Megan McArdle

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Megan McArdle seems like a basically decent person, but she’s spent much time railing against the Affordable Care Act which has helped my family and friends immeasurably. She has the privilege of worrying about “innovation” when others are fixated on that not-dying thing. Must be nice.

The Libertarian columnist recently went looking for the American Dream in Utah, a state that’s done a commendable job in combating homelessness and other social ills, though it must be noted that it’s whiter and more patriarchal than a Freedom Caucus meeting about maternity leave.

The role of the Mormon Church is clearly paramount in enabling a higher-than-usual upward mobility for the impoverished, and that aspect is clearly not replicable in other quarters of the country unless a large number of Midwesterners who’ve taken Broadway vacations to catch The Book of Mormon have had an epiphany. 

Worse yet, a scary number of Christians seem to have turned away from their charitable roots, not at all asking, “What would Jesus do?” In the recent Presidential election, Christianity was often a euphemism for white supremacy. Maybe that’s because many who identify with the faith have stopped attending church or perhaps the American strain of the religion is so embedded with prejudice that it’s incompatible with true equality.

Christian politicians are often are even worse when it comes to tending to the poor, pushing punishing policies trained on hurting those who have the least, creating a prison state and denying minorities of voting rights. They simply don’t want poorer citizens, especially non-white ones, to thrive, and there’s no moral equivalency in this regard between conservatives and liberals. For many, power trumps church teachings: Mike Pence was very eager to strike a deal with the devil, while Mike Huckabee has gleefully defended Trump’s incessant outrages.

There’s good stuff from McArdle about Utah’s social services programs, the role of volunteerism and the promotion of self-reliance, but she comes away only moderately hopeful that the Salt Lake miracle can be duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. Of course, if you’re a Libertarian who doesn’t really like government very much, there’s no other conclusion to be drawn. If Obamacare really helped your loved ones, however, you might feel differently.

An excerpt:

“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.

But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church. Its politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, led the way in rejecting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. And the state is currently engaged in a major initiative on intergenerational poverty. The bill that kicked it off passed the state’s Republican legislature unanimously, and the lieutenant governor has been its public face.

This follows what you might call the state’s “war on homelessness” — a war that has been largely victorious, with most of the state’s homeless resettled in permanent housing through a focus on “Housing First.” That means getting people into permanent shelter before trying to diagnose and address the problems that contributed to their homelessness, like mental illness and substance abuse.

This approach can be cheaper than the previous regime, in which too many individuals ended up in emergency rooms or temporary shelter seeking expensive help for urgent crises. But Housing First runs into fierce emotional resistance in many quarters, because it smacks too much of rewarding people for self-destructive behaviors. Utah’s brand of conservatism overcame that, in part because the Mormon Church supported it.

That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad.•


Big-box stores, with their savage price-cutting, created a monster they can no longer control: consumers who refuse to pay anything above deep discount. Armed with smartphones, they go to stores to sample items, reach for their iPhones and order the goods from Amazon for a smaller price. From a Megan McArdle Newsweek piece about the category-killers attempting to reinvent themselves on the fly, unlikely as that seems:

“To survive, stores like Best Buy will need to kill their own category, remaking themselves into what might be called ‘small-box stores’: more intimate, accessible, with a unique mix of products and expert personal service that the Internet simply can’t provide. Other retailers have shown that it’s still possible, even in this day and age, to get people to buy things in stores. But can the giants of yesteryear cut themselves down to scrappy, nimble competitors? Can Goliath transform himself into David before the money runs out?

To find out, I went to see the place where Best Buy is reinventing itself. Earlier this year, the firm announced that it would be closing 50 stores, while opening 100 smaller ‘mobile’ locations. It’s also undertaking extensive renovations on remaining stores to refocus them around personal service—the one thing that Amazon can’t deliver via UPS. ‘With things like home appliances, people are going to want the things we offer, for example, the delivery to service and install. Or Geek Squad: thousands of people sitting in homes, doing installations, across all the platforms,’ says Stephen Gillett, the digital wizard who helped lead a turnaround at Starbucks before joining Best Buy eight months ago. ‘If you’ve got a Kindle, a Samsung television, an Android phone, good luck getting service for that at Amazon.’

The idea is that nicer-looking stores and better service will help combat ‘showrooming’—the act of visiting a store to look at a videogame console or fancy television before you buy it, cheaper, on the Internet. The trend has been gathering steam for years, but over the past 18 months, smartphone apps like RedLaser and Amazon’s Price Check have made it as easy as, er, stealing display space from a big box: just scan the item’s bar code and the app shows you whether you can get it cheaper somewhere else.

Usually, you can.” (Thanks Browser.)


It’s not that I don’t believe in charter schools–I just don’t believe in them in the hands of today’s conservatives. It seems a scheme to not teach evolution or to decrease educational opportunities for minorities. Of course, there are some thinkers who believe public education in America should be dissolved because it’s a remnant of the Industrial Age. But it’d be helpful if such people–all college graduates–actually knew what we would be put in its place. 

In her Newsweek piece, Megan McArdle (graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago) isn’t questioning the existence of K-12 but rather wondering if college for the masses has failed. An excerpt:

“That debate matters a lot, because while the value of an education can be very high, the value of a credential is strictly limited. If students are gaining real, valuable skills in school, then putting more students into college will increase the productive capacity of firms and the economy—a net gain for everyone. Credentials, meanwhile, are a zero-sum game. They don’t create value; they just reallocate it, in the same way that rising home values serve to ration slots in good public schools. If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get.

But we keep buying because after two decades prudent Americans who want a little financial security don’t have much left. Lifetime employment, and the pensions that went with it, have now joined outhouses, hitching posts, and rotary-dial telephones as something that wide-eyed children may hear about from their grandparents but will never see for themselves. The fabulous stock-market returns that promised an alternative form of protection proved even less durable. At least we have the house, weary Americans told each other, and the luckier ones still do, as they are reminded every time their shaking hand writes out another check for a mortgage that’s worth more than the home that secures it. What’s left is … investing in ourselves. Even if we’re not such a good bet.”