The McArdle Paragraph

Twitter got real fired up today about a post I made last week. In it, I attacked a Megan McArdle piece in which she argues that providing poor people more resources would not solve the pain they experience from relationships and status and (some of them) being out of work and so on. My point was to say that this is basically irrelevant because it is not an argument against providing material security that it only provides material security. Material security is a good thing and improves your life no matter what other demons you struggle with.

In the piece, I included this paragraph that seems to have generated a great deal of concern and bewilderment:

You would think McArdle, of all people, should know all about this. She was a spectacular failure at being in business even though she had all sorts of family money and pedigree and cultural and social capital. I am sure when she failed at it, she felt real bad. She felt real bad even though her failure did not cause her to suffer the pains of material deprivation and insecurity. I guarantee you though that she would have felt even worse if that put her out on the street or left her with no money in her account and two hungry kids to feed.

McArdle objected to this characterization, but later it was revealed that it was one of those objections where people are like “I may be rich, but not rich-rich.” Her parents, she tells me, are two upper-class professionals who made enough money to send her to private K-12 schools and then transfer her more than $100k in wealth come college time (she can’t provide more specifics beyond that, she tells me). Whether this is rich-rich or merely rich, I guess is for you to decide.

Others seemed confused as to what I am doing in that paragraph. Is that an ad hominem? Am I saying she can’t speak on these topics because she isn’t poor? The answer to both is no.

The paragraph does three things.

First, it provides an example of my point that material security is a plus even if you feel absolutely awful. Recall from the first paragraph that this was the whole point of my piece. Material security doesn’t protect you from all other extreme emotional misery, like failing at something you really want or having your marriage break up, but it still improves your life. We can intuit this by imagining how bad McArdle felt after failing in business and then thinking about how much worse she would have felt if that failure was accompanied by homelessness and poverty.

Second, assuming it would get back to McArdle (which it did), the paragraph tries to push McArdle to consider this point by asking her to contemplate something she reportedly experienced. She has, I would guess, experienced great anguish alongside being materially secure at times in her life. So I ask her to consider whether those periods would have been worse if she had to experience material insecurity alongside them, something many others experience when they “fail.”

Third, it stirs and inflames people, which I find funny. People call this “trolling.”

It is not ad hominem because it does not say she is wrong because of who she is or anything like that. I engage the point on the merits elsewhere and this paragraph does not take the form: because McArdle has personal attribute X, she is wrong on Y. It is also not saying she can’t speak on this. If anything, it says she has experience that is directly relevant to this, but that she isn’t tapping into it correctly.

Perhaps I should have been clearer.