Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Upside of Down: Chapter 7 (Part 1)

GETTING UNSTUCK: Adopting the Way of the Shark

A.K.A. I've Got Mine, Screw You

That Guy: There are two kinds of people: sheep and sharks. Anyone who is a sheep is fired. Who is a sheep?
Dr. Zoidberg: Errr, excuse me... which is the one people like to hug?
That Guy: Gutsy question. You're a shark. Sharks are winners, and they don't look back because they have no necks. Necks are for sheep.
Ethnography is an interesting field. It's history turned on its head, an accounting from the ones who didn't win, the ones who are overlooked. Since the heyday of Louis "Studs" Terkel, there's been a particular interest in applying ethnographic studies to people at the lowest margins of society - the homeless, the impoverished, migrants, addicts, outcasts, and anyone else who lives in that invisible part of society. A number of people, Barbara Ehrenreich and David K. Shipler being among the more prominent, have achieved fame and respect through these studies, and there are plenty of journalists trying to win some of that regard for themselves.

As it turns out, Megan McArdle is one of those "journalists." According to the endnotes, this was part of a piece she tried to pitch to both New York Magazine and The Atlantic. This was in '06, so she was probably trying to capture some of the energy from Shipler's The Working Poor, which came out two years prior and was still a big deal. McArdle's own piece is on an unemployment center in Buffalo and deals with a similar group of people. So how does it compare?
At the time, the downstate was booming, flush with cash from all those mortgage-backed securities that shouldn't have been sold, and I was filled with oceanic pity for the deplorable condition of western New York's economy.
"Oceanic pity"? It's always kind of sad when McArdle tries to exhibit empathy. Atrocious imagery aside, this section is passable, though that might be because it's less than three pages long and mostly quotes. And then...

Oh no. No no no no:
Losing a job can shake you out of a rut. It can force you to try things that you never would have dared to do. It can be the catalyst for a new, better life...To see why, let me tell you about the worst day in my life.
Yes, friends. Welcome to the Megan McArdle Pity Party - Employment Edition. This edition has a happy ending, by which I mean McArdle spends several pages bragging about how awesome her life is, which is presumably a happy ending for someone other than me.

Do I even need to go into detail about this section? McArdle has written about her woe-is-me tale before - here, for example. In fact, this section cribs heavily from things that McArdle has already written. She does admit to another "mistake," which in this case was taking a summer internship at Merrill Lynch (how embarrassing, can't believe you'd admit to that one). Other than that, it's old news.

For those of you who haven't experienced the Pity Party and don't want to read that link, here's the short version: McArdle landed a really posh job that disappeared before it started due to 9/11. She coasted by on jobs set up by her construction biz father until, via circumstances that no one can fully explain, she was offered a job at The Economist. No, she has no credentials in economics, why would you assume that?

Snide remarks aside, this is one of the few areas in which McArdle ever expresses any sort of humility or empathy. She goes into great detail on the many ways that long-term unemployment wears on a person - not just fiscally, but in terms of more general well-being:
It is very difficult to communicate the progressive corrosion of long-term unemployment to someone who has not endured it...[W]hile it is bad to worry about how you are going to pay the bills this month, it is worse to worry about what your future will look like. Will you be forced to accept work that isn't as enjoyable as your last job? Will your pay enable you to make the mortgage? Will your job be less prestigious than the one you left, and will there be opportunities for advancement? Have you peaked at twenty-five, or thirty-five, or forty-five?
...I found myself withdrawing from social relationships as time went on. It wasn't just that I didn't have the money to go out (which I didn't); the bigger problem was that I found it increasingly painful to hang out with people who had jobs.
That's pretty accurate. And when you look at it in context of the rest of her story - of hammering out applications by the score without hearing anything back, of paying off loans on a degree that proved to be useless in the job market - you can start to see the roots of empathy. McArdle actually suffered - suffering that was tempered by her privilege, but suffering nonetheless. Here, for a moment, there is hope that McArdle may have gone through a learning experience.

And then you realize that this is a delusion. The McArdle we know had already been shaped by this experience. Sitting here, years removed from all of this, we know that it had no impact on McArdle aside from giving her a bogus hard luck story to recite for all her upper-class friends. And if you didn't know that suffering hadn't taught McArdle how to empathize with others, all you'd have to do is turn a few pages and discover the truth:
I can tell you the secret to finding a job even in a very bad market. It's breathtakingly simple: look for a job...
...You knew this, didn't you? Common sense tells you that you are unlikely to land a job while lying on your couch watching TV.
And then a few pages later, discussing unemployment benefits:
Pay people not to work, and that's what they'll do. It's a phenomenon that economists call moral hazard, and it plagues all forms of insurance, including unemployment insurance.
Megan McArdle just finished explaining how she spent two years sending out hundreds of resumes to no avail. Her ascent started due to a combination of favoritism and lucky timing and that came only when she stopped looking and started screwing around on the internet. And now she's telling all those people - those people for whom she has so much empathy, because unemployment was so very stressful for her - that they aren't trying hard enough. That they aren't sending out enough resumes. That they're wasting all their time screwing around.

From my time in various writing communities, I'm actually used to hearing people give advice that didn't work for them. Usually it's a form of denial, directed inward more than outward. It comes from someone who's spend hundreds or thousands (or in one extreme case, tens of thousands) of dollars on courses and seminars and dubious publication schemes and remains unpublished, same as the rest of us plebes. These are the ones who will march angrily into threads and declare that none of us are "real writers" like him. After all, he spent years studying the publishing biz, honing his elevator pitch, and delving into the styles of successful novelists and journalists, living them inside and out. The rest of us wannabes wasted that time writing.

But this is different. McArdle is successful. I can't read this as a form of denial because she's already admitted that it didn't work. What she's really doing is lecturing all those littlebrains, all those poor people who don't have the character to make it like she did. It's a declaration of superiority, but she doesn't even seem to notice that this is what she's doing.

McArdle is awful at her job, but that's not unusual. There are a lot of pundits out there in unearned positions who are bad at what they do. McArdle may not even be the worst - Matt "Thomas Friedman Lite" Yglesias is at least as incompetent and no more qualified. So why is it that McArdle is so infuriating?

I've thought about that for a while and I think I can explain it, at least from my own perspective. For me, it's not that McArdle didn't earn her success. It's not that she spent years being ungrateful for that unearned success. It's not that she's so blind to her own privilege that she can't see how her background gave her a boost that most of us don't have. It's not even that she's so bad at every aspect of her vocation. No - it's that she's never grown better.

There are a lot of people out there in unearned positions, and a lot of them started off being utterly incompetent. But many of them grew more talented, some of them even rising to the level of their unearned success. They might do this due to self-doubt or a desire to silence the critics or genuine interest in the field or simply years of practice. But they improved.

The most I can say for McArdle's "growth" since I first took notice in that dismal Siberian winter of 2008 is that she no longer disappears for days and weeks at a time with no warning and the weakest of excuses. That's some serious faint praise, saying that after over a decade as a "professional" she's no longer outright derelict in her duties. Other than that, she hasn't changed much. She has the same defensive argumentation style and the same 9th grade composition level prose. She writes the same encomiums to her own bourgeois consumerism. The same worshipful odes to her favorite services disguised as pieces on "disruptive technology." The same mushy Broderist analyses of public issues with the same libertarian sources. The same callous disregard to the suffering of others when those others are even the slightest bit different from herself. Above all, the same carelessness.

David K. Shipler spent years interviewing the forgotten poor to introduce us all to world that most of us will never see. Megan McArdle went to Buffalo in the hopes that others would assume the same thing. But she didn't learn anything. She didn't even try.

But maybe this lack of self-reflection makes sense. After all, McArdle has discovered the Way of the Shark, and sharks don't look back. They don't have necks.

And with the emotional element out of the way, we will return in Part 2 for a more sober study of the last few pages and how they (fail to) connect with the rest of the book.


  1. Dude you are knocking it out of the park here. So glad I discovered this.

  2. She mentioned recently that she interviewed with Goldman,Sachs way back when, something she didn't mention when she was on tv defending Goldman, Sachs after the economy crashed.

    It's interesting that McArdle never talks about her time at the IHS's journalism program. It's one of the most important times of her life, when she metamorphed from a Wall Street wanna-be to an elite propagandist.

    That decision that must have seemed like a no-brainer at the time. They needed people with elite backgrounds to pass out their propaganda. McArdle needed money, direction, and purpose. She was accustomed to changing to fit in with the group and skilled in alternately clawing and cajoling her way through the Ivy League jungle.

    One decision-find an honest job or sign up for wingnut welfare. That shaped the rest of her life.

    1. McArdle leaves out a lot of moments in her life. It seems like she's winnowed it all down to one relatively coherent narrative - one in which she acknowledges her privilege only so that she can then suggest that she succeeded in spite of it. McArdle's world is one in which her elite education and parental connections ultimately fell short and she had to succeed on her own pluck and merit. She may even believe this line herself.