Screw Up In High School, If You Are Rich

Megan McCardle has been going on about how failure is good of late, owing to having written a book about it. The argument is pretty generic: failures come from risk-taking and deviations from the norm that are necessary for people to come up with new ideas and such. Accordingly, she recommends letting your kids fail, by which she means doing things other than follow the high-success conformist path.

I will write more on this later, but here I want to make two points.

First, notice the collectivist nature of McCardle’s point. We should encourage kids to take failure-prone risks because a handful of them will pan out and that will be good for society as a whole. Why should individuals take on risks that have high chances of failure for the benefit of society as a whole when the individuals are the ones that will suffer the consequences of the failure? If taking failure-prone risks is, in aggregate, a social good, then maybe society should bear some of the costs of those who fail by, for instance, making sure that they do not wind up destitute, hungry, without health care, and so on.

Second, this whole conversation is pretty much for rich kids only. The way it proceeds tips you off to it as well. Like most cultural pieces, it is not about people as a whole, kids as a whole, or anything like that. It is about people with high socioeconomic status. Taking risks that will harm conventional indices of merit (grades, scores, activities, whatever) is probably fine enough for a rich kid for whom the negative consequences are not so great. Like we saw before with Ezra Klein, you can screw up in high school and come out with a 2.2 GPA and somehow get into an elite top 100 university, if you come from the right background.

However, the costs of screwing up without all of that background assistance are massive. Taking risks that result in “failure” for a poor kid is more likely to mean joblessness, poverty, or prison than it is to mean having to go to the dreaded backup college.

So sure, go ahead and let your rich kids fail. The joys of inequality are such that they can’t really fail in any deeply harmful way, not with all of the second chances their position in the economic hierarchy provides them. But that is not profound insight about the goodness of failure in general. It’s niche parenting advice for the elite for whom failure is but a mild inconvenience.