Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Those Knees Are Looking A Little Ragged

Journalists were never intended to be the cheerleaders of a society, the conductors of applause, the sycophants. Tragically, that is their assigned role in authoritarian societies, but not here -- not yet.

-Chet Huntley

That was then--this is now.

After informing us that The Welfares (and we all know who they are) will violently take the streets if bankers are forced to have smaller bonuses, McMoron McArdle doubles down on the offensiveness. Her distaste for those below her on the social and economic ladder couldn't be more obvious, but in her world ass-kissing the rich is the new black, and McSycophant is nothing if not stylish.

SYCOPHANT, n. One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he

may not be commanded to turn and be kicked. He is sometimes an editor.

As the lean leech, its victim found, is pleased
To fix itself upon a part diseased
Till, its black hide distended with bad blood,
It drops to die of surfeit in the mud,
So the base sycophant with joy descries
His neighbor's weak spot and his mouth applies,
Gorges and prospers like the leech, although,
Unlike that reptile, he will not let go.
Gelasma, if it paid you to devote
Your talent to the service of a goat,
Showing by forceful logic that its beard
Is more than Aaron's fit to be revered;
If to the task of honoring its smell
Profit had prompted you, and love as well,
The world would benefit at last by you
And wealthy malefactors weep anew --
Your favor for a moment's space denied
And to the nobler object turned aside.
Is't not enough that thrifty millionaires
Who loot in freight and spoliate in fares,
Or, cursed with consciences that bid them fly
To safer villainies of darker dye,
Forswearing robbery and fain, instead,
To steal (they call it "cornering") our bread
May see you groveling their boots to lick
And begging for the favor of a kick?
Still must you follow to the bitter end
Your sycophantic disposition's trend,
And in your eagerness to please the rich
Hunt hungry sinners to their final ditch?
In Morgan's praise you smite the sounding wire,
And sing hosannas to great Havemeyher!
What's Satan done that him you should eschew?
He too is reeking rich -- deducting _you_.
-Ambrose Bierce

Let's look at this again: :"Still must you follow to the bitter end Your sycophantic disposition's trend,
And in your eagerness to please the rich Hunt hungry sinners to their final ditch?" It seems that for every Golden Age of robber barons we must endure their boot-lickers telling us to bow before the rich and serve them.

I've said before that I don't care about income inequality per se, and that focusing on it seems more like institutionalized envy than sound policy.  I care about the absolute condition of the poor--do they have the basics of a decent life?  And I care about whether income inequality itself produces some sort of structural advantage in the political system.  (I'm skeptical).
What possible advantage could one  have by being very very rich while everyone else is poor? I just can't think of a single one. If a few people have almost all the money, and therefore almost all the power, and all the access to all the advantages money buys, how could that possibly hurt the poor? Anyone who thinks that having the nation's wealth concentrated in a few hands is unhealthy for the economy is just, well, jealous of the super-smart, super-hard-working, super-wonderful rich, who deserve everything they get!

Frederick: I thought we liked stripes this year.
Cruella De Vil: What kind of sycophant are you?
Frederick: Uh... what kind of sycophant would you like me to be?

On the other hand, income mobility is a very important issue. Regardless of how far the top is from the bottom, children born in America should have an equal chance to move from the latter to the former. This is especially important given that so many of the highest-paid jobs are also the most pleasant.

Many people apparently agree with me: the issue of income mobility has become more prominent in policy debates over the last few years. And yet I submit that this agreement is entirely theoretical. How many of the people reading this blog would actually tolerate a one-in-five chance that their children would end up poor?

Because that's what income mobility actually means. It doesn't just mean giving a lift to the folks at the bottom--superior health care, better K-12 education. Everyone in the country cannot be above average. For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest.
This is how this woman thinks. There it is, her weltanschauung and raison d'etre and all those other cool foreign words, spread out for the world to see in all is sickening glory. The only goal in life is to claw your way to the top, it's either you or me, and let's face it--just between us upper middle class Atlantic readers--it's going to be me on top, and not them

"But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant." ~ Thomas Paine

Who among the parents fighting so hard to get their kids into a good school is going to volunteer to have their kid give up the slot in the upper middle class? People are willing to accept a certain amount of slippage, but only as long as it comes with added job security (government) or special fulfillment (the ministry, the arts)--and even in the latter cases, Mom and Dad will often be strenuously arguing against following your calling. But how many doctors and lawyers would simply glumly accept it if you told them that sorry, junior's going to be an intermittently employed long-haul trucker, and your darling daughter is going to work the supermarket checkout, because all the more lucrative and interesting slots went to smarter and more talented people?

I thought we lived in a meritocracy? God knows McArdle has spouted those words often enough. Now we are told that the upper middle class must keep out the smarter and more talented members of the lower class to preserve their own privilege, which just happens to be McArdle's main goal in life. Which also makes her a conservative, not libertarian, but McArdle does not mind elbowing out real libertarians if it gains her an advantage. For we live in some zero-sum game in which every time someone else makes good, McArdle is deprived of some of her birthright.

To a first approximation, none. Oh, of course, middle class families do have those spectacular screw-ups who end up stuck in dead-end jobs, and they don't expel them or anything. But they would not cooperate with any system that made such a result fairly likely--and that is what we're actually talking about, when we're talking about rising income mobility. Someone in society is going to end up doing crappy jobs, because trash needs to be hauled and Alzheimer's patients need to have their diapers changed. The primary job of a middle class parent is to ensure that their children are not those people.

To a well deserving person God will show favor. To an ill deserving person He will simply be just. 

One of the reasons this is so hard is that so many of the problems poor people deal with are created by living near other poor people. Most poor people are not criminals, but most criminals are poor people, because crime actually doesn't pay (very well).
This is what happens when you don't prosecute Wall Street thugs and thieves: Megan McArdle gets to yammer in the Atlantic about how criminals are poor people who caught criminality from their degenerate neighbors. Crime paid very, very well for bankers, but this is ass-kissing, not journalism.
Most poor people take out their trash, maintain their homes, and stay off drugs--but the kind of people who don't do those things are disproportionately likely to end up in poverty. Which is to say, in your neighborhood, if you are poor--shooting at each other and hitting bystanders, breeding vermin that migrate into your living space, pilfering your stuff to support their drug habit.

Someone has to live near those people; whatever your expectations for antipoverty policy, it surely does not include the end of drug addiction and slovenly habits. But should it be your kid? Would you want them to have a one-in-five chance of living in those conditions? (Or the different, but not necessarily less miserable, conditions of rural poverty?) Of course not. You'd do anything you had to in order to keep that from happening.
McArdle ignores the cocaine-fueled upper class like Larry Kudlow and his ilk, as well as her own pot-smoking friends and relations. They aren't drug addicts, they are---uh---fighting for economic and civil freedom! That's it!
And so middle class parents do. They pay lip service to mobility, but they work damn hard to make sure that their kids don't get exposed to a peer group that might normalize dropping out and working low-wage, dead end jobs, or going on welfare.

No matter how deeply ideologically committed you are to public education and income mobility, you will not leave your kid in a high-poverty school where gangs are valorized and college is not--or even in a working class school that will close off the chances for admission to Harvard. You'll agitate against zoning that would bring poor people in (though of course, not because of the poor people, it's just that, you know, the character of the town is quiet single family houses and the infrastructure won't support multi-family plus we don't really have the social services here and they'd be much better off in Camden, actually.) With other like-minded parents, you'll take over the school and reshape its priorities to match those of the upper-middle class. Or you'll move to a different school system, naturally talking about the enrichment programs rather than the more affluent, education-focused peer group you're buying for your kids.
The one thing you will not say--unless you are isolated in a rural area with exactly one school and no critical mass of similar parents--is, "Oh, well, I guess the best we can hope for is a third-tier state school." It is no accident that the middle class bits of the New York City school system have managed to hijack the best resources for themselves, in the process building a pretty good public school system which exists cheek-by-jowl with a very lousy one.
Income mobility is one of the pillars of the American dream, one of the basic precepts of American Exceptionalism. And McArdle simply denies it. She is upper middle class, her audience is upper middle class, therefore income inequality is just fine and income mobility is a bad thing that might rob them of something, somewhere, somehow. This paean to selfishness, this laudatory lavatory paper, this I-got-mine-fuck-you-Jack--it contradicts everything we are supposed to hold dear. It's not that McArdle is selfish and greedy and miserly. It's that she feels perfectly at ease admitting it. She does not fear any kind of retribution whatsoever, socially or professionally. No priest is going to denounce her--she has no religion but money. No friends will shun her--they are as eager for wealth and power as she. And of course the more servile she becomes, the richer she becomes. It's win-win, if you are a lackey with no pride, morality or shame.

Remember, this is the meritocratic system we're talking about. This is the system that was supposed to break the spine of the old aristocracy of wealth and pull--and did, only to replace it with one that seems to be even more ruthlessly effective at shielding their children from competition.

And that's the optimistic case--the case that assumes that there is virtually no parental transmission of real economic virtues, through genetics, intensive nurturing, or through the learned behaviors and peer effects that conservatives bundle up as "culture". Obviously, as you introduce those sorts of elements into the model, for which the sorts of interventions one can imagine run from horribly difficult to morally monstrous, the picture gets rather bleaker.

It will be very hard, I believe, to state in what respect the king has profited by that faction which presumptuously choose to call themselves his friends.

If particular men had grown into an attachment, by the distinguished honour of the society of their sovereign; and, by being the partakers of his amusements, came sometimes to prefer the gratification of his personal inclinations to the support of his high character, the thing would be very natural, and it would be excusable enough. But the pleasant part of the story is, that these king's friends have no more ground for usurping such a title, than a resident freeholder in Cumberland or in Cornwall. They are only known to their sovereign bv kissing his hand, for the offices, pensions, and grants, into which they have deceived his benignitv. May no storm ever come, which will put the firmness of their attachment to the proof; and which, in the midst of confusions. and terrours, and sufferings, may demonstrate the eternal difference between a true and severe friend to the monarchy, and a slippery sycophant to the court! Quantum infido scarrtB distabit amicus. --Edmund Burke

We should be talking about income mobility--it's probably the most important moral challenge facing our society. But I very much doubt that we'll end up doing much more than talk.

Not as long as McArdle has anything to say about it. The funny thing, however--and there is always a funny thing, thank God--is that nobody despises sycophants more than the rich and powerful.

"I, uh... I want to thank you all for coming here tonight and drinking all of my booze." [the guests laugh] "No, really. uh..." "To all of you, uh, to all of you phonies, all of you two-faced friends, you sycophantic suck-ups who smile through your teeth at me, please... leave me in peace. Please... go. Stop smiling. It's not a joke. Please leave. The party's over. Get out."-Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins


Anonymous said...

"And I'm certainly not going to insert myself into an argument between two very smart economists who spend a lot of time studying this question. But I was struck by a very troubling thought while I was reading through these debates: only one of these problems matters, and it's the problem that we can't solve. No, strike that. I'm not sure whether the problem can be solved or not. What I am very sure of is that we do not want to solve it, and that for that reason, we are very probably not going to."

This speaks for itself. At least she doesn't say she's a very smart economist though.

Ben said...

This is really great. Bravo l'artiste.

Anonymous said...

I can't stomach McArdle, but I usually enjoy your take-downs. I was too disgusted by her to get through this one, though. It may take me a few tries...

cynic said...

Everyone in the country cannot be above average. For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest.

It simply does not occur to her that it is possible to actually raise the average.

The woman is borderline evil.

fish said...

As much as it pains me to say it (and I only read Susan's excerpts not the whole thing), and as much stupid as there is in the post, I think her main point is that when push comes to shove, people (even so called liberals) will resist allowing upward mobility if it means they and their kids will lose the advantages they have. And she is probably right.

atat said...

I like how one of her two examples of "crappy jobs" that nobody wants is caring for Alzeimer's patients. Sanitation work and caring for the elderly were the two worst jobs she could think of. Bizarre.

antonello said...

But how many doctors and lawyers would simply glumly accept it if you told them that sorry, junior's going to be an intermittently employed long-haul trucker, and your darling daughter is going to work the supermarket checkout, because all the more lucrative and interesting slots went to smarter and more talented people?

Usually, with pundits of the McArdle sort, they are perpetually a-tremble in Paris during the summer of 1789. The peasants are on the march. They advance, hideously, criminally, armed with pitchforks and knives. They arrive, scowling and cackling, at the estates of the haplessly powerful. Can this ungodly upheaval be stopped in time?

But now, re-working the formula a bit, McArdle offers some variety. Here we are, stranded in China in the depths of the Cultural Revolution. Observe professors forced to scrub latrines! He was once the emperor of China, but now he is a lowly municipal gardener!

After a disappointing year, the big banks are pulling back on their bonus pools. A lot. This is going to be hard on bankers whose salaries are usually a very small part of their overall compensation--and yes, yes, before you drag out the world's smallest violin, let me agree that they have no entitlement to anything more. Nonetheless, people tend to build their life around their expected salaries, and in New York, this choice is particularly important.

But not so important if one is part of the hoi polloi. Offshored jobs, downsized jobs, vanished pensions, loss of benefits: they're the birth pangs of an evolving world, and you'd better evolve along with it. Pity the rich who are threatened with change; babble smugly to everyone else.

A libertarian sycophant: it's an ugly, smelly job, but someone's got to do it. You dream of mastery while drudging away as a hack. One day, surely, you will rise. You will get to be as busily lazy-minded as a David Brooks or Thomas Friedman. You will be a sage, a mover and shaker, a seminal force. In the mean time, however, you must pretend to be an economist.

Kathy said...

Fish: but there should not be a "limited" number of middle-class, upper middle class professions being fought over tooth and claw. That wasn't the case in the 50's, 60's and 70's, probably thanks to the high taxes levied on "teh rich".

But once the Rich were allowed to keep more and more of their un-rightfully earned wealth, they created the class war between poor & middle class and upper-middle class, in order to keep from ever again handing over "their" money (as if it hadn't been created by the sweat of the Poor/Middle Class).

And now they're sitting on that money. Money that used to be constructively to fund schools, hospitals, build roads, send men into space.

Just. Sitting. On. It.

Sneering at the 99.9%ers

Anonymous said...

What McArdle seems not to realize is that increasing inequality has altered the ratio of poor to middle, and middle to rich.

When a greater portion of income goes to the top 1% every year, more middle-class people fall into poverty; and when this continues for decades, our nation, which used to be dominated by a large and prosperous middle class, becomes more like the banana-republic/oligarchical model of small, obscenely wealthy ruling class, small and struggling middle, and large, hopeless underclass.

In such a society hardly anyone lives comfortably: the rich cower in fortified compounds, the middle class sees its living standard constantly falling, and the poor are powerless to change their lot in life, short of revolution.

Historically, people have come to the United States to escape such societies. Now we are becoming one.

She is right that any parent, no matter what their politics, will fight for their children's chances in life.

But that misses the point, which is that increasing inequality is bad for everyone, and bad for our country; whereas policies that aim to increase the size of the middle class will offer opportunities to the children of the poor, WITHOUT creating the zero-sum "if they rise, we must fall" scenario which McArdle seems to believe is the only option.

Nancy Irving

Lurking Canadian said...

I am utterly speechless with horror at this one. Upper middle class comfort or squalor? Those are literally the only two options she can imagine? How can she be so completely ignorant of the economic history of...the industrial world?

Anonymous said...

McArdle simultaneously acknowledges and ignores the fact that income inequity is a symptom, and not the problem in and of itself.

Normally, I would be impressed with a writer who could pull that off with as little visible effort as she showed, but since it's McArdle, it must have been a happy accident rather than the result of effort or skill or anything like that.

- spencer

tony in san diego said...

"No matter how deeply ideologically committed you are to public education and income mobility, you will not leave your kid in a high-poverty school where gangs are valorized and college is not--or even in a working class school that will close off the chances for admission to Harvard. "

Who the fork is her audience for this essay? The parents of Harvard freshmen? What about the rest of the nation? I guess all friends plan to send the prodgies to Harvard...where else.

But not all American kids expect to go there.

Larkspur said...

"...and your darling daughter is going to work the supermarket checkout...."

I fucking hate this kind of bullshit. So McArdle is happy to receive her million dollar ThermoCookbot contraption. Does she not understand how she received it, about how many lesser human beings had a part in assembling it, packing it, shipping it? And how these lesser humans then unpacked it, put it on a shelf, opened the damn store on time in the morning, waited on superior humans like McArdle, took her money, processed her credit card transaction, answered her questions about the item's use, and then in all likelihood said "Thank you for shopping here" as McArdle breezed out.

Did she notice that she didn't slip and fall on broken steps, malfunctioning escalators, or widely strewn garbage - because some lesser working stiffs keep working on that shit? And where exactly did she get the food items she fed into that fancy new machine? Ooh! A kind of store-like establishment that offers vegetables, meats, and cheese in exchange for money.

Age quod agis, McArdle. Do what you're doing. All the checkout clerks at my favorite local supermarket do their jobs better than McArdle does hers.

Mr.Wonderful said...

McArdle likes to traffic in "let's face it" demands that, she thinks, invoke universally-acknowledged facts (about human nature, mostly) and mark her writing as sensible and honest.

So it's "let's face it: middle class parents will fight for advantages for their kids, regardless of their politics" and "let's face it, New York City finance workers are embedded in a certain lifestyle as a consequence of living in NYC, and need their bonuses." The exigencies of "human nature" must be acknowledged and accommodated.

But when you counter with, "let's face it, greed is a universal, eternal human vice and all of society (and capitalism) must be protected from its proven bad consequences" or "let's face it, privilege, and the desire to defend it, have been with us since the dawn of civilization, and every noble political development, from Magna Carta to Tahrir Square, has served to limit its power," she's a "libertarian," living in a world in which all things are possible for people of merit and ability, nothing is fated, and there wouldn't be any poverty if it weren't for all those damn poor people.

Anonymous said...

Oh hey, McArdle shows up and accuses Andrew of cherrypicking data and that a FRESHMAN would get FLUNKED for it.


fish said...

Fish: but there should not be a "limited" number of middle-class, upper middle class professions being fought over tooth and claw.

Yup, the real miss in the article isn't that people will strongly resist losing advantages, it is that income inequality forces all the issues she brought up.

aimai said...

I agree with everyone except that its clear she's not borderline evil--she's beyond even the banality of evil. She's straight up evil. The only human weakness I see here (other than a propensity for self deception) is that she can't face her evil alone and she subsitutes "we" and "they" and "the middle class" for the truly degraded thinking that she would otherwise have to attribute to...herself.

Of course pouring money into--say--public parks, sanitation, cleaning the streets, public schools, public hospitals, public libraries, public spaces, public arts would materially raise the salaries and job prospects of the working poor and the middle class while simultaneously ameliorating all of the ills she sees that keep the middle class from being able even to tolerate the presence of the poor.

Enough jobs means rising wages, loss of fear of unemployment, and more money in the economy to pay people for the work they are doing. High taxes to pay for public goods that are evenly distributed (including care of public spaces) create low unemployment and that, in turn, creates a healthy, happy, society in which people don't need to steal (theft isn't really a big problem from poor to rich its really a big problem within poor neighborhoods or from rich to poor when credit cards, banks, realtors, police, hospitals, and etc... rip off people who have the least chance of fighting back. And people who have good, safe, jobs don't need to self medicate to get through the pain of life.

Jeebus on toast points you don't have to be any kind of economist to know that. You just have to be minimally observant and minorly humane.

My grandfather was an economist. A new dealer and a Keynsian and all like that. It used to be that whenever I travelled through India if I bumped into an old white guy in his sixties or seventies he would turn out to be a development economist who knew him. These guys always had some powerful story to tell about why they became economists. One told me , he was Dutch, that as a boy he had been in a Japanese Internment camp in Indonesia and the sight of the other prisoners starving to death, and his own hunger, had given him a lifelong purpose to alleviate suffering and hunger.

Megan and her ilk just aren't fit to lick their boots.


cynic said...

Aw, come on aimai... she comes from a family of academics who are intellectually intimidating.

So there.

Anonymous said...

"Everyone in the country cannot be above average. For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest."

Those two sentences may be the most sub par lines of thought that these eyes have ever read.

Were this reader someone who believed in violence merely for the pure enjoyment of violence, this reader would strongly support the extended beatings of one Suderman, Peter and McArdle, Francis X. with steel crowbars. Preferably steel crowbars Made in the Ole' U.S. of A.

Batocchio said...

Gawd, her title is unusually honest for her and especially loathsome.

I can’t count how many conservatives and "libertarians" have made her basic argument or variations on it. Their key objective (hackwork is all about achieving/avoiding a specific outcome) is that you should not raise taxes on the rich. I particularly like:

"And I care about whether income inequality itself produces some sort of structural advantage in the political system. (I'm skeptical). But I don't care whether Bill Gates lives in a giant robot house that cost eighteen-squintillion dollars. What I care about is whether some kid is growing up in a roach infested shack with no heat--something that has basically nothing to do with the size of Gates' fortune."

Yes, what possibly can be done about this? It's such a puzzle! Public policy cannot address income and wealth inequality in any significant way!

'Capitalism is about winners and losers,' so who cares if the losers have to eat cat food or go without health care and die? Gosh, if McMegan really cared about the "absolute condition of the poor," we could just make a much more progressive tax system and investing that money in the Commons (with some extra help for the poor).

aimai said...

I like the implication of Batocchio's quote that "caring about taxing the rich in order to help the poor" is somehow vulgar and almost prurient while Megan's vapid Cavuto mark style "thinking" about the poor "I wonder about poor kids, I really do" is somehow itself a thoughtful and moral act of charitable goodness.

Also, Megan's main "tell" and her go to phrase is "Lets Face It..." Just as Newt ricchochets from "Frankly" to something that I've suppressed Megan always follows "Lets Face It" with a straight up lie masquerading as a brave truth.

I do wonder how conversation goes in that household:

"Lets face do not want dessert, you want me to have dessert."

Lets face it, we all hate toddlers because they are untidy, expensive, loud and demand virtue.

Lets face it, you would have forgotten to pay your taxes too.

Lets face it, everyone is a six foot tall elf masquerading as an economist...

Maybe Lets face it is her "whocoodanode?"


cynic said...


I think you ahve hit the nail on the head with the 'hoocoodanode' comment.

Here is McMegan in a straight faced post about the 'cost of cancer drugs'

I tend to think that more of the questions are like this one. Is spending $50,000 to give a pancreatic cancer patient an extra 5-9 months of life a wasted expenditure, or a medical advance? On the one hand, 5-9 months isn't very long. On the other hand, for a typical pancreatic cancer patient, you've doubled their lifespan, which seems like a very long time indeed.

I love the way she unquestioningly accepts that the drug company has the right to price the drug at 50k for a treatment and someone should reimburse them for it - only question is who - or the patient should die.

She spent the entire health care debate railing against making precisely this kind of tradeoff decision as 'death panels' and here she is with 'hoocoodanode'.

It never gets old, really.

Susan of Texas said...

I can't figure out what I like best--the way everything is all about her, or her assumption that the entire world is trying to claw its way into a tiny elite world, or her idolatry of the rich and overt contempt for the poor.

She'd make a great sitcom, like an evil I Love Lucy. Instead of scheming to get into Ricky's act, McArdle could scheme to aid Koch Industries.

Wacky hijinks ensue.

Batocchio said...

As always, I welcome all riffs, additions and amendments from aimai.

She'd make a great sitcom, like an evil I Love Lucy. Instead of scheming to get into Ricky's act, McArdle could scheme to aid Koch Industries.

Wacky hijinks ensue.

You realize you have to write this now, don't you? "I Love Ayn, starring Megan McArdle, who each week fights back the hoards of unwashed moochers!"

fish said...

With that hilarious scene where she beats the worker on the candy wrapper line for not being able to keep up with the rate of candy going by.

Anonymous said...

Megan is now third on the sidebar at the Atlantic behind Fallows and Wright.

Susan of Texas said...

I so have to write that script.