Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Consuming More Than You Need

Shorter Megan McArdle: We are not cruel enough to the poors. For their own good, of course.

Much Longer Megan McArdle:

McArdle begins her latest exercise in empathy-free poor-shaming by rehashing old material. (Bloomberg ought to send her cancelled checks for her pay; if she can endlessly send out old material why can't they?) She once again describes a program that she saw firsthand in Hawaii regarding repeat offenders. She did not suggest that they fail upwards, oddly enough. She noted that sending parole violators to jail for a day or two will clean up their acts tout suite. Those violators will lose their jobs if they were actually able to find one but so what, "we" must be cruel to be kind.

McArdle uses the old material as a launchpad for new cruelty. McArdle complains that the due process of law is keeping noble landlord from tossing evil scofflaws into the street when the rent check is late.

This approach has been tried with drunk drivers, as well, and is now being explored for people on parole (probation is what you get instead of prison time; parole is what you get after prison time).  A few days ago Lowry Heussler asked if we shouldn't think about expanding Swift-Certain-Fair outside of the criminal justice system, to other contexts where this sort of dynamic operates. Specifically, evictions from public housing.

Because people so poor that they live in public housing should be treated just like criminals.

Heussler describes an eviction process that looks a lot like the old probation system. You miss your rent. The agency sends written notices of the arrears. You miss it again. There's a meeting with someone, followed by more reminders. A notice to vacate, followed by a grievance procedure. At all these steps, the tenant is offered the opportunity to cure the debt on a payment plan. Only after these steps is a case filed in court. But even then, judges frequently balk at evicting someone. These are, after all, needy families with few resources to negotiate a housing crisis. Then one day, the judge finally gives up, because the tenant is not complying, and they're evicted. And said tenant is shocked to find themselves out on the street.

Despite the fact that they are given so many chances to be not poor, people persist in being poor and unable to pay the rent. Some fools might think that this problem should be attacked by addressing poverty but as McArdle has said in the past our poor aren't really poor because they have stuff like tvs and refrigerators. That makes them rich compared to people in, say, Africa, where the poor have nothing. If only our poor could be shipped to Africa they would realize how lucky they are but they aren't and they don't. They live in a very rich country and unaccountably they compare themselves to their fellow Americans, not Africans or Indonesians or other really poor people. In fact, Africans are so poor that McArdle says they would be happy to "slave" at garment "sweatshops," two words that would take on a whole new/very old meaning in Africa.

Before one advocates being cruel, however, one must be kind.

If you've ever seen an eviction, you know the awfulness of it: broken belongings out on the street, a stunned family trying to figure out where to go. Why not try to avoid this, Heussler asks, by making the process less all-or-nothing? Follow the jail approach: Lock people out for a few hours, or a day, every single time they miss their rent, instead of waiting until you have to do something catastrophic.

How much kinder it would be to lock a single mother working at a minimum wage job for a few hours rather than tossing her out! True, her children would come home and be forced to sit on the front step until the landlord figured he had been kind enough and finally let them in to safety. But it would be kinder to teach them a valuable lesson about personal responsibility and the bootstrapping virtues of hard work than to let them in their rooms to go to the bathroom, get something to eat and do their homework as richer and therefore better children are able to do.

There's a poignant moment in the essay when Heussler describes a tenant explaining why they didn't pay their rent (which is calculated as a percentage of income). "I realized the system was completely nuts when one honest tenant told me why she didn’t have the rent. 'If you don’t pay the cable bill they cut you off,' she said.  I tried. I told her that cable TV wouldn’t be much good without a roof over her head. She looked at me with pity, quite sure eviction was not on the horizon."

You see, the poor are poor because they are inferior.  One hates to say it but what can one do? They are short-sighted and self-indulgent and would rather watch "Game of Thrones" than pay their rent. Rich children can have cable and therefore internet, which is now essential for children to do their schoolwork, much of which is on-line. Poor children should not. It's much kinder to accustom children to being deprived because let's face it, they'll never amount to anything anyway because poor people value social connections over money.

The private market has figured out how to solve this problem: If you don't pay the bill, the service goes away. There is no uncertainty that might tempt people to stop paying their bills. But government benefits are girded round with thick layers of procedural protections that make it hard to predict the outcome of any particular action.

Poor people always choose to not pay their bills which is very foolish. They need to be taught a sharp and immediate lesson. Then they will make good choices and stop being poor and be able to watch "Game of Thrones."

Of course, the stakes are so much higher. There's a big difference between sleeping on the street and missing the latest "Game of Thrones." In order to protect people from catastrophic risks, we've raised the bar higher for depriving people of electricity, or their homes. But in doing so, we have actually made it more attractive to run the risk. The way to fix it is to make the risks clearer and more immediate -- and less catastrophic.

We could be doing so much more to teach people valuable lessons. There is so much to take away from people who think they are poor but really aren't. For instance, those expensive children. Do they really deserve to have something they can't afford? It would be far kinder to take away their children for a few hours or days when their parents are unable to support them. The children might be kind of traumatized but which is better, a little trauma once or twice a month or a lot of trauma later when they are so poor that their children are taken away for good?

This probably doesn't stop at public housing, either. These kinds of procedural protections surround all sorts of government programs, and undoubtedly often have the same undesired result: encouraging people to make decisions that are defensible in the short term and disastrous in the long term. Now that we've seen the success of Swift-Certain-Fair in one context, we should be looking for other places where we need to be a little more cruel, to be a lot more kind.

Medicaid. They would probably rather spend the money on a new dress anyway. Social Security and Medicare. Those poor old women should have saved their pennies when they were young. Welfare. Woops, we already took that away. Aid to Dependent Children. Why are those children dependent when they should have trust funds? Going hungry will be much kinder and teach them a very valuable lesson about being born with mountains of things instead of nothing.

One last word:

This is a Thermomix. I didn't need it and it cost $1500 but I deserve it because I worked hard (or didn't, but whatever), stayed in school ( despite my lackadaisical attitude and poor work ethic but whatever), and didn't have kids (actually, cannot have kids but whatever).*

*I would link to "jane galt's" confessions that she was a poor student who spent most of her time staring out the window and had a low GPA but the proud author deleted her past crimes against humanity, aka her old blog.

ADDED: One of McArdle's commenters takes her suggestion and runs with it:

Fish Heads
I work my bird dogs using a Swift-Certain-Fair technique, also know as a shock collar. Tech is a wonderful thing, they even make them with GPS locators now. Violate your probation, expect some voltage. Really brings home the old phrase "reach out and touch someone". Very swift and certain.


NonyNony said...

I would link to "jane galt's" confessions that she was a poor student who spent most of her time staring out the window and had a low GPA but the proud author deleted her past crimes against humanity, aka her old blog.

If you have the URL bookmarked, or know what you're looking for, it's likely that the post is preserved in amber over in the Wayback Machine at

I mean, she may have asked them to remove it from the archive, but appears to currently be archived there.

Susan of Texas said...

I tried but just got the first page of the blog. Sometimes I can find what I want but often I can't. Either way, she should be proud of her work and want to preserve it for posterity./sarcasm

Dark Avenger said...

Here's a sample from the Internet Archive

Partly, I think, this is because I read so many good conservative warblogs, and when you read a lot of people who share most or all of your views, you start to feel a tremendous anger at people who don't for willfully ignoring things that are perfectly obvious to you. That, I think, is why much of the mainstream media is perpetually snotty about conservative ideas.

Susan of Texas said...

I guess that is why she was forced to say she can't wait until protestors are attacked by the police. She was also extremely angry that Obamacare passed because it was perfectly obvious to her that it would destroy the entire American medical field and bankrupt the country.

Anonymous said...

You know what else makes risk-taking attractive? Financial bailouts after the worst recession in history since the Great Depression. Too bad those poor people who have trouble making rent didn't have the foresight to be too big to fail financial institutions.


Susan of Texas said...

McArdle said we just had to bail them out because the consequences would have been much too dire.

"...The bailouts have probably substantially increased moral hazard, and perversely, arguably undermined the political will for regulation that might reign in that moral hazard. Top investment bankers really do seem to have a worrying about of influence over Treasury and the Fed. The tax burden is large, and should worry you whether you wish that money had been spent on food stamps, or returned to taxpayers.

That said, they were probably the best thing we could have done. If you disagree, you need to sketch out a plausible alternative scenario....

But the basic strategy seems like the best option in a bad situation...."

You have to ask yourself the question: "Will this event hurt Megan McArdle?" If the answer is yes, the moral hazard is beside the point. If the answer is no, it's just a matter of personal responsibility.

Daniel Harper said...

Okay, so let's *not* ask the question whether or not McArdle has ever been late on a mortgage payment, and how she might have responded had she been locked out of her home for a few hours. Instead:

1) If this was actually a penalty people had to pay for being late on rent, it'd just be yet another shitburger that poor people had to live with that they'd learn to live with. "Can I come stay at your place for a few hours? I was late on rent and the doors don't unlock until 10." Personally speaking, there have been many months in my life where I'd have taken a few hours locked out of the apartment for an extra few days in scraping rent together.

2) Her anecdote about poor people choosing to pay for non-essentials like cable TV over rent implies that *of course* you should always pay rent first. But if rent is ~$500 and cable is ~$100 and you have ~$300 in the bank, you don't have the option of paying rent in the first place. You pay the cable bill so that at lease you have some entertainment and you deal with the rent check when it comes. Has McArdle never juggled bills? Don't answer that -- I know the answer.

Clever Pseudonym said...

Poverty to Megan is not being able to afford stylish clothes.

Susan of Texas said...

If people adjusted to the punishment I'm sure McArdle would come up with some new ones to teach them a lesson about personal responsibility.