Busted

So this weekend, I read the book from which the New York Times article I blogged about on Friday was excerpted.  I feel a little differently now, though not enough to take back anything I wrote.

Andrews spends a lot of time defending not feeling bad, because after all, the banks shouldn't have lent him money.  This is true, they shouldn't, and anyone who did should be profusely apologizing to their shareholders.  But when you read the book, what you discover is that while the book is ostensibly about our Great National Borrowing Binge, for Andrews, the debt is really a sideshow.  He couldn't afford to get married.  At all. 

After his alimony payments, Andrews was taking home $2770 a month, or about what I took home when I was a junior web editor at The Economist.  On this, he expected to support a wife and several children who came attached to a meagre $700 a month in child support.  Presumably, their joint income was so low because the emotional (though not yet physical) relationship between Andrews and his now wife is what triggered their respective divorces.

Middle class people in Washington DC do not expect to support a wife, several children, and the visits of several more, on $3500 a month--which they didn't get, because her ex-husband repeatedly failed to pay up.  That is not money that lets you live at any income level at all in an acceptable school district.  The tiny, run down two bedroom in Silver Spring that my sister and I shared when I first moved to DC was $1500 a month.  I don't think you could cram four or five people of varying ages and sexes into that living space--not and maintain what the middle class anywhere in the country thinks of as a decent minimum.  Even if you'd wanted to, the building management wouldn't have allowed it.

He certainly couldn't live there and do what middle class people in DC think of as "normal", like dressing yourself and your children somewhere other than the $10 rack at Wal-Mart, eating something besides rice and beans every night, and so forth. At the very best, had they moved to an exurb, they would have had a life with absolutely no margin for error.

Of course, they didn't exactly expect to pull this off on $3500 a month.  They expected his wife to get a job that paid $40,000 a year or more.  But this was not certain, and it wasn't actually all that reasonable, considering that she hadn't worked for twenty years.

Andrews took on the obligation to support two adult women and, by my count, six children.  Middle class people can't do that.  That's something that's only ever been possible for very rich men.

The credit card lenders and mortgage brokers let Andrews make a bad decision:  the decision to get married.  But if they hadn't lent him the money, it's crystal clear from the expenses and income figures he lays out, and their behavior, that they never would have gotten married in the first place.  They were spending $3,000 a month more than they were making.  Having a cheaper rental or a lower credit card interest bill would have come nowhere near to making up the gap.

So what does he blame them for?  Helping him get, and (so far) stay, married?  It's like the old joke:  take my wife--please!  Other people may have been led down the primrose path, borrowing more than they can afford.  But Andrews married more than he could afford.  Unless he's willing to repudiate the marriage, he hasn't much moral stance to repudiate the debt.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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