a matter of personal choice.

Susan of Texas said...

It's not their skin color, it's their "culture." Which seems to be based on their skin color.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It still boggles my mind that this entitled ignoramus was an I.T. consultant.

fish said...

but the majority of criminals are poor people

because their crimes are punished, but with bankers bygones! because something something something

fish said...

This was the quote that set my blood to high boil:

she is poor because she does the things that poor people do

Like "poor" is some monolithic descriptor that accounts for all behavior. She really is a soulless moron.

Downpuppy said...

Oddly enough, I still remember Alan Price's lyrics from O Lucky Man! -

Poor people are poor people -
And they don't understand
A man's got to make whatever he wants-
And take it with his own hands.

Poor people stay poor people -
And they never get to see
Someone's got to win in the human race-
If it isn't you, then it has to be me.

So smile while you're makin' it-
Laugh while you're takin' it-
Even though you're fakin' it-
Nobody's gonna know.

Is it a small measure of progress that Megan has to defend her selfishness?

Mr.Wonderful said...

The gang (including Susan) give this loathesome essay a thorough debunking over at Roy's place, but I can't believe I didn't notice this before:

To assume that there is something that could change her behavior is to assume away her agency.

This, from the same apologist-for-greed by whom "incentive" is presented with a straight face as a justification for lower taxes on the rich and on corporations.

How come, Megs, the incentive of a decent-paying job would not be enough to induce your friend to change her behavior? Wouldn't that also embody her agency? And even if that's not the case with your friend, so what? She's one person. What makes her representative of an entire social class?

Just come out and say it: The rich are praiseworthy when the pursuit of wealth causes them to act in certain ways, but the poor are "what they are," are (sadly, tragically) unaffected by such incentives, and are doomed to their fate.

It's Social Darwinism--the only kind of Darwinism the right is comfy with. Ask for it by name.

Pete said...

If 100% of the 1% were criminals (um, bear with me) and 1.1% of the rest of us were criminals, then it would still be true that the majority of ... but she never was good with math, and anyway a large majority of the 1% are in fact either criminals or the descendants of criminals. Personally, I'd put their apologists on the tumbrels first.

Anonymous said...

The comments to that article are scary. Megan's fans would cheer for the return of debtor's prisons.

Somewhere in heaven, Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo are thinking the American revolution was a fricking waste of time.

Pete said...

By an appalling, if amusing, coinkydink, Kevin Drum this morning posted on the return of debtor's prisons:

Anonymous said...

The ugly assumption in Megan's little column is is the idea that ALL the poor ALWAYS behave immorally ALL the time. S , in other word, being poor is just a moral failure and nothing else.

What a novel idea! Straight out of Gilded Age 1.0! A time when, as G.B. Shaw put it, the idea was that "poverty isn't a crime, but it ought to be." And Horatio Alger still lives, I suppose....

But for McMegan, the moral failings of her Wall Street pals are just "the cost of doing business," I suppose. To be paid for by the littlepople taxpayers, I guess....

Anonymous said...

"What I am struggling to say is that however much those choices are now inflected by what went before--and the problems of other people in their families and communities--they are choices. We understand that the middle class girl I grew up with is driving her situation by behavior that is probably not very amenable to outside influence. Why do we assume that people who grew up poor are somehow more pliable?"

OMFG. I got till there. I thought I could make it to the end but I couldn't. I'll try again later. I don't know how you do it!

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. It all comes from a mindset that there are fat, lazy people out there who would rather sponge off welfare (which, in the mind of the world's McArdles, pays about $50,000 a year for life) than work. Once you realize that's not the case - that poor people are actually normal people - you begin to think maybe there's something else going on. Evidently, Megan wants credit from us for being "consistent" (heartless) enough to throw a woman she once knew in the "worthless immoral" category.

2. "Jobs"? She does that twice. "Jobs." There's gotta be a word for this conservative habit of putting something that actually exists into quotation marks, thus implying that it's a phony, made-up concept. Cf. "Rich."

OBS said...

"It still boggles my mind that this entitled ignoramus was an I.T. consultant."

You must not have met many IT consultants, or at least not the completely useless ones I've been exposed to...

Goetz said...

Who are the rich? Many years ago I tried to understand inequality better and came up with this:

But today I think, that people will be driven by suffering rather than by reason to find a dergree of inequelity which minimizes destructive discontent. So I gave up and started to play with the Snark:

That is how I found this Snark blog ;-)

jcricket said...

Susan - you are a gem! Love your work and you are so fucking spot-on about the McMegan's lack of....human connection.

I don't know how anyone can defend not having a soul, but it seems to me The McMegan would whip out a $1500 kitchen gadget and calculate why it's not necessary to have a soul if one only makes the right choices and belongs to the right class, and can have the last word in the comment section of her blog in a National Magazine's online edition.

Batocchio said...

One of your best posts.

McBargle's bullshit is delivered with more sanctimony, more fake concern, but also more raw evil than usual: 'Poor people choose to be poor, and giving them things or money or even jobs will not help them.' What about impoverished students whose families value education but who are stuck in crappy schools (with some good but overwhelmed teachers)? I've worked with some such students and their parents, and I imagine many teachers have. McBargle's response is to pay teachers less, fire them... and to blame the poor for their condition. Meanwhile, she occasionally admits how astonishingly lazy and lucky she's been, and then attributes her position to... merit. Economic Calvinism, neo-feudalism and Randism mean never having to refrain from saying you're superior.

Conservatism can be summed up many ways, including through two tenets, directed at those Other People:

1. Your misfortune is your own fault.
2. I don't need to do fucking anything to help you.

...Except perhaps sneer or offer moral condemnation, of course. The thing is, for conservatives, tenet #2 does not actually stem from tenet #1; it's the other way around. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” McBargle searches for it all the time in her copy of Atlas Shrugged, the Koch report, and her $1500 mixer, but she's so awful at crafting effective propaganda.

bulbul said...

It still boggles my mind that this entitled ignoramus was an I.T. consultant.
Why, precisely? Her worldview is one you will often find among IT people, especially consultants. Those are people who get paid good money for their opinions or even their mere presence. It is a small wonder most of them end up being selfish self-centered assholes, i.e. libertarians.
Same is true of coders and the fact that in their case, a certain skill is involved, does not change a thing.

Anonymous said...

"If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton."

Funny. That's exactly what she does in like her very next post.

Downpuppy said...

The whole mystery of "Why is Megan's posting suddenly coherent?" made sense today:

Morgan Bushmill McSuderman is due next June.

We're finally seeing what Megan sounds like sober.

Susan of Texas said...

Batocchio, thanks.

Susan of Texas said...

You mean Milton Pinochet McSuderman.

I think she is merely supporting her earlier statement that we can't change the poor's circumstances.

Dillon said...

Morgan Bushmill McSuderman is due next June.

You mean Milton Pinochet McSuderman.

At some point, $1,500 blenders won't cut it anymore and Megan will decide she needs a child. Nine months with no booze or cigarettes will be a small price to pay for the greatest material possession of all, a miniature version of herself.

Downpuppy said...

The whole story of why Megan suddenly got her act together a month or 2 ago suddenly became clear yesterday. More a "Doh!" moment than a Eureka. Lord knows she wasn't the only person on the internets posting drunk.

I could be wrong, and Susan's contractual theory could be right. We should know in about 2 more months.