Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Monday, March 28, 2016

How To Talk To The Poor If You Must By Megan McArdle

What did she say?
She said we were revolting!

Oh boy, this is going to be good.

Bloomberg obviously told Megan McArdle that it might be time to throw the poors a few bones and calm them down before they do anything hasty. It's true that this is just speculation but it would be irresponsible not to do so. Thus her (one and only) post last week telling her devoted readers that capitalism was aces but it did create a few victims along the way, who would just have to suck it up so others might grow rich.

The well-trod path from the Republican party and its backers to the little mouthpiece propagandists like McArdle, Ross Douthat and David Brooks is highlighted by the heightened speed of recent events. For one instance, Charles Pierce describes Nick Kristof's surprise and chagrin at the brand-spanking-new realization that the Wingnut Wurlitzer exists and might--might!--have inadvertently undercut the success of the party. Now that everyone else has chimed in, Megan McArdle finally joins the party.

Last week, I talked about why market liberalism is, despite its upsets, the right program for America. Today I’m going to talk about why American elites are doing such a bad job of selling it, and why I think people in both parties are revolting so strongly against their influence.

The problem is that our elite are not doing a very good job of explaining why their worsening poverty is utterly unavoidable.

Any government policy creates winners and losers; that is simply unavoidable. That’s why I am always leery of articles about policy that consist of saying “This person has been helped” or “This person has been hurt.” Even the Soviet economy worked well -- for the commissars. But you cannot run a nation of 300 million people by competitive anecdote.

Although you can run a Bloomberg column that way. But we must be leery of people who say, "this can be done" or "that shouldn't be done" because nothing can ever be actually "done."

Market liberalism is no exception to this problem. The dynamic forces of creative destruction make many people better off, especially the descendants who will inherit the collective fruits of generations of American ingenuity. It also makes some people indisputably and permanently worse off, as previously stable and profitable careers are made obsolete. Those people are not going to accept that they’ll just have to lean into the strike zone and take one for the team, no matter how logically elegant your arguments.

Excuse me, I have to vomit.

Okay, I'm back.

Mrs. "children should rush gunmen" McArdle is no doubt proud of her elegant arguments but every argument needs two sides and the other side isn't living up to its side of the bargain. The poors must accept the fact that failure and success are both structural and non-structural and therefore nothing should be done to prevent failure and nothing can be done to create success. Things just... happen.

That said, the arguments for market liberalism are bound to sound a lot less convincing when they invariably issue from the folks who aren’t expected to take one for the team -- who are, in fact, being made better off, thanks to skills that are prized by the global market and thanks to trade, automation and immigration that have put more goods and services within their reach.

No shit, Sherlock.

It’s not so easy to remedy that problem, since academic economists and policy analysts are among the knowledge workers who have benefited greatly from liberalization. On the other hand, those people could stop being so tone deaf in the way that they talk about these things, and so blithely sure that what is good for them is, always and everywhere, good for everyone else.

Since McArdle just blithely asserted that what was good for her must be accepted by everyone else, this is going to be interesting.

To see what I mean, let’s look at something that elites consistently fail to talk about in any meaningful way: good jobs. Oh, we talk around those things. We talk about trade and immigration, if forced, though we do not of course do any listening on the same topic. We talk about inequality, and paid leave. We talk about education. Politicians make ritual obeisances toward the necessity of decent work, promising that some policy, laughably inadequate to the task, will provide thousands of good jobs doing something we want to do for completely different reasons, like reducing carbon emissions.

McArdle said open trade was wonderful because it meant she had cheaper goods and services, although sucks to be you, of course. She denied any meaningful income inequality existed. She said people don't deserve retirement, which she called a vacation. She said the government should not make student loans available. She said not everyone should go to college; we need better servants anyway. She said any stimulus jobs were useless make-work. Megan McArdle has done her damnedest to downplay any talk or action that might help anyone else but Megan McArdle.

But neither party has any meaningful policy to foster good work -- by which I mean work that offers opportunity, stability, respect and enough money to raise a family.  The closest either party comes is the $15-an-hour minimum wage, a policy with the slight drawback that it may throw a lot of people out of work.

McArdle sticks in that "may" because there is ample proof that $15/hr does not put that many people out of work. She is lying by omission and implication but nobody cares. It is possible to find meaningful liberal policies to create jobs--it isn't that hard--but McArdle omits/lies about that too. Also, she has no problem with people being unable to find good work. She thinks they're lucky because they can pick up Uber fares between school, work, child care, and their third job.

Instead of asking how we have ended up with an economy that offers stability and reward only to the holders of a college diploma, and how we might change that, elites of both parties focus on the things they want for themselves. Republicans offer tax cuts and deregulation, as if everyone in America were going to become an entrepreneur. Democrats offer free college tuition and paid maternity leave, as if these things were a great benefit to people who don’t have the ability, preparation or inclination to sit through four years of college, and as a result, can’t find a decent job from which to take their leave.

Getting a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job. McArdle should know that and probably does.

I'm only a half a dozen paragraphs in and already the lies are too thick to explicate. Liberal elites don't offer free college tuition. They offer exactly what we gained under the last eight years of a Democratic president: more poverty and some social gains. Democrats emphasize talking about providing jobs, not just tuition, although both parties say that getting an education will lead to getting a good job.

While there are a lot of things on the parties' agendas that primarily benefit the educated, there are very few that primarily benefit people who aren’t like us. The implicit assumption of elites in both parties is that the solution for the rest of the country is to become more like us, either through education or entrepreneurship. Rarely does anyone discuss how we might build an economy that works for people who aren’t like us and don’t want to turn into us.

For once and for all: Megan McArdle is not an elite. She is a servant of the elite. Her father became wealthy but his wealth is nothing compared to the wealth of the people who sign her paychecks. Without the billionaire media moguls, McArdle would be a middle manager at whatever company in which her father could get her a position. She's Dwight Schrute in a wrap-around dress.

And the giant hole at the center of this discussion we aren’t having is work. We talk a lot about how to palliate the effects of a labor market that no longer offers many rewards to the less educated. We act as if jobs inevitably grow, like weeds, in the fertile soil of capitalism. Or worse, as if they were a sort of optional intermediary step in the important business of distributing money and fringe benefits. Given how central work is to the lives of the elite, how fearful we are of losing our own careers, this belief is somewhat inexplicable. It’s also politically suicidal, as the current moment now shows us.

McArdle never got over the shock of being dumped by Wall Street. And she should be afraid of losing her career because she is very bad at it and times are changing. The elite will need to hire a few working class journalists, or at least elite journalists who can pretend to be working class, until all this poverty nonsense is over with and things can go back to normal.

People have been pondering the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, wondering why people are suddenly so exercised by populism at a moment when employment is all right, incomes are not plummeting, China is faltering, and Mexican immigration is flowing south across the border rather than north. The simple answer is that people don’t worry about statistics. They worry about their own lives, and especially, they worry about work.

Even if they are still consuming the same amount of stuff, even if their incomes are all right for the moment, if people feel that they cannot count on work, then they will feel helpless and frightened, and they will turn to politicians who can assuage those fears by pointing to specific enemies who can be vanquished to secure their safety.

In the past McArdle told herself and us that income inequality didn't matter as long as there were consumption equality, which she determined to be the ownership of a tv and refrigerator.

Democrats convinced that they have the answer to populism in the form of more social welfare programs are as gravely mistaken as the Republicans who focused on the same old pro-business program while the populist revolution was rising in their own party. Populist movements do not arise because people are desperately worried about inadequate tuition subsidies. They arise because people are worried about their physical security and their ability to make a decent life for themselves.

Bernie Sanders does not exist for the purpose of this essay, evidently.

And “for themselves” is the important phrase in that sentence. Of course it is true that no man is an island; anything you have beyond what you could wring out of the land with your own hands without benefit of modern tools is as much a product of the society around you as it is of your own efforts. But that does not mean that most people will be content to be the well-fed wards of that society, or for that matter, to be the wardens. Most people want to be in a reciprocal relationship with the society around them, providing valued labor in return for valued goods and services. Giving them the goods and services without the work is as unsatisfying as giving someone an Olympic gold medal for a sport they’ve never competed in.

I thought people were poor because they were lazy and slutty?

There is no better example of the folly of the elites than the current fashion for a universal basic income among both liberals and libertarians. Instead of trying to figure out something hard, like how to build an economy that provides adequate work for everyone, the idea is to do something easy, like give them checks.

Free money is only for people who have the right Daddies. Inheritances, as she said above, are very good things to have but the UBI gives her a sad. This is a bait-and-switch as well, of course. Success is structural and there's nothing we can do to build a fair economy, as McArdle said.

I’ve argued about the technical aspects of this before -- how much it would cost, what it would mean for immigration policy, how difficult it would actually be to replace many of the welfare programs that are supposed to be cut to pay for it with a straight-out cash transfer. Leave those aside. The idea that a universal basic income can substitute for a job is exactly the sort of thing that makes sense to an educated elite that already has a lot of other sources of status and reward in our society.

So far McArdle's plans to help the poor are rather thin. She tells us that people are terrified of losing their source of income to the point of embracing Trump's fascist tendencies but we mustn't cut people checks for money to survive because it wouldn't be emotionally satisfying. Cutting checks for tax cuts is fine, however, as long as it serves its purpose: helping the elite get away with cutting themselves even bigger checks. I'm sure when McArdle gets her tax refund back she sits down and cries because the US can't afford tax deductions.

I’ve sat on a lot of panels on this topic, and inevitably someone waxes lyrical about the creative possibilities that will be unleashed by a universal basic income, the opportunities for art, community service, political activism, cultivation of family and friends. This is, needless to say, completely divorced from the actual experience of communities with high rates of long-term dependence, whether they are American communities where Social Security disability has become a substitute for long-gone industrial work, or European countries with a long-term dole.

The opportunities for milk and cereal, shoes, bus fare, rent are completely divorced from the reality of people with disabilities or the unemployed.

Being out of work makes people unhappy and depressed, even when they have an income stream to take care of their basic needs. What those unhappy depressed people mostly increase when they are out of work is their sleeping and television-watching; during the great recession, volunteering, education and exercise basically didn’t budge.

You know that she's talking about herself, right? She admitted once that she didn't try hard enough to find work. She was wretchedly unhappy to be unable to buy new "frocks." She probably gained weight. Because McArdle acted miserably, so will everyone else.

By the way, I am not providing links to most of my claims because I've made and linked them countless times before, McArdle's past output is deliberately difficult to find, and I only have so much time to waste on McArdle.

But how many of today’s mandarin class are actually intimately familiar with those types of communities? Very few, so instead they imagine the only dependent community they are familiar with: a college dormitory.

It's still McArdle talking about herself.

I will give the universal basic income people this much; even if they aren’t really grappling with the need for work, at least they understand that there is a problem in the labor markets. That’s more than you’d gather from the major speeches or the policy programs of our two main political parties.

If the elites want to sell market liberalism, and immigration, and all the rest of the package, then the first thing they have to do is stop talking to each other about these things, and start thinking about how to listen and talk to everyone else.

Now that McArdle has catalogued her own failures, she needs to come up with a way to ensure her career does not falter. She, and Douthat, Brooks, Kristof, et. al  now want to tell us how to correct our mistake (listening to them) by listening to them some more.

Remember that McArdle was absent from her blog for most of a week and then came up with her suddenly faux-sympathetic take on the poor. What follows is probably the result of a meeting with her higher-ups, and their advice for success in this brave new world of poor people.

Don’t answer every question about jobs with boilerplate about clean energy, or entrepreneurship, or anything that assumes that the solution to our problems is to somehow arrange for everyone in America to get a four-year degree.

The old crap won't work. Come up with some new crap.

Don’t assume that the rest of the country is full of Morlocks who do not need what you have for yourself: a stable job that connects you to other people, gives you a sense of usefulness and security, and offers you some chance at an even better future.

Don't refer to your readers as Morlocks. (Whoops!!)

Don’t try to assuage security concerns about immigration by comparing terrorism to car accidents, or any other impersonal and undeterrable force. In other words, treat people as people, with normal people-type emotions, rather than abstract statistics, or undifferentiated blobs of human potential waiting to be molded into your image.

Moving discussion from a practical, real-world discussion to an elevated, impersonal academic discussion no longer works. Pretend to care about each nasty couch-surfing, Cheetos-eating, Target-wearing littlebrain.

That improved conversation is not an answer to either the political or the economic problems that Americans are facing. But at least it’s a start.

To the next stage of her brilliant career. Meanwhile the poor will no doubt be extraordinarily grateful that the elite no longer talk down to them while they are ripping off the poor of everything they might ever own. Big Thinker Solution for the win!


Anonymous said...

Nicely done. A well-deserved take down.

Susan of Texas said...

Thank you.

Robert Muir said...

"The problem is that our elite are not doing a very good job of explaining why their worsening poverty is utterly unavoidable. "

And perhaps you also will be able to explain why those who are getting screwed should continue to give any support a system that seems hell bent on destroying them.

Dear Lord not even the French Ancient Regime was THIS clueless.

fish said...

Qu'ils mangent de la brioche

Susan of Texas said...

And let it be ordered from Amazon and delivered by Uber to a gentrified residence.

Ufotofu9 said...

"Instead of trying to figure out something hard, like how to build an economy that provides adequate work for everyone, the idea is to do something easy, like give them checks."

So McCardle is a Donner Party Conservative:

For those unfamiliar with the delightful appellation, coined by blogger John Holbo in 2003, it refers to the brand of conservative thinking that defends America's relatively minimal welfare state and anemic economic regulations on the grounds that it's good for people to have to struggle and suffer to get by -- just like those plucky, entrepreneurial pioneers who resorted to cannibalism to avoid starvation while trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains back in the winter of 1846-1847. For some Donner Party Conservatives, struggle and suffering are good because they call forth and demand great acts of virtue, which serves to replenish the ever-diminishing stockpile of "moral capital" that our nation has inherited from its (pre-liberal) past. Murray himself argues this point at length. But he also claims that struggle and suffering are good because they are a necessary condition of human happiness.

... shouldn't Americans be envious that European governments impose so many burdensome regulations on business, since those formidable obstacles to success must increase the likelihood that successful European entrepreneurs will get to enjoy happiness.

Robert Muir said...

"But he also claims that struggle and suffering are good because they are a necessary condition of human happiness."

Why do I think he is the sort that Freaks out if his Latte has whole milk?

And I have noticed that he is rather thin skinned when it comes to himself. As always suffering for thee but not for me.