Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Libertarian Relationship: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!

What a piece of work is a McMegan,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable,
in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

Remember how I said Megan McArdle and P. Suderman, boy wonder, would have an extremely hard time negotiating their power relationship, considering they are both libertarians and are both---them?

Boy, was I wrong. According to McArdle, who for inexplicable reasons is eager to share this with the world, they are nearly perfectly compatible and scarcely have any problems at all. The only problem with a libertarian spouse, it seems, is that they are both so efficient that they need to be extra careful to share their equality with each other.
I haven’t taken a full count, but as far as I can estimate, we have nearly 90 rolls of Bounty paper towels in our basement.
Bounty is not owned by the Koches, so when certain people look up her paper towel choice they will know that she is not connected to them in any way, although she has also said that she bought Koch products which means both sides are safely covered and people can believe whatever they want without actually being able to prove anything to an editor, not that she's worried.
You could be forgiven for thinking that we were stocking up for an expected flood from a nearby orange juice factory, but the truth is more prosaic: two working spouses taking advantage of the convenience and thrift of Amazon’s Subscribe and Save. For months, I have been dutifully taking paper towels out of their Amazon boxes, wondering why they seemed to come so frequently; for months, my husband has been tucking the excess neatly away on basement shelves, wondering why our household’s Current Paper Towel Balance had continued to grow even after he canceled his subscription. The truth was only revealed when husband happened to be downstairs at the precise moment when the UPS man stopped by with our latest monthly deposit.
Let's see.... P. Suderman, boy Sorcerer's Apprentice, saw a tower of paper towels rise to dizzying heights yet never said to McArdle, as they sat down together to a family meal of chicken nuggets in Bearnaise sauce with frozen artichoke hearts, "By the way, we seem to have enough paper towels in the basement to soak up a tropical storm. What's all that about?" Likewise, he never contacted Amazon and asked why they ignored his cancellation even though he had recited the right spell and waved his "magic wand." No, he just watched the pile grow. Ten rolls of paper towels! Thirty! Sixty! Ninety!

It's difficult to figure out why he was ordering paper towels anyway. If he assumed some of the shopping and did not tell McArdle, how many other piles of products lie on basement shelves or in attic corners?*
It’s a perfect illustration of a major drawback of the modern egalitarian marriage: coordination failure. In a traditional household, paper towel acquisition was within the wifesphere. She monitored the stocks, arranged for any necessary purchases and put them away within a storage scheme of her own devising. No one had to discuss the distribution of responsibilities or quarrel about their execution. But egalitarian marriages split things up along the idiosyncratic preferences of each couple. That creates three problems that every couple must deal with: Negotiations, Overlaps and Gaps.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not writing a brief against egalitarian marriage. I am in one. Both of us work, often quite long hours. Both of us assume some household duties: I oversee the plant life (ineptly), buy groceries, cook, vacuum and clean out the roof gutters as necessary; my husband, who is much neater than I am, is in charge of storage, dishwashing, home electronics and the termination of any pests larger than an ant. Nor am I a Self-Hating Egalitarian; I think this is a splendid arrangement. But like everything else in life, it has drawbacks, and this one is worth noting. Our initial problem was an Overlap. Storage was unquestionably my husband’s area. But acquisition was ambiguous, because we didn’t usually buy paper towels at the grocery store. So we both established orders. Hence: a surplus.
McArdle opens up the presents boxes from Amazon and leaves them out for P. Suderman, boy gopher, to put away. Since "he is neater," he probably picks up the house before McArdle does the cleaning. After McArdle cooks, he cleans up afterwards. McArdle does not tell us if P. Suderman has to make his bed or take out the trash, but a complete list of his chores is not necessary, is it? So despite the fact that McArdle is Vice-President in charge of Purchasing and Suderman is Warehouse Manager, Suderman robo-ordered paper towels as well, overstepping his boundary and overstocking the warehouse basement. Since they neglected to formalize division of labor or have monthly meetings to report on their respective divisions, inter-office communication and efficiency suffered.
When my husband attempted to deal with the surplus, we fell into a Gap. I continued to purchase household supplies, which certainly could fall within my general jurisdiction over kitchen and grocery. But with me doing the buying and Peter neatly putting them away in a space where I wasn’t confronted with our massive oversupply … well, we now have enough paper towels to open a Bounty distributorship. We could have reduced the overlap and the gap by drawing boundaries more firmly. But that would have put us into the most dread problem of egalitarian marriage: Negotiation.
Wait a second. Didn't McArdle once praise the negotiation skills of libertarian husbands?
My personal empirical research indicates that in fact, libertarians make great boyfriends and husbands (though my sample size on the latter is pretty small). The ones I've dated have actually been super considerate, and very concerned with pulling their own weight, though I couldn't say whether this is random chance, or the natural outgrowth of a value system that emphasizes voluntary, mutually beneficial cooperation. I will say that it is unusually easy to divide chores with someone who favors simple, rules-based systems for cooperation.
Yes, she did. And she found it "unusually easy" to divide chores. Or so she says....
Take the kitchen. I am in charge of kitchen equipment, cooking and organization. But my husband is in charge of dishwashing and storage. The result: We have a carefully thought-out scheme of What Goes Where that is completely intuitive -- to me. He doesn’t know where the measuring spoons go, and half the time, I can’t find them. We could fix this by carefully mapping out a scheme that both of us find intuitive. Unfortunately, we don’t have six weeks and a crack team of high-level diplomats to devote to the negotiations. Peter could also simply ask me where every single item goes every single time he does the dishes, but our yard is small and our basement is on a concrete slab, and I can’t figure out where I’d put the grave. So what if I haven’t seen my sifter in three months? It seems a small price to pay.
Or McArdle can put everything where she wants it and label that location. She can also just tell Suderman where everything goes and he can remember it. If every teenager in the country can do it, so can he. Perhaps he has some kind of cinematic memory problem, however, and wakes up every morning without the memory of where to store the plates and mixing bowls.

Sadly, "voluntary, mutually beneficial cooperation" has broken down for our libertarian princess and her consort. Instead, each does what (s)he wants and hopes that too much doesn't fall between the cracks.
All this is very interesting, I hear you say, in a voice that implies it isn’t interesting at all, but why are you telling me this? Well, it’s Friday, and on Fridays, I try to do a cooking or a personal-finance post. And chief among the challenges facing egalitarian marriages is the one they present to personal finances.
McArdle states the obvious for a paragraph or two and then gets back to the most interesting aspect of the issue, herself.
Couples have created any number of alternative systems to try to get around these problems. All of them have drawbacks. You can live like roommates, with each person contributing a share to the running of the household. This can really cut down on negotiation and overlap. But it creates even larger problems with gaps. I’ve talked to people who had this system degenerate into a toxic war over expenses, with each partner keeping track of who ate how much of the peanut butter and blood-curdling fights over whether one partner must pay if the other partner thinks they need to call a plumber about the slow drain.
Since most of McArdle's perspective is limited to her own experiences, which she extrapolates to the entire world, I now have to wonder if P. Suderman's predecessor wanted to call the plumber but McArdle refused because she didn't want to accidentally benefit their landlord.
This is especially fraught if one partner earns much more than the other. One of two things then seems to happen: One partner in the marriage has a much better standard of living than the other, which isn’t really much like being married at all. Or you have to negotiate who pays what share of what, and how to handle it when the richer partner wants a better vacation, and gee, I thought this was going to keep us from having to argue over all that stuff?
Remember when I insinuated that McArdle held the purse strings? That isn't true either, it seems.
Anecdotally, resentment from the lower-earning partner generally seems to be pretty high. It’s also utterly impractical if you have children. As far as I can tell, the couples who stick with it without nasty tit-for-tat wars tend to be second marriages where there are adult stepchildren and complicated asset situations. In general, my rule about marriage is this: In a good marriage, you cannot be happy if your partner is broke. Keeping your money may make sense if you are expecting to leave it to kids you have from another marriage, or if your spouse is one of those unfortunates who will spend any amount of money they get their hands on. But except in rare circumstances like these, it creates more problems in your marriage than it solves.
So in no way shape or form is P. Suderman kept on an allowance to pay off the mortgage more quickly and skimp and save, rather then travel and have fun while he is still young.
You can also pool some and keep some for yourself. This works pretty well for young newlyweds whose earnings are pretty equal (and small). But if they’re unequal, you run into the same sort of problems outlined above: There you are, enjoying your new computer, and there’s your partner, fretting over whether they should replace their dying phone or get the suit they need for their job interview. And while you have fewer gaps, you have more overlap between joint and personal expenses that has to be negotiated, as does the spending of the larger pool of joint money. You can pool everything, with allowances. This works pretty well for couples whose joint expenses have begun to dominate their individual expenses: kids, home renovations, pets and so forth. It has big advantages: It forces you to define household goals and allows you to direct all the family money toward those goals. But you have to develop a detailed budget, track expenditures to make sure you’re hitting it and negotiate basically everything the family spends.
In other words you have to be a libertarian, which McArdle finally realizes would be extremely tedious. Expenses are listed, doled out, balanced and negotiated, and so is everything else. If it works for the economy it'll work for the McSudermans!
Then there’s “everyone spend what they want out of the joint account.” This is the worst system, with the possible exception of “live like roommates.” It is favored by DINKs who just realized that they’re 42, overextended on the mortgage and have nothing saved for retirement. But right up to that point, you have a lot fewer fights about money. The point of this article is not that you should go back to giving one partner almost complete control of the money. It’s that a modern family needs modern financial controls: an explicit plan for handling money, good accounting, and a recognition that no matter what system you choose, you should expect to encounter gaps and overlaps -- and negotiations to prevent or resolve them.
And a pre-nup, in case a poorer partner thinks he is going to walk off with half of his partner's money.

All snark aside, financial planning and marital cooperation are good, if obvious, advice.

What makes McArdle's work special is the sweet little domestic stories she loves to share with her readers. We now know that libertarian husbands are the most wonderful and most egalitarian of husbands "who favor simple, rules-based systems for cooperation."

However, once again we see McArdle use the famous Underpants Gnome Model to support her theory.

1. Declare libertarians create mental systems for egalitarian cooperation.

2. State you did not bother to create a system because you didn't have time and egalitarian marriages split things up along the idiosyncratic preferences of each couple. Prove your statement by amassing 90 roles of paper towels in your basement.

3. Declare relationship egalitarian!

[McArdle] Actually, we had a good laugh over it. Though nowhere near as good as the one we had when I realized that we'd somehow acquired 9 bottles of molasses. It was gingerbread for everyone for *years*.

ADDED: Second "heh": from a commenter

[coketown] The article makes the issue sound benign, but I sense deep resentment and malice percolating through. Like everyone's sitting down for Cocoa Puffs and half-and-half after dinner, and a guest asks for a paper towel. And McMegan's like, "Peter, could you get our guest a paper towel? God knows I don't know where the f*** they are." And he's like, "Certainly. would you like one paper towel? Or an entire roll? God knows we have the largest f****** surplus of paper towels on earth. If Venezuela is wondering where all their paper towels went, they're in our basement." Then he leaves the room and comes back with his arms full of rolls of Bounty. "Here's a roll for you," he says, as he throws it at the guest's head, "and one for you, and one for you." And it's not until McMegan starts hitting him with the flour sifter that he stops and uses more surplus rolls for defense. And all that's left for the guests to say is: "Hmmm. Cocoa Puffs and half-and-half. I suppose it's worth the extra calories." Come to think, this sounds less like a modern marriage and more like a wonk marriage. I suspect Venn diagrams play a large role in the McArdle/Suderman household.

Anyway, after reviewing hundreds of mortgage applications, bankruptcy filings, and divorce decrees, it seems the most successful formula (at least for finances) is for everything to go into the pool and the wife to handle the budget. Seeking individual equity in what goes in and comes out misses the point of marriage.


    Mr. Wonderful said...

    I read Megan's piece top to bottom, with a look of horrified puzzlement on my stupid face. But then I figured it all out. Not to put you out of business, Susan, but I have realized that Megan McArdle is what is known as a "philosophical zombie," or "p-zombie."

    A p-zombie is a creature who in every respect resembles a normal human being, but who lacks consciousness.

    Wikipedia: "For example, a philosophical zombie could be poked with a sharp object, and not feel any pain sensation, but yet, behave exactly as if it does feel pain (it may say "ouch" and recoil from the stimulus, or tell us that it is in intense pain)."

    Such creatures have been (thought to be) entirely imaginary, and used for thought experiments-- until now!

    Megan's paper towel piece--like all of her pieces--is exactly like something that would be written by a p-zombie. Tell me that doesn't explain everything.

    Susan of Texas said...

    That would explain the lack of empathy, the low-effort thinking, and maybe her recipes, if zombies can't taste.


    Kathy said...

    You know... all those excess items, molasses and paper towels and God Knows What Else... could be donated to a Food Bank, and ArgleBargle & Husb. could probably get a small tax break.

    Doesn't seem to have even crossed her mind.

    Susan of Texas said...

    That's a very good idea but that would help the poor and we can't have that, can we?

    Anonymous said...

    "You could be forgiven for thinking that we were stocking up for an expected flood from a nearby orange juice factory,"


    Sorry, had to yell.

    ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

    Jeff Bezos is a glibbertarian, so this is all in service to THE CAUSE.

    Susan of Texas said...

    If corporations are people, McArdle is a bigamist with Amazon.

    Anonymous said...

    Apologies in advance for the irrelevant post, but I'm shocked that none of the blogs I read seem to have noticed that the third and final film in the Atlas Shrugged series -- Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? -- has finally opened in theaters (at least, a few theaters. I had to schlep all the way from Hollywood to Burbank to see it).

    And it's as terrible as you'd expect -- maybe even more so, and even cheaper than the previous films, and with fewer recognizable character actors in supporting roles (Stephen Tobolowsky, how could you?)

    Hank Rearden, the hunky love interest from the first two films, in onscreen this time maybe five minutes tops, and now he's played by...Rob Morrow.

    - Bettencourt

    Anonymous said...

    I'm posting a link with a review.

    It's total coincidence you mentioned it also since I came here just to post this.

    Professor Fate said...

    This is so odd. Do they talk to each other at all? I mean all this would take is "honey i'm going to stop buying paper towels from Amazon looks like we've got more than enough." "oh i've been ordering paper towels too." is the reply of a human being to another human being.

    fish said...

    Everything she says about her home life sounds made up to confirm whatever point she was trying to make. I.e. paper towel surplus = black man on the bus.

    Clever Pseudonym said...

    In my household, us busy working folk communicate the need for supplies via an amazing modern invention known as a "list." I know Susan's readers have probably never heard of this; I should have let you all struggle with the discovery of tomato paste before introducing such a complicated device into your lives. You've probably not yet worked out how to open said tomato paste until your Williams & Sonoma catalog offered the exotic device known as the "tin opener" for $249.95 (we call them "can openers" in North America, but "tin" sounds more sophisticated, like something you'd hear on an episode of "The Eastenders."). I apologize for my insensitivity.

    Anonymous said...

    I wonder how many microplane graters she has.

    I figure Peter has put one in every drawer.

    NonyNony said...

    I mean all this would take is "honey i'm going to stop buying paper towels from Amazon looks like we've got more than enough." "oh i've been ordering paper towels too." is the reply of a human being to another human being.

    To be fair - I'm fairly certain that if I were putting something on "auto order" from Amazon I would have at least mentioned it to my wife. And she would have done likewise with me.

    Because we've carefully negotiated this whole "major drawback of the modern egalitarian marriage" and it turns out that if you are both doing the shopping at different times what you need to do is talk to each other about the shopping. A novel concept, to be sure, but one that has served us well.

    Also - not "auto ordering" things but instead paying attention to your current stock and getting more when you're down to "one spare left in the closet". I think the fancy-pants MBA term for this is "just in time ordering" or something like that.

    Clever Pseudonym said...

    I was thinking the same thing; as with cooking, her marriage advice ranged from "no shit" to "um...what?" My marriage is a socialist utopia. We balance wages and work collectively without any fuss, but that's because we're plebes without rich daddies (so stupid of us to choose that half without wiser forethought). We also tend to use concepts like love, kindness and respect. You'll notice McM mentioned none of these. Must be the pressures of two dueling memberships in The Paper Towel of the Month Club.

    Susan of Texas said...

    They would make a great sitcom. They keep creating stupid situations that a moment of normal behavior would solve.

    Anonymous said...

    I'd suggest making a shared spreadsheet, but we all know Megan's problems with Excel.

    Anonymous said...

    Sitcom: I guess Megan made another order of magnitude error!
    *laugh track*
    [18 footer delivery truck of paper towels comes up to their house]

    Susan of Texas said...

    I have always wanted to know if I could write a sitcom. I have to try.

    Skinny Little Boy from Cleveland, Ohio said...

    I know people get used to this, but buying paper towels on line just seems lazy, much like her rationalization of frozen vegetables being better than fresh (because they're picked at their peak, just like they say on the tv commercials).

    Susan of Texas said...

    I guess she likes getting packages in the mail.