A Response To Megan McArdle On Inequality And Empathy

After reading a Bloomberg article on the plight of high-earners who have seen their income drops, Megan McArdle, asks, “Are the Rich Completely Undeserving of Sympathy?”

Nope. It’s hardest to muster sympathy for those at the tippy-top of the income distribution, of course, but I can certainly feel the pain of the guy who “makes $350,000 and lives in 1200 square feet with three kids” in New York, to take an example McArdle cites from the piece. Getting accustomed to something and then having it snatched away is a universally miserable human experience, and we should do our best to empathize with those who experience it.

The issue here runs a little deeper, though. When folks who are concerned about inequality get annoyed at this kind of journalism, the annoyance doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It occurs partially in response to the fact that our legislative system seems to be obsessed, above all else, with protecting the assets and increasing the earning potential of high earners (if you doubt this, read Winner-Take-All politics—actually, just read it if you have any interest whatsoever in inequality and government).

If Congress is already twisting itself into a pretzel to to help out the richest people in the country, and if income inequality has screamed skyward as a result, do we really need a steady diet of articles documenting the plight of folks who are never going to have to worry about their next meal, about having a roof over their head?

So no, it’s not hard to feel some level of sympathy for them. But it’s also not hard to ask why this is a thriving subgenre of journalism—and what it tells us about our priorities.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.