Do Americans Know What a Massive Ripoff American Life Really Is?
September 28, 2021 7:50 AM   Subscribe

 
Man I so want this to be true, but it's generally false, and even if it was true, we've gone over many times that being poor doesn't make you a fascist -it's middle and upper middle class people who raided the capitol and are pushing back against basic income increases and lower healthcare prices. It's upper middle class people who are ending subsidies to 'get those lazy poors back to work'.

The author also regularly conflates average and median income and assumes that everyone is paying the current prices for high-priced things like mortgages and health insurance, but that is incorrect.

Also for the love of god debt scales linearly with income in the US until you get to the hundred-millionaire crowd, the most indebted people are not the poorest, they have little debt. Which is actually a bad thing (with much nuance).

Yes the US has many problems which the author illustrates well, but gets the solutions way wrong, and individuals having debt or the situation improving with less debt is not one of them.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:02 AM on September 28 [37 favorites]


The irony of "Read the rest of this story with a free account."
posted by Nelson at 8:02 AM on September 28 [18 favorites]


At this point, I have a hard time taking seriously any hot take piece like this that states, as its central thesis, that "Americans don’t quite get this, though. Why would they? They’ve never lived anywhere else."

Y'all, come on now. At the very least, I'd imagine that one can glean from the previous president's administration that there's a glaringly strong divide between (if we're being simplistic) two big groups of people in the US. Both of these groups "get this," you know? One group gets it and works to the bone to change it. One group gets it and feels a kind of dispossession that is variously hard to understand, empathize with, resolve, etc. This "ripoff" statement can be true at the same time that the perception of Americans being witless accomplices in the robbery can be bitterly wrongheaded.

Just…existing. It costs way, way more than it should. So much so that America cannot ever move forward as a society.

I disagree with the assertion that this is a permanent, unchangeable way things are. Like a lot of us here who work in government, policy, community organization, the nonprofit sector, the health sector, etc. etc. etc., I think that this posture is a very popular--almost fun?--international stance that borders on enjoying the misfortune wrapped up in the irony of America being a poor-rich country. My British boyfriend... sometimes I have to tell him that his smirking about these issues is cutting a little close to the bone without offering any understanding that Americans in both groups feel stuck and frustrated at how trapped we are in a system that resists the change we want.

Sadly, Americans still believe, more or less, whole-heartedly in the very systems and institutions which rip them off and laugh all the way to the bank...

Haha, ok, if you say so. This makes me think, though, that you aren't talking to many people. But thanks for another rehash of all this. Hope it was fun?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:05 AM on September 28 [23 favorites]


"For me at least, reading Haque is like trying to hold a conversation with somebody who only speaks in apocalyptic jazz scat."
posted by clavdivs at 8:13 AM on September 28 [34 favorites]


... nobody expects anyone to be kind or gentle or nice, the way Canadians and Europeans are

Yeahno, I'm gonna have to stop him right there. Does this apply to everybody? Even First Nations people or Roma?

He's got some good points. But so does a pincushion.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:14 AM on September 28 [40 favorites]


Yeah, but we have guns. Lots of guns. What does a litre or gallon of gas cost in Europe? I can drive my big ass F-150 to the grocery store a quarter mile down the road for cheap. 'Merica, love it or leave it!
posted by AugustWest at 8:19 AM on September 28


This is just terrible. From the very first example it’s transparently deceptive. This guy certainly understands the difference between mean and median, and the way he’s using them really makes it seem like he’s trying to lie to me. And the comparison of house rental costs and apartment rental costs… Jesus Christ does he think we’re idiots? Urban/rural divide maybe?
posted by mr_roboto at 8:25 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]


The average American income is about $35K per year.

The average annual healthcare cost is about $7500.
A quick trip to the healthcare.gov calculator says ACA will cover $347 per month, the silver plan would cost $228 month, or $2736 anually. Of course the number will vary, but *come on*, you can't compare two averages like this article does when the ACA exists.
posted by joeyh at 8:28 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


I know this reads a little hysterical but the points made are more-or-less correct, just sloppily. I recently got into a Twitter argument (always a good idea) with someone goof off on how taxes are so much worse in in Europe. I pointed out that I actually paid pretty much the same tax rate when I lived in THe Netherlands and in the US you always have to factor in things like health care, education, child care. While you can’t really do an apples-to-apples comparison there are so striking differences. In the US, aside from a few cities, it’s really hard to live without a car which adds huge expenses. In Europe living without a car is much more the norm. Things like food are kind of a wash, some things are more expensive, some things are less.

I’m really just talking about my lives experience as I’ve lived in different parts of Europe over the years. But much of the article rings true to me.
posted by misterpatrick at 8:29 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]


Americans don’t quite get this, though. Why would they? They’ve never lived anywhere else.

What. Immigration to the US, hello? What? Does he think he's the only person around here who has lived somewhere else?

Heating, electricity, gas, water? These things can easily add up to $500 to $1000 dollars per month.

$500 yes. $1000? Easily? Really? Where?

The average American income is about $35K per year. That’s about $2400 a month, if you’re lucky, after taxes. What bills are we up to? $1200 for a crappy apartment. A few hundreds, let’s call it two or three, for connectivity. And another $500 or so for basic utilities.

He's using the average income and the average rental apartment cost and then these unsubstantiated estimates for utilities...the apartment just got crappy and the utilities just got more basic...he sure is in love with his argument...

For fuck's sake. American society is financially fucked-up in so many ways, but his math is all just superficial outrage points that don't really illuminate anything about how actual humans live in this society.
posted by desuetude at 8:30 AM on September 28 [14 favorites]


The main difference between the U.S. and Canada is that the money Americans "save" by keeping taxes low is redirected to the private sector, which charges a lot more, so it's a net loss for the average citizen. But hey, low taxes and cheaper consumer goods.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:33 AM on September 28 [9 favorites]


There are a lot of factual errors in this.

How much do I pay for internet and TV in Europe? About thirty dollars, give or take. How much do I pay in America? $150. That’s five times as much. And what I get in America is way, way worse. At least half of the junk on TV is ads, I don’t get the wonderful and illuminating and sparkling stuff that European TV makes on a regular basis, from good coverage of global affairs to politics to economics to ground-breaking shows and movies.

That really varies. I don't think that Dutch TV is particularly better than American TV. French TV certainly isn't. The best programmes on it are discussion programmes / talk shows and they are usually at their best when they have writers and other intellectuals on. I.e. the best French TV is actually about books. Italian TV? Oh boy, if you like political manipulation and staggering crudity, then I have a treat for you!

Some of the best TV is made in the US, isn't it? Certainly we import American TV dramas to fill prestige slots. Also, lol at the idea that Jan met de pet or whatever is settling down to watch economics coverage in Europe while Earl in Florida is just watching Honey boo boo. Come on.

Let’s take utility bills. They’re astronomical in America compared to the rest of the rich world, and even much of the rest of the world period.

American properties are big and air conditioned. Sorry but this is nonsense. Compare US gas and electricity unit prices vs almost anywhere in Europe and it is usually much cheaper in the US.

Utilities in most states have similarly been privatized. What happens when you create private monopolies? They profiteer.

Many European gas and electricity transmission and distribution networks are investor owned. A very large number of customers buy their energy from private suppliers like RWE, Eneco... the US actually has lots of municipally owned utilities.

It doesn’t cost that much to rent in Europe. In France, the the average house rental costs less than that — it’s about 800 euros, or maybe $1000 dollars.
It’s true that rents are high in cities like Paris and London, sure — but we’re talking about averages across society.


Please tell me how affordable housing is in The Netherlands. Housing is much more affordable as a % of median income in vast parts of the US than in many European countries. How could it not be given the population densities. Talk about stronger renters rights if you want, talk about all kinds of things but this argument is bananas.

Now you need healthcare. In Europe and Canada and even Australia, with its crazy climate change denying PM, that’s free

(he then goes into explaining what "co-pays" and insurance premiums are)

Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Obviously healthcare in the US is a mess but much of Europe has insurance based systems! Yes, with co-pays, and premiums that you have to pay. You can make the point that the American system is awful without just inventing a European utopia
posted by atrazine at 8:42 AM on September 28 [17 favorites]


Aggression and hostility are now norms — nobody expects anyone to be kind or gentle or nice, the way Canadians and Europeans are.

Canadians aren't nice - we're polite. That's not the same thing.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 8:45 AM on September 28 [51 favorites]


and we did pretty much invent elbowing
posted by philip-random at 8:50 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


You can make tons of good points about what a ripoff American life is, but this piece fails. And, unfortunately, because the details are so easy to shred it'll be better fodder for people looking to shore up the larger problems the author gestures at than to persuade anybody that things need to change.

We do have Internet and cable monopolies. Yep. Written into law in many places that you can't have, for example, a government alternative ISP.

The cost of health care is ridiculous. Maybe the figures provided by the author are wrong, but we all know that health care in the U.S. is deeply broken.

I don't think that people in the U.S. are, by and large, less or more polite than our counterparts in Europe or Canada or Japan or elsewhere. We do, however, have a very very vocal minority of really angry people who have been fed a steady diet of FOX or worse.

You could also talk about the stagnant minimum wage in the face of CEO pay and ever-rising prices, and a failing failed social safety net. We certainly have an enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor with an ever-narrowing middle.

The overall point? True. The examples? Shoddy.
posted by jzb at 8:53 AM on September 28 [12 favorites]


we've gone over many times that being poor doesn't make you a fascist -it's middle and upper middle class people who raided the capitol and are pushing back against basic income increases and lower healthcare prices. It's upper middle class people who are ending subsidies to 'get those lazy poors back to work'.
“What can you mean by all this?” cried Syme. “They can’t be running the real world in that way. Surely not many working men are anarchists, and surely if they were, mere mobs could not beat modern armies and police.”

“Mere mobs!” repeated his new friend with a snort of scorn. “So you talk about mobs and the working classes as if they were the question. You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
That's from The Man Who Was Thursday, written in 1908.
posted by mhoye at 8:55 AM on September 28 [51 favorites]


Piling up averages like that never works.

I know plenty of people who make that average income he's talking about and they're not paying that average healthcare cost. Their healthcare costs are zero, and then one day their healthcare costs are everything.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing myself when I have an income higher than the median where I live but I can't begin to afford a house and I always drive the crappiest car on the road and I look around at the red light and wonder, "Are these all rich people from out of town? Do none of them have houses? Am I eating all my money or something? Why am I failing at life?"
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 8:58 AM on September 28 [22 favorites]


Recently there's been a lot of attention from Americans on the right and left towards the country I live in for our highly restrictive lockdown measures. I've been scrolling past lots of snarky tweets and pearl-clutching articles about our perceived lack of freedom by American standards – from people who are well aware that the US is as close to being an unfree country as it's ever been. I don't care that they're criticising my country per se; I care that their criticisms are disingenuous, unhelpful and make no effort to engage with the possibility that there might be valid alternative conceptions of what it means to be 'free'. And I find it really hard to suppress a rising generalised irritation with Americans in general, even though I rationally know that such generalisation is unwarranted.

However, I often see people from my country replying to Americans' tweets bemoaning the state of the US. These replies often express a very graceless disbelief about the things we take for granted that the US lacks. I read them and cringe because I'm sure they can be incredibly grating to read from an American point of view, especially that of a progressive who is already painfully aware of what's wrong with the state of the US. It's not like my country is exactly a left-wing utopia. We've had to deal with horrendous conservative governments for 8 years now. So I feel an urge to scold the replier and apologise for their tactlessness. I had that sort of feeling reading this article too.

Everyone knows that right-wingers are often better at pragmatically setting their differences aside to win domestic political battles. But I think they're also often superior at expressing solidarity with what they perceive to be the plights of their fellow ideologues internationally as well. I really, really wish this was something the left was better at, because I think we have an immense amount of global talent to potentially pool. But it seems we're tired, worn down, always on the defensive, perhaps increasingly desperate and pessimistic, and that this negative emotional state leads to spitefulness and schadenfreude directed at one another. It becomes, perversely, a win to feel like those foreign leftists have it worse in some respect. Again, I want to say that of course not all progressives think like this. But it's definitely a thing for at least a significant percentage of the extremely online ones.

I wish there were fewer attitudes of people from outside the US looking in like the one in the FPP, and more that genuinely expressed empathy and sorrow and care for what the US is going through. And I wish there was a reciprocal deeper level of engagement with international politics across the American left as well. Who knows where it could get us?
posted by Panthalassa at 9:09 AM on September 28 [9 favorites]


His point (if you ignore all the questionable stats – the whole, 500-1000 per month for utilities is the most ridiculous) seems to boil down to the quality of life of the average European is better than the quality of life of the average American, which yeah duh, that's what you get when you have a more progressive tax system. You don't need to be an economist to know this.

But as an American who has lived in other countries, one where even many middle class people do not have running water, no, Americans are not all poor. What an absurd, out of touch argument.
posted by coffeecat at 9:33 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Anecdata: I stopped one time on the street to give a guy in a wheelchair a couple bucks. We started talking. An older guy from the neighborhood stopped for some reason, and gave a bit too, and joined our conversation about who runs the world (they were both quite insistent on an illuminati class). A delivery/kitchen worker wearing houndstooth swung by on a bike and gave him a parcel I can only assume was a wrong order or something. I've seen more kindness and giving from poor people than I ever have among wealthy folks. Whatever's wrong with this country, it's more complicated than this.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 9:45 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]


So this journalist's name is Haque, you say?
posted by chavenet at 10:18 AM on September 28 [16 favorites]


From Steven Gambardella's medium piece, "On Umair Haque, The Master of Catastrophe" (clavdivs linked its great "only speaks in apocalyptic jazz scat" line, above):

Haque is one of the most gifted headline writers around. He’s also just a great writer, his prolificacy is dizzying: he has practically written an article a day since 2018.

you gotta get a gimmick / if you wanna get ahead
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:19 AM on September 28 [4 favorites]


At this point, I have a hard time taking seriously any hot take piece like this that states, as its central thesis, that "Americans don’t quite get this, though. Why would they? They’ve never lived anywhere else."

Yep - in my experience, genuinely poor Americans may not understand the exact mechanisms by which they are getting screwed, or that not everyone is subject to them, but they very definitely understand they are being screwed.

In many cases, though, their analysis of the problem is actually a lot more sophisticated and fine-grained than many wealthy people could offer. It's based on direct, prolonged personal exposure.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:24 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Poverty makes people fanatics and extremists. Maybe your church gives you a bit of money and a place to leave your kids — the price is you come to believe you’re the chosen ones. Maybe you come to hate everyone who’s not true of faith or pure of blood like you — bang, the classic Weimar descent into fascism

Nein.

Weimar Germany descended into fascism because a bunch of wealthy people, both industrialists and aristocrats, thought that shouty fellow and his followers had some promising ideas for (among other things) controlling or getting rid of those pesky trade unions and leftists who wanted less poverty and for the country's wealth to be spread around. And hey, a military buildup was great for the corporate bottom line.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:25 AM on September 28 [26 favorites]


Seems redundant to point out another mistake, but median household income in the US is almost $70k, or approaching twice the income number he uses in his math. (He uses individual income but household expenses.) Since he's just crudely adding average / median numbers, if we adjust for this now you’re saving $2500 profit, every single month. This is of course as silly and wrong as the rest of the math, but I'm not pretending to have an earth shattering point.

I lived abroad, ages ago, as a student. I enjoyed it, and my quality of life was much better. From what I see on visits and from friends who live this, I think even today for me personally (as an adult with upper middle class income) I think living in a midsized Western European city would give overall better quality of life. But cars and larger houses and lower population density appeals to a lot of people too, even they are less likely to post on MetaFilter.

I am by no means denying severe problems in America. But one issue to reform is understanding what people--included non-wealthy people--genuinely like about their life here.

In my 20s I thought pointing to Europe and saying "lower working hours, cheaper rents, better healthcare" was an unbeatable argument. Thirty years later it's proven to be not as compelling as I thought, and not just because of ignorance or right wing misinformation.
posted by mark k at 10:43 AM on September 28 [11 favorites]


"lower working hours, cheaper rents, better healthcare" was an unbeatable argument. Thirty years later it's proven to be not as compelling as I thought

Wait, what are you saying? Is it no longer compelling to you? Or are you saying the argument didn't convince the US to go in that directino?

One of the 'great mysteries' continues to be how if you poll Americans about the individual policies of communist Europe, they're just as popular here as anywhere else. But once you say where the ideas came from or ask a congressperson to vote for it, well, you are SOL.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:52 AM on September 28 [4 favorites]


its pretty clearly the truth that below some level of the income distribution living standards are better in Europe. Where you think that level is, is pretty much a function of your politics.
posted by JPD at 11:11 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


As soon as I saw who wrote this, I knew what was up. This dude is really good at writing histrionic clickbait and making vague proclamations about how America is doomed - but never really offering insight or answers. He’s a one-man clickbait content factory, and shouldn’t be seen as anything else.
posted by chinese_fashion at 11:46 AM on September 28 [14 favorites]


I think the way to comprehend and revise what the author is saying (and it's worth pointing out he's an Oxford-educated economist by training, so I wouldn't dismiss his view so simply) is to observe that still about half of America voted right. That half is not mostly middle or upper-middle class; most Americans are therefore poor and so it follows that the majority of right-wing voters are poor. I think the clearer explanation is that neoliberalism gives rise to reactionism, which involves poverty but is not due to poverty. So for example you get the lumpenproletariat, aka. Hillary's famous "basket of deplorables": they're a major consequence of social inequality even while one might claim that they are also a source of inequality i.e. people voting against their class interests.

He also introduces the idea of effective poverty, a special case of what thinkers like Judith Butler have called, precarity. So this also is not that controversial an idea amongst leftists, either.
posted by polymodus at 11:58 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


I am a dual citizen, but as an American working in healthcare admin in another country, anytime we have a patient that gets twitchy about wait times for things or upset that his fully booked family doctor "can't spare a few minutes to discuss some concerns I have" (never mind that what he needs is an appointment to discuss these things but swears it will only ever take five minutes--it never takes five minutes), I pipe up and say, "It's not a perfect sytem, but let me tell you about having medical debt as a US teen at 17 years old."

America is broken and a ripoff, yes, in a lots of ways, but a thoughtful piece on that this isn't.
posted by Kitteh at 12:19 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


...and it's worth pointing out he's an Oxford-educated economist by training, so I wouldn't dismiss his view so simply...

People aren't dismissing his views so much as pointing out his glaring factual errors. These cannot be papered over by an appeal to an argument from authority. He undermines himself with his own sloppiness.
posted by vacapinta at 12:24 PM on September 28 [13 favorites]


Wait, what are you saying? Is it no longer compelling to you? Or are you saying the argument didn't convince the US to go in that directino?

A little of each, more the latter. But overall the issue is not that those things aren't compelling. Those are the positives. The issue is that the whole European package involves giving other stuff up.

One thing I've seen is that given the choice, lots of my compatriots prefer a longer commute from an area with worse public transit, because they want a larger house and owning a car is a net positive for them. I've seen people choose lower incomes to gain those things.

and it's worth pointing out he's an Oxford-educated economist by training, so I wouldn't dismiss his view so simply

The use of numbers is just horrible, purely in the service of his polemic. I don't see a way to defend them. The credentialism of "oh he has a degree from a name university" would have us all with zero anti-pandemic measures chugging hydroxychloroquine were it applied widely.

most Americans are therefore poor and so it follows that the majority of right-wing voters are poor.

About half Americans live in a household with over $70k in income. Median household net worth is over a hundred grand. It's not the leisured rich by any means and the median / mean gap points to real wealth distribution issues. But in a lot of the country that goes far enough and is certainly not poor. And Republican voters skew wealthier than that.

It's also a neat trick if the "average" person is losing $200 a month.

The 1% vs. the 99% is an important distinction, but it sometimes elides the equally important distinctions of top quintile vs the 80% or the middle class vs poor.
posted by mark k at 12:28 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]


i make 35k more or less a year - i live in a small city in the midwest, pay 700 a month in rent, which includes gas and water, and pay less than 100 in electric

so he's wrong on so much stuff, but you know where he really slips up?

not one word about cars and how we have to pay for them - all this guy did was cobble some cherry-picked statistics together and he couldn't even manage to think about our car payments

so much for the oxford school of economics
posted by pyramid termite at 12:48 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


For what it's worth, I've lived in large cities in America my entire life and have literally only once, for one year, lived in a place where utilities were not included.

I kind of wonder if this is some sort of subtle propaganda? Like, his numbers are so bad that this feels like an op to reinforce the anti-left/pro-tax-cuts/anti-labor point of view by launching a thousand "Well these numbers are wrong so the whole point is wrong!" Twitter wars. I am pretty sure he's just guilty of very sloppy writing. That one Michael Hobbes article about how Millenials are screwed made the same points but with actually good research.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:01 PM on September 28


most Americans are therefore poor and so it follows that the majority of right-wing voters are poor.

It's also worth remembering that a hell of a lot of people don't vote, especially among the lower income set. I'm not so sure that the attitudes of the poor are as aligned with liberal/Democratic values as it appears to be claimed by many. Those are the people I work with, live around and serve and there isn't all that much interest or faith in Democrats or a lot of liberal values, even as, sure, they recognize the game is skewed towards the rich, which is why they want to get rich. They understand the real world application of money and power.

There isn't a lot of faith in the liberal elite, college educated, "we want to help" middle though, those values are far more alien and hypocritical seeming than the Republicans' often appear to be because there is so little shared ground with the smart set. Waiting around for the proletariat to start the class war is a losing proposition, they don't want to sacrifice what they have any more than anyone else and if they do, the college educated set isn't likely to be seen as any different than the ultra-rich for being so removed from their experience. If you want a class war, you'd better start it yourself and stop expecting the poor to do the work. They aren't any more pure hearted, selfless, clear sighted or whatever other mythic tropes stories assign to them, they're as self interested and subject to all sorts of misinformation and crappy beliefs as any other group if not more.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:02 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]


(and it's worth pointing out he's an Oxford-educated economist by training, so I wouldn't dismiss his view so simply)

Then he loses the benefit of the doubt since he has the training to make his arguments properly with big-boy numbers rather than writing down whatever random-ass figure comes into his head.
posted by atrazine at 1:55 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


And, last time I checked, "Europe" isn't a country. If you're going to do national-level economic and policy comparisons, well, you need to do it with individual countries. Spain and Ukraine aren't fungible.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:57 PM on September 28 [7 favorites]


I always vaguely agree with this author until I reach a certain repetitive point and scroll to find the writer's name and go, oh yeah, that guy. That guy you stopped subscribing to because the notifications made you start grinding your teeth again.
posted by RedEmma at 2:21 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]


the college educated set isn't likely to be seen as any different than the ultra-rich for being so removed from their experience.

yeah. like the estates general call by Louie. since one big issue was financial reform and Parliament were just geezers for the nobility, Louie should have suppressed the second estate, have the third estate open because that's where all the lawyers were. then the first estate would be sort of stymied not having to defend the nobilities thirst for cash. this of course is predicated upon a popular movement where the ultra rich/nobility joins in with a third estate for example, Philippe Égalité. so I guess in America, he'd be Phil Equality.
posted by clavdivs at 2:22 PM on September 28


People aren't dismissing his views so much as pointing out his glaring factual errors.

People are doing more than that. They are being defensive about the mainstream American Democrat narrative, so of course anything that contains factual errors but is relatively easy to rehabilitate has to be dismissed and shut down by Americans (at least one of whom has disclosed themselves as working in DC) as being incorrect. It's not an appeal to authority to point out the absence of recognizing that maybe someone from Europe with a doctorate in econ just might have a thing or two to say about America as an illustration of sociopolitical inequality, but rather the line is "his facts are wrong, he is wrong, this article is bad": an example of the kind of biased American aggression he is exactly talking about.

What the author's limitation as an economist is (likely) that he won't make the leftist turn and say that this is a consequence of neoliberalism, that it is not poverty per se (or even classism) but neoliberalism as a phenomenon, i.e. actually-existing capitalism, as a structure that transcends the polarized two-party analysis of why the right wing is classist and racist. The simple fact is that America is hugely unequal, but it should not be a mystery why petite bourgeois and lumpenproletariat alike make choices against their class interest. It's a deflection to hold up the author as being wrong, because the Democrat left will never have to explain the existence of what even Hillary Clinton recognized and gave name to.
posted by polymodus at 2:49 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


I always vaguely agree with this author until I reach a certain repetitive point and scroll to find the writer's name and go, oh yeah, that guy. That guy you stopped subscribing to because the notifications made you start grinding your teeth again.
Same here, not just with This Guy but also a lot of engagement-optimizing internet people. One of the basic tenets of social media is that you find a beat and stick to it exclusively and repetitively even if it’s something dumb. I go through phases of being receptive to a particular person’s content strategy, then I eventually get bored and unsubscribe.
posted by migurski at 2:57 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


it's worth pointing out he's an Oxford-educated economist by training, so I wouldn't dismiss his view so simply

Well, admitted to Oxford, but who knows if he stayed long enough to get an education:
Umair Haque earned a degree in neuroscience at McGill University, and his M.B.A. at London Business School. He started his PhD at the University of Oxford in 2004, and he is the founder of Bubblegeneration. Currently, he is the Director of Havas Media Lab, and is a columnist for the Harvard Business Review. Haque has written several books most notably being 'The New Capitalist Manifest: Building a Disruptively Better Business.'
posted by ambrosen at 3:08 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


People are doing more than that. They are being defensive about the mainstream American Democrat narrative, so of course anything that contains factual errors but is relatively easy to rehabilitate has to be dismissed and shut down by Americans (at least one of whom has disclosed themselves as working in DC) as being incorrect.
polymodus

What utter nonsense. People are saying he's incorrect because he's demonstrably incorrect, while agreeing with the broader idea of the problem of inequality. I could have set my watch with the surety that someone would come along with "defensiveness!" to dismiss all criticisms of the piece.

It's not an appeal to authority to point out the absence of recognizing that maybe someone from Europe with a doctorate in econ just might have a thing or two to say about America as an illustration of sociopolitical inequality,

"It doesn't matter if what he's saying is factually wrong, he has a degree so he knows he's talking about" is a textbook appeal to authority.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:12 PM on September 28 [12 favorites]


I’ll say it: this article is horseshit and this guy is a terrible writer.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:35 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Pitying America while glamorising Europe is all well and good, but this author is correct when they note that the Australian Prime Minister is a climate change denier, so I'm tempted to agree with everything else in order to make my life shorter.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:36 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


As far as I know, all European countries currently have fascist movements.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:39 PM on September 28


You hate to hear it about Monaco.
posted by box at 3:47 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


The author is using several uncontroversial points in economics: America is a 1) high inequality, 2) high cost of living, 3) low social mobility society. He then reframes this using the concept of effective poverty, which is a neat idea because it's trying to reframe the very notion of poverty. Then he says this is damaging to the social fabric, and leads to socio-politico-economic instability. I for one don't need to go all technical about his examples of stats or the salience of bank debt, to appreciate specific parts of the high-level argument he offers. We shouldn't assume all economists are number wonks.

"It doesn't matter if what he's saying is factually wrong, he has a degree so he knows he's talking about" is a textbook appeal to authority.

Since when was literally saying, maybe he has one or two things to offer, that there's a pattern of dismissal, is the same as asserting he knows what he's talking about completely? It's convenient to distort people's words. You put words in my mouth, don't do that. I also discussed where he was wrong, so my point was not without nuance. And yes, Americans are very defensive about their political ideologies.
posted by polymodus at 4:08 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


there's a pattern of dismissal

I don't think anyone's dismissing him; they're disagreeing with him on substance. And they're objectively correct.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:17 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


People are doing more than that. They are being defensive about the mainstream American Democrat narrative, so of course anything that contains factual errors but is relatively easy to rehabilitate has to be dismissed and shut down by Americans (at least one of whom has disclosed themselves as working in DC) as being incorrect. It's not an appeal to authority to point out the absence of recognizing that maybe someone from Europe with a doctorate in econ just might have a thing or two to say about America as an illustration of sociopolitical inequality, but rather the line is "his facts are wrong, he is wrong, this article is bad": an example of the kind of biased American aggression he is exactly talking about.

Many of us taking issue with this are ourselves European. It doesn't so much contain factual errors as consist entirely of them.

If his central thesis is, "it is better for people at most points in the income scale to live in Europe than the US" then that's definitely true in the wealthier parts of Europe and you can make a good case for it in the rest of the continent but then make that point based on the actual differences.

He lists:
-Internet and TV - not clear that this is true and hardly a major cost

-utility bills - literally the opposite is true here

-rental affordability - widely variable across Europe and the US and not at all clear to me that the US is worse here

-healthcare - this one actually does make a real massive difference so is why is it fourth? (we can ignore for the moment the factual errors since European countries with insurance based systems have much lower copays and annual contribution caps than are typical for the US)

Not mentioned:
-Free university - how on earth did he not mention the difference in who pays for university education and how? Many middle-class Americans have hundreds of dollars lopped off their monthly salaries to service their education debt.
-Free (good) secondary and primary schooling - widely varies across both the US and Europe but generally more equally funded in the latter
-Paid holidays
-Paid sick leave
-Maternity leave
-Stronger protection from dismissal

These all add up to it being all-around better for most workers in many parts of Europe than in the US so why aren't the mentioned at all?
posted by atrazine at 4:42 PM on September 28 [10 favorites]


Given that one could truthfully describe Donald fucking Trump as a Wharton-trained economist, I feel like we can forever lay that construction to rest. It means nothing.
posted by sinfony at 5:13 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Ugh. I’m sympathetic to his conclusion, even, but the support is just a mess. I can’t help hearing my undergrad philosophy professors hammering it into us that the easiest way to lose an argument is to overstate it. So much of America is a giant scam, and it is worth being angry about, but this guy is just going to make anybody who wants to sincerely make that case sound like a crank. Like Sigourney Weaver said in The Abyss, “stay off my side.”
posted by gelfin at 5:33 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


Like Sigourney Weaver said in The Abyss, “stay off my side.”

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, but yes, I got that feeling from basically every Umair Haque article I read until I decided life was too short and stopped reading him.
posted by judgement day at 5:47 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Dammit, you’re right. If Cameron would release it digitally like a sane man, mistakes like this wouldn’t happen.
posted by gelfin at 6:06 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


I for one don't need to go all technical about his examples of stats or the salience of bank debt, to appreciate specific parts of the high-level argument he offers. We shouldn't assume all economists are number wonks.

Because he's a highly-credentialed, highly-educated professional economist, we can reasonably expect him to make coherent, truthful arguments for his positions, and hold him to account when he doesn't.

This isn't a Facebook screed by some nobody where it's okay if it's all wrong as long as the gist is right. If this oh-so-amazing authority with such great expertise chose to write this piece, he could argue his position coherently. It does no favors to that position to do otherwise, and you do that position no favors by saying it's okay to be untruthful or deceitfully use statistics as long as you agree with the underlying point.

You put words in my mouth, don't do that.

You're being fundamentally dishonest, don't do that.
posted by star gentle uterus at 6:29 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]


Interesting.There is something here that reminds me of Kelly Oliver's concept of "social melancholy."
posted by Bob Regular at 6:47 PM on September 28


It was like this in England at the height of the British Empire too. Poor people were five inches shorter than rich people, that's where HG Wells got the idea of the Eloi and the Morlocks from.
posted by subdee at 7:10 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Anyway the US is not the "first" poor rich country, there's been poor people at he heart of the Empire before.
posted by subdee at 7:11 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Other have noted the crappy numbers. He starts by confusing household and individual income, and since his whole argument rests on that, his numbers are mostly a waste of time.

But the deeper problem is his overall analysis. He talks about "Americans" as being "poor", as if his hypothetical median-income dude is the only thing that exists, besides the shadowy monopolists ripping him off. This imaginary dude has to explain both America's suffering and its apparently infinite desire to suffer more.

As a corrective, look at this poll analysis and scroll down to the chart on voting by income. The key point: people making less than $100K a year (74% of voters) went for Biden in a landslide. That is: all the people who he thinks should be angry and poor don't like Republican policies and voted for something else. "Poor Americans" aren't the idiots he thinks they are.

If there's a villain in that chart, it's voters with $100K to $200K incomes, who voted massively for Trump. (And that was after four years of him.) These aren't the super-rich; my income was in that range when I was a computer programmer. But they're also not the people who are struggling in the way Haque talks about. I think it's fair to say that the US is the way it is largely because of these people. (Plus the really rich, though ironically those people are very evenly divided politically.)

So when Haque says "America’s descent into becoming a country of poor people goes hand in hand with its plunge into becoming a nation of idiots, fascists, theocrats, and assorted other kinds of fanatics"... no, that's a terrible analysis. The 3/4 of voters who are poor or doing moderately well are not idiots and fascists-- they overwhelmingly picked the sane option.

(To really explain why the GOP does so well, of course, we'd have to get into regional politics and the Electoral College and the damn filibuster-- which he also doesn't even mention.)

And when he says "That should change, but…it won’t"... well, things do look dire, but they always do. Fuck defeatism. A whole lot of positive change is being held up right now not by "systems and institutions", but by two idiot senators.
posted by zompist at 1:37 AM on September 29 [9 favorites]


Because he's a highly-credentialed, highly-educated professional economist,

He has an MBA and an unrelated undergraduate degree, plus he dropped out of grad school. He's just a grifter.
posted by ambrosen at 3:54 AM on September 29 [6 favorites]


Its pretty clearly the truth that below some level of the income distribution living standards are better in Europe.


I think this just goes to show how data visualization is so important. Even using quintiles to show the story of different economic levels is important. One of the most compelling arguments to be made is the shift in who has money in the US, how rapid and extreme that has become. How the lending system enables this (even implied by his first/only graph), how the tax system does as well. You cannot make that argument with just arithmetic means.

This is a really surface look, not a dive of any sort, and because he's working with blunt tools, hardly inciteful or sharp analysis.
posted by bonehead at 7:02 AM on September 29


Wow, can you imagine how tiring this guy would be at a party? I can. Vividly.

Also, living in the US (health care and taxes (local and federal) and child care (if you go that way)) is kinda expensive, certainly more expensive than Germany. (And the health-care costs mean we will never move back to the US. Simple as that. We will continue to visit family and etc, and maybe a kid will go to Uni there (if they can get a scholarship (not a loan, a scholarship)) but for health-costs we never will.)

What's pernicious (and has been mentioned upthread a couple places) is how he's in such a hurry he destroys his own credibility with sloppiness - and he has a point, house-hold debt in the US is easily driven very high, and health-care costs can be incomprehensible, and you have to drive an effing car everywhere (I know, not every everywhere but most everywhere (which of course is also the case in europe, where fuel taxes mean gas is sometimes as high as 2 bucks a liter or 8 bucks a gallon - and then the size of your car's motor (here in Germany) calculates your insurance price and 'road' tax on your car which combined can add a 200 dollar lump to your monthly bills... oh plus gas, our old Volvo R70 needed 100 bucks per fill-up, sometimes twice a month, which meant some months we paid 400 smackers to have a car...)(That is, we adjust our lives to our costs (we got a cheaper car, smaller motor)... but still, it's easy to get in financial deep shit in the US - maybe easier than it is in Europe... but I wouldn't just fling that out there like he does. And that's my point: 'I got the feeling things are like this... are they? lemme check no screw it I'll just write it up...)
posted by From Bklyn at 7:34 AM on September 29


A few hundreds, let’s call it two or three, for connectivity. And another $500 or so for basic utilities.

"It's one banana, Michael. What could it cost? 10 dollars?"
posted by lunasol at 12:32 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


I don't think the conclusion he is going for is really all that controversial: the US is a very expensive place to be poor or even middle-class. There are lots of things that are publicly funded in other democratic countries which aren't in the US, for various reasons. And it's pretty clear at this point that the public sector is (or at least, can be) more efficient in its delivery of services than the private sector, particularly when they are services that almost everyone uses.

The numbers he uses don't make the case very well, though.

I think one would do better to look at excess profits and payments to shareholders (dividends and buybacks) made by companies doing things in the US that are handled by the government or government-owned corporations in other companies.

For instance, healthcare: under the ACA's "80/20 Rule", private health insurers are allowed to skim up to 20% of premium payments for administration, overhead, and of course their own profits. We know that single-payer systems like the UK's NHS can perform the same functions for far less, probably half as much (it gets hard to estimate, because the NHS does a lot of stuff that private health insurance companies don't). But we know that the US system wastes at least ~5%, because that's the profit margin of the largest insurance companies. That's 5% of a significant chunk of the US GDP, just being skimmed cleanly off the top and pocketed by corporate shareholders of insurance companies, before you even get into the questionable necessity of many of the insurance companies' actual employees in a more efficient system, or into the inefficiency that occurs in actual healthcare settings (including hospital administration, etc.).

In higher education it's a bit more complex, because colleges and universities tend to be notionally "non profit" and thus tend to bury their profits in increased administrative spending. But we know that the US spends nearly twice as much per student-year as other developed countries, so the cost inflation there is potentially as much as 50%. By looking at the for-profit schools that do exist, though, we can get a low-end number: Strayer's profit margin is currently close to 10%. Since they charge about the same as many non-profit institutions and produce a nearly-identical "product", it doesn't seem like a far stretch to assume that there's a similar level of excess profits across the higher-ed "industry", just accounted for in different ways.

Retirement is the same way: the Social Security Administration is ruthlessly efficient, with management/administrative costs running only about 0.6% (that's zero-point-six percent, not a typo). That's significantly lower than the 2.71% Vanguard—generally assumed to be the most cost-conscious investment company in the US—charges employers for 401k plans. And SSA manages to operate 1200 local field offices, which Vanguard doesn't bother with.

IMO, this is all pretty intimately tied up with the "bullshit jobs" discussion (cf.), because this is where a lot of the bullshit jobs come from: they are enabled and exist because of the excess costs charged to American consumers, and the excess costs exist because of all the bullshit jobs that are created along the way.

I think many, if not most, Americans have a good idea at this point that they're being ripped off by the System. Certainly a lot of people in younger generations would probably be packing their bags for Europe if they could figure out a way to get in.

But the US has created a perfect "self-licking ice cream cone", in the sense that the proceeds of its economic inefficiency are spread across enough people—specifically, enough voting people—who are thus dependent on that inefficiency for their own livelihood, that it's extremely difficult to change. Nobody is likely to vote themselves out of a job, even if they know in their heart that it's bullshit.

What we need is some sort of Great Unwinding, to slowly remove the bloated for-profit companies (and technically-but-not-really "non profits" that act the same way) from the economic equation in areas where we have demonstrable evidence that a government-run or at least government-owned system would work better. This would go a huge way to lowering costs for everyday social necessities, free up resources for more productive endeavors, and make the country a more liveble place for everyone. But I'm not holding my breath.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:48 PM on September 29 [4 favorites]


I kind of want to like Umair Haque, there's a Quixotic quality to his writing, and this particular screed is one I could see myself making, at 3 o'clock in the morning, among friends, who are also drunk.

Here, if not the author, then certainly the argument is wasted, between absolutely bungling the numbers and hammering a distinction so blunt it flattens all difference.

Which is a shame, because Americans, not to mention the world at large, would benefit from a view of human needs as more than business opportunities, in the understanding that security, belonging, and autonomy are not a product, a platform, or a plan.
posted by dmh at 12:53 PM on September 29


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