This Liberal Magazine Gives Terrible Advice. Reason Offers a Second Opinion.

Reason corrects The Nation's bad advice on depression and the gig economy.


Longtime lefty mag stalwart, The Nation, debuted an advice column today. It's a weirdly delightful read; the tone is breezy to the point of wacky and the knee-jerk politicization of the questions is so blatant that it has to be a conscious choice.

The actual advice, however, is pretty terrible. So how about a second opinion?

Is my depression individual or political?
—Depressed or Oppressed 

Nation columnist Liza Featherstone dives right in, declaring: 

Let's not draw too sharp a distinction. Life under capitalism can be a profound bummer!

She goes on to cite "one of the few Marxist psychoanalysts (!) currently in clinical practice" whose name is Dr. Fraad (!!).

[Fraad says] "depression is anger unexpressed." Following the news makes you mad. That is good; you are not a selfish asshole. But instead of turning that anger inward on yourself, Dr. Fraad urges you to turn it outward, toward the bad guys, through political engagement.

Then Featherstone literally advises this depressed person to go hang off a bridge: 

You probably can't fix serious clinical depression simply by joining the Portland bridge hangers—­please do also try whatever combination of talk therapy, drugs, and exercise is right for you—but the research does suggest that political participation boosts well-being, especially for women inclined to psychic distress. 

Here's my second opinion:

If following the news makes you mad/depressed, try taking a break from the news.

It's entirely possible that some depression, perhaps even the depression of this incredibly succinct letter writer, is indeed anger turned inward. But for many, many other people, politics (or sex or parents or illness) is merely the most obvious component of a complex interaction of many factors, including brain chemistry and learned behaviors. 

And—here is the most important bit—politics, whatever your understanding of it, is almost completely unfixable. "Engagement" of the kind urged by The Nation, is wildly unlikely to end capitalism or stop oil spills. There's very little upside to seeing your depression as primarily political. Depression that feels political is just as likely—perhaps even more likely—to be cured by taking up biking or visiting a therapist or consuming selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors on a regular basis.

So feel free to try the bridge thing, I guess. (Though again, bridges and serious depression do not strike me as a winning combination.) But I urge you to seriously entertain the possibilty—as Featherstone does not seem to—that politics is simply what your brain had available when it was looking for something to feel bad about. If you are deeply depressed by the Donald Trump candidacy or a zoning fight, it's likely that those things are not the actual cause of your sadness or unease.

Conversely, seriously depressed people fixated on an election rarely wake up cured on November 5, even if their guy wins. 

Here's the part of Featherstone's advice to salvage: "please do also try whatever combination of talk therapy, drugs, and exercise is right for you."

But—and this is and will be my advice about everything in the end—as long as you aren't using force or fraud against anyone else, do whatever the hell you want.


My roommate is a slob, and I don't like cleaning up after him. The problem is, neither does he. When I suggested splitting a cleaning service, he told me the ones I researched—worker cooperatives with good labor practices—were too expensive. Then, without asking me, he used, a cheap start-up, before I could ask him to cancel. How should I handle this situation?

—Resident, Pigpen or Sweatshop 

Featherstone's answer includes extensive musing about the depredations of the gig economy, but here's the kernel of her advice: 

If you're the one on the lease, try once more to explain what you need: He must clean, or allow someone else to be fairly compensated for doing so. If he won't do that, kick him to the curb. 

Here's my second opinion:

This problem has a market solution. (I know, I know. I'm fighting ideological cliche with ideological cliche. But hear me out! My advice is very practical.) The writer and her roommate both (presumably) value a clean apartment and a peaceful domestic sphere, though perhaps to different degrees. When approached with a complaint, the roommate found a way to solve the problem at price he felt was fair. If the writer places a higher value on certain labor practices than her roommate does, she should pay the difference and hire cleaners that meet her approval. Heck, she's already done the research!

Roommates and married economist couples do this all the time when divvying up responsibility. Cable bills (you watch TV and I don't, so you pay it), for example, or rooms with different qualities (you want an en suite bath, you pay more rent). My husband and I occasionally conduct mini-auctions to determine who wants to do a chore less, though rock-paper-scissors works well when the transaction costs of setting up an auction are too high. There's no reason this solution can't be applied here. Yes, this is about ethical principles and not amenities, but I bet the writer already pays more for cage-free eggs and organic apples even as her roommate keeps his generic supermarket brand eggs and conventional apples in the fridge right next to hers. This is no different.

When two people in a voluntary relationship have different underlying values and desires, exit is always an option. But unlike Featherstone, I wouldn't kick this baby and his bathwater to the curb just yet. Assuming the writer would otherwise like to keep her roommate around, a small informal auction solves this problem neatly and efficiently.

But (all together now!) as long as you aren't using force or fraud against anyone else, do whatever the hell you want.