Politics & Media
Feb 06, 2018, 11:03AM

McArdle's Bad Luck and Trouble

Megan McArdle wasn't poor, but her experiences should lead us to help those who are.

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Kevin Seifert

There’s nothing that affluent people like more than talking about how hard they've had it.

Everybody enjoys a spell of self-pity, but for the affluent, the litany of struggles overcome through some luck and a lot of virtue has an ideological edge. If you’re well-off and you've suffered, it means that you attained your current standing through struggle rather than inheritance. You fought for what you own and won, which means that we live in a meritocracy. Past misery validates current comfort. If one rich person ever had to work for anything ever, then the one percent deserves a tax cut.

Libertarian commenter Megan McArdle demonstrated the logic Monday in a Twitter thread about a period of relative deprivation in her late 20s. Responding to an article I wrote about her bad self-help advice, McArdle asserted that she did in fact know what it means to scrimp and save, because at one point she had to move back in with her parents and worked at low-prestige clerical and tech jobs until a professional contact helped her get a job at The Economist. She writes about having holes in her clothes and no insurance. But despite those barriers she saved money every month in order to put herself on the way to financial security and self-sufficiency.

Again, McArdle emphasizes that she got lucky at various points. But the thrust of the thread is that even while she was down, she was hard-working, thrifty, and prudent. Her past shows she deserves her present success.

So, if we're sharing sob stories, I’ll share mine. The first (and only) year I was in grad school at the University of Chicago, I lived on a $8,000 stipend and the money I made from a part-time minimum wage job framing pictures—a job I was terrible at. I lived in a tiny university apartment that was infested with roaches the summer I moved in. The winter was one of the coldest in Chicago’s history. I didn't have a car or a real winter coat, so I'd walk to campus wearing practically my entire wardrobe.

What does this show about me? Does it show that I've suffered and scrimped and deserve to be a moderately successful writer? Not really. I didn't have a lot of money my grad school year, but I had a good relationship with my parents, who were in a financial position to support me if I needed help—and who had made sure I graduated from college without debt. I was living a very spartan and in some ways unpleasant existence, but I knew if the bottom fell out, I'd be okay.

Most people, at some point in their lives, experience rough spots. They stumble around a little when they're young, or run into bad luck further along the road. But that's not really poverty. Poverty is when you're not in a position to recover from that bad luck. Poverty is when you don't have parents with money to put you up when you fall, and don't have the fancy education and professional network that'll get you a job at The Economist.

I don't mean to minimize McArdle's experiences. Worrying about health insurance is stressful, which is why I (unlike her) think we should have single payer health care. Having to scramble from paycheck to paycheck is unpleasant, even if you know that your parents have your back and you're not going to be out on the street. Going through a period of relative deprivation isn't exactly the same as being working class or poor, but it's not different in every way, either. In any case, carefully policing who is and isn’t allowed to talk about their experiences of poverty can have serious downsides. In the rush to make sure that privileged people don't claim poverty, actual poor people are often trampled. Anytime anyone who is poor tries to talk about what that means, or to ask for help, people come out of the woodwork to tell them they haven't suffered enough to speak.

So the problem isn't McArdle writing about how she, at one point, didn't have enough money. The problem is that she’s writing about her former lack of money in order to demonstrate her own virtue, rather than to show solidarity with people who need help now.

Instead of patting ourselves on the back for our successes, why not look at those periods of deprivation and think about what made them less onerous than they might’ve been? McArdle was kept from real desperation because she happened to have housing. Why shouldn't everyone have access to housing? I could fight roaches because I didn't have student debt. Why should anyone be crushed by student debt? McArdle was terrified because she didn't have health insurance. Why should anyone worry that being sick will destroy them financially?


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