Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Moral Lessons

From a study on libertarianism:
We introduced Study 2 with [Ayn] Rand's claim that Western culture can only be reborn when it can be founded on “a rational ethics.” Consistent with Rand's writing and psychological research concerning the intuitive origins of moral reasoning [8], we found that libertarians were indeed less emotional (less disgust sensitivity, empathic concern, and neuroticism) than liberals and conservatives. This lack of emotional reactivity may underlie an indifference towards common moral norms, and an attraction to an ideology where these moral codes are absent, libertarianism. The only emotional reaction on which libertarians were not lowest was reactance – the angry reaction to infringements upon one's autonomy – for which libertarians scored higher than both liberals and conservatives. This disposition toward reactance may lead to the moralization of liberty and an attraction to an ideology that exalts liberty above other moral principles – namely, libertarianism.

Megan McArdle tells food writers to stop telling her what she should eat:

A food writer who is telling other people how they could eat, if they wanted to, is doing a great public service. A food writer who is telling other people how they should eat (just like me, except without my access to ingredients) is just obnoxious. You can't possibly know how they should eat, unless you have spent some time living their lives. 
And her friends could really wipe those smirks off their faces and stop telling her what to drink.

 And if I may insert a personal plea: could the bittermongers please knock it off with the sneers? Somehow, in the collective cocktail consciousness of America's hipsters, "bitter" has become synonymous with "sophisticated". Bitter beer is good beer, bitter cocktails are good cocktails, and the louts who like things thin or sweet deserve what they get, which is everyone else at the bar struggling to conceal their bemused smile. Yet there are many of us who hate, hate, hate bitter flavors not because we haven't been exposed to them, nor because we're unadventurous slobs who would really rather be hooked up to a glucose IV. Personally, I find bitter flavors like Campari so strong that even a sip is on the verge of being physically aversive, as if you were punching me in the tongue. That's not a matter of sophistication, but a matter of personal chemistry.

Or how much to eat. (Not that she is fat!)

It's not quite fair to say that most of the public health experts I've seen talking about obesity are thin people brightly telling fat people that "Everything would be fine if you'd just be more like me!" But it's not really that far off the mark, either. In the words of another friend who struggled with his weight, and got quite testy when I suggested weight loss was easy, "You've hit the pick six in the genetic lottery, and you think you earned it."

McArdle doesn't care if you want someone to change for his own good-his health, wealth or pleasure. You just mind your own business and she'll mind hers. You have no idea how other people should live until you have spent some time living their lives.

Unless you are poor.

Somehow, Americans used to manage to get and stay married despite much more limited financial resources; how did they perform this seemingly impossible feat? Virtually any answer you give is going to come back to some version of "norms."

[... A] systematic difference between the way the affluent and the poor form families is going to mean systematic differences in the outcomes for affluent and poor kids.
Trying to explain this all with a bad labor market or insufficient government benefits won't wash, either. It doesn't explain why people in 1930, who were much poorer in every sense than people today and had virtually nothing in the way of a government safety net, managed to get and stay married. As David Brooks notes, to explain the problem -- and to fix it -- you also need to talk about community norms.

In 1930 it was much more difficult to get a divorce and very soon after divorces plummeted because nobody could afford to leave. Divorces increased when it became easier to get one, when the Depression ended, or when wars ended. More marriages lead to more divorces, and most especially the younger the couple, the more likely they were to divorce. Conservative states marry and divorce more and marry younger than liberal states. Very religious people divorce less, moderately or non-religious people are much more likely to divorce. Conservative people, from colonial times to now, try to reduce the ability to divorce and liberals try to increase it.

But one thing cannot be disputed: two incomes are greater than one and parents with one income are at a great disadvantage. Which is why Megan McArdle has definitively proven that women should never stay home with their children and that a polygamous family is preferable to a two-parent family.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are -- in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents -- is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.
People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families -- two of them -- so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can't substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can't, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.
Women who work are forced to spend far less time and energy on their children, which is always bad for the children, as McArdle has proven. Several mothers looking after the children in one household will save money rather than several independent households and give more attention to the children. Some of the mothers can work, adding all-important income to the family. Surely if two incomes are good, four or five are even better. Any household with one woman and one man, especially if the woman stays home to tend her children, is cheating society and will lead to its ruin.  Megan McArdle said so.

Fortunately McArdle already has a solution to this problem. The social norms that say a woman or man should be able to leave a bad marriage if necessary could be changed somehow and she knows just how to do it. "Hollywoood" can simply show married people in movies and tv, and then marriage will be the norm among poor people, instead of divorce.

Entertainment is a surprisingly powerful venue for articulating social norms, and if Hollywood decided that it had a social responsibility to promote stable families and changed its story lines accordingly, that might actually do some good.
I'm not talking about sticking a few propaganda story lines into Very Special Episodes of some sitcom, which wouldn't do a darn thing. Rather, I'm saying that if Hollywood actually believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do.
To check McArdle's theory, let's look at the most popular movies of 1930, which surely led to the strong state of marriage at that time.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front Universal / $3,000,000 Lew Ayres
2. Whoopee! United Artists / $2,600,000 Eddie Cantor
3. Hell's Angels United Artists / $8,000,000 Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon and James Hall
4. Animal Crackers Paramount / $1,500,000 Marx Brothers
5. Feet First Paramount / $1,300,000 Harold Lloyd
6. The Rogue Song MGM Lawrence Tibbett
7. The Life of the Party Warner Bros. Winnie Lightner
8. Hold Everything Warner Bros. Winnie Lightner, Joe E. Brown
9. Sunny MGM Marilyn Miller
10. The Vagabond King Paramount Dennis King, Jeanette MacDonald
11. Song of the Flame Warner Bros. Noah Beery, Bernice Claire
12. The Green Goddess

I am embarrassed to note that I have seen only one of these movies. Let's check Mr. Wikipedia to see how strongly these movies encouraged marriage.

Hell's Angels-"Roy (James Hall) and Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon) are very different British brothers. Strait-laced Roy loves and idealizes the apparently demure Helen (Jean Harlow). Monte, on the other hand, is a womanizer. Their German friend and fellow Oxford student Karl (John Darrow) is against the idea of having to fight England when World War I breaks out. Meanwhile, the oblivious Monte is caught in the arms of a woman by her German officer husband (Lucien Prival), who insists upon a duel the next day. Monte flees that night. When Roy is mistaken for his brother, he goes ahead with the duel and is shot in the arm. Karl is conscripted into the German Air Force, and the two British brothers enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Monte only to get a kiss from a girl at the recruiting station. When Roy finally introduces Monte to Helen, she invites Monte to her flat. Monte tries to rebuff her advances for his brother's sake, but gives in. The next morning, however, he is for once ashamed of himself."

Yikes! Not that moral, is it? Perhaps others are better.

The Green Goddess-"A small plane carrying three British citizens — Major Crespin, his estranged wife Lucilla, and pilot Dr. Traherne — becomes lost and is forced to crash land in the tiny realm of Rukh, somewhere near the Himalaya Mountains. The Raja who rules the land welcomes them. However, as his three brothers are soon to be executed for murder by the British, his subjects believe that their Green Goddess has delivered into their hands three victims for their revenge. The three are to be killed once the brothers are dead. The Raja professes to his guests no great love for his brothers, as they had posed a danger to the succession of his own children, but sees no reason to anger his people. However, he becomes attracted to Lucilla and offers to spare her life if she will become his wife. She refuses."

That must be the moral bit. How about The Rogue Song? "The story takes place in Russia in the year 1910. Yegor (Lawrence Tibbett), a dashing (as well as singing) bandit leader meets Princess Vera (Catherine Dale Owen) at a mountain inn. They fall in love, but the relationship is shattered when Yegor kills Vera's brother, Prince Serge, for raping his sister, Nadja, and driving her to suicide. Yegor kidnaps Vera, forcing her to live a life of lowly servitude among the bandits. Vera manages to outwit Yegor, who is captured by soldiers and flogged. Vera begs Yegor's forgiveness. Although still in love with each other, they realize they cannot be together, at least for the time being."

How immoral! What a terrible example for American young personhood, Mr. Hollywood!

The Life of the Party-"Winnie Lightner and Irene Delroy work in a Broadway music shop. Lightner sings while Delroy plays the piano. Eddie Kane, their employer, complains to them that they are selling as much sheet music as they should be and that they will have to change their technique. After Lightner sings a song for a customer, after which, one of Delroy's admirers, Monsieur LeMaire (Charles Judels), an eccentric Frenchman who owns a modiste shop, enters the shop. He begins annoying Kane when he stars chatting with Delroy and asking her out and when Kane tells him to come back after they finish working Judels flies into a rage. LeMaire throws sheet music all over the store and then throw a phonograph out the front store window.

Because of this, Kane immediately fires both Delroy and Lightner. The scene moves to the apartment where Lightner and Delroy live. Delroy is reading the newspaper and finds out that her boyfriend has eloped with a rich elderly widow. She is so angry that she accepts Lightner's proposal that they be gold-diggers. Lightner suggests that their first victim be Judels and so the next day they begin to work for him. Judels soon asks Delroy and Lightner to a private party. Lightner tells Judels that they would love to attend but that they have no clothes. Judels tells them that they can borrow all the clothes they want from his modiste shop. Lightner and Delroy agree to attend the party and then pack off all the clothes they can carry with them. They head off to the train station with their luggage of expensive clothes and decide to go to Havana to make some real money.

Once Lightner and Delroy arrive in Havana they find that a millionaire named Smith, who invented a famous soft drink, is staying at the hotel. They assume that a mean spirited, and snobby acting man, played by John Davidson, is the millionaire but the true millionaire is a young, pleasant and down to earth man played by Jack Whiting. Delroy falls in love with Whiting, much to the chagrin of Lightner who forces her to try to get Davidson. Davidson, unbeknownst to Lightner and Delroy, is actually a gigolo looking for a rich woman to pay his meal ticket. Just as Delroy is to marry Davidson, Judels arrives and exposes Lightner and Delroy. In spite of this, Whiting, who has fallen in love with Delroy, writes a check to Judels to cover the amount he lost, and he ends up winning Delroy as his future wife."

Well, at least it ended with marriage, right? That's good!

How about Sunny? "Marylin Miller plays the part of an American circus performer, doing her act in a British circus, who is engaged to a man she does not love. A former boyfriend, played by Lawrence Gray, stops by to see her before taking boat back to the United States. Miller realizing that she loves Gray, decides to run away. She embarks on the same boat that Lawrence takes. Her father, who realizes what his daughter has done, reaches the boat just as it is about to leave and manages to board it. While on board, Gray becomes engaged to be married to a wealthy socialite (Barbara Bedford). Miller learns that she will not be allowed to disembark in the United States without a passport. In order to land, Miller marries an American friend, intending to divorce him as soon as she is safely inside the United States. After arrive in the states, Miller tells Gray about her love for him. Bedford overhears them and tells Gray that she will announce their engagement at a party that very night. Disappointed, Miller decides to return to England, but Gray proposes to her just as she is about to leave."

Hmmm. It seems that the media didn't encourage marriage very much at all, unless everyone was singing and dancing or hanging off the side of a building first. Perhaps we should all sing and dance more and marriages will bloom like the cherry tree in spring. Megan McArdle says it will work and that's good enough for me.


Mr. Wonderful said...

For years, when people have said that Megan is "stupid" I've disagreed. (I've said, "She's not stupid. She's dishonest.") But--can you ever forgive me?--this "if only Hollywood would promote good values" crap is deeply stupid.

Where to start? How about with the stunning observation that there is no such thing as "Hollywood" if, by that, she means an industry with a unified sense of itself and its, uh, mission.

Or with the even more stunning insight that the only thing "Hollywood" cares about, to the extent that it does exist, is making money.

You'd think a libertarian would not only know this, but defend it, and abjure completely any hint of art-as-social-engineering. This, apart from any observations about how movies have become (since the good old 1930s, when marriage meant something) more realistic. Every genre--action, comedy, romance, etc.--takes pains to show how life IS, not how nice it would be if it were ideal.

One expects this sort of Zhdanovite moralizing from silly old David Brooks. Is Megan getting soft in her old age?

Susan of Texas said...

My guess is that she wants Brooks' job in her old age. Trying to explain economic theory did not work out very well and is too much work anyway. But it's easy to churn out a little moral scolding with a veneer of social science.

First however she has to get Ross Douthat out of the way. Perhaps she can invite him over for dinner and suffocate him in Aleppo pepper.

Anonymous said...

"What I'm against is thinking that what you eat makes you a better class of person, and smugly lecturing those who don't follow your lead"

Thus spake the woman who demands that her readers buy a 1400-dollar-machine so the stuff gets mixed 'just right' and sings the praises of Himalayan Pink salt.

Ahh, what joy it must be to live in a universe where each day is completely new and totally disconnected from all the days that came before it!


Mr. Wonderful said...

She's like Guy Pearce in Memento. Soon Suderman will have to tattoo important facts and figures onto her skin.

Susan of Texas said...

But she's not smugly lecturing her readers, she's just telling them the best way to live. The rest is up to them.

" I like the smug satisfaction of knowing there’s something delicious in the Crock-Pot, and I put it there. Maybe I hate myself a little when I bake my own bread and spread it with homemade ricotta and fresh tomatoes from the farmers' market or a friend’s garden. But I also really, really, really love those sandwiches."

See? Pearls of wisdom!

Yastreblyansky said...

I assume that Animal Crackers is the one you've seen before and you've left out Captain Spaulding's simultaneous seduction of Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead only out of a concern for good taste. Seriously, note that the Hays Code was introduced in 1930 and strictly enforced starting 1934, fulfilling McArdle's wishes. I wonder if it actually got people having more divorces?

Kathy said...

For some reason Arglebargle, like her pals Books & Douchthat, presumes that film/TV entertainment sets the fashion for most Americans' behavior. Its an escape you ninny niwit!

KadeKo said...

Add in conflict between the parents over money and time

Does she have any idea of what is a cause and what is a symptom?

PS Americans really loved their operetta in 1930. I love me some Pre-Code, but I did not know that phase of AllTalking! AllSinging! AllDancing! was still going on then. It would be another three years before 42nd Street pretty much revived the musical after the market got sick of them.

Susan of Texas said...

Hurray for Captain Spaulding!

It's much easier to pin blame on the victim than stop the victimization, especially when you hope to profit from it.

Clever Pseudonym said...

I had a friend in college who bought raw cookie dough from the deli where I worked, baked it at home, then told people she made them from scratch herself. I'll take it to the bank that's what Megan does with her "homemade" ricotta; empties the grocery tub into her $99 clay Crate and Sonoma and Beyond overpriced bowl and tells her guests she made it on her own. I have a very hard time believing a woman who needs a $1400 blender to mix what most people can do with four ingredients and a saucepan to make simple gravies crafts her own cheese.

Anonymous said...

Why did poor people stay married? Could it be because women found it nearly impossible to find a job to support themselves or themselves and their kids? Could it be because our vaunted patriarchal institutions made it as difficult as possible for a woman to earn a living? What a twit.


Anonymous said...

I hate to defend Megan, but my husband's aunt told me how to make ricotta and it's as easy as pie. Really, even Megan could do it.


Clever Pseudonym said...

Emily, I agree. It is easy. I make it all the time. But Hollandaise and bechamel are easy too, and she still needs a "just push 'on'" machine to make them.

Susan of Texas said...

My mother used a blender to make hollandaise. That was *really* easy. But why use something everyone gets as a wedding gift when you can use a counter-top appliance that costs more than all your other appliances put together? The envy of your neighbors is priceless!

Skinny Little Boy from Cleveland, Ohio said...

Before people divorced, husbands abandoned their families. I suspect there was sometimes tacit agreement between spouses before this occurred, but usually the husband couldn't support the family and he left. Old studies of immigrant slums found that something like a quarter or a third of marriages ended this way in the early 20th century. I have at least one great grandfatehr who I suspect abandoned his family to come to the US (the family supposedly died in an epidemic which he, a coal miner of all things, "avoided).

Susan of Texas said...

My great-grandmother got a divorce in Washington state around 1905.

Anonymous said...

"In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, 26 states had laws prohibiting the employment of married women. The sentiment behind the laws was that a married woman – who presumably had a husband to take care of her – should not "steal" a job from a man. It was acceptable for single women to find jobs, but usually these were lower-paying jobs that were typically considered "women’s work" – thus white women worked as salesgirls, beauticians, schoolteachers, secretaries, and nurses. The job market for African American women was even more restricted, with most black women who worked serving as maids, cooks, or laundresses."

Susan of Texas said...