Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle: a good writer who I don’t hate anymore

My first encounter with McArdle’s work was in the Atlantic, when she was the business editor. 
I hated her work for the Atlantic. It was, in fact, a major reason I stopped my subscription (That and a lack of editorial consistency with a redesign every year. Say what you want about Harper’s, at least they’re consistent).  Mainly I hated that the magazine that was so progressive in so many ways both currently and historically would employ a libertarian to do their business and economic coverage.

I like her a lot more now.  I think perhaps our economic and political positions have come closer together through mutual moderation.

I like this book, though it is a bit uneven.  The ostensible thesis is that we need to be able to fail better, so that our outcomes are more like those of a forager, who shares his/her individual bounty with the group and less like the farmer who fails alone (50). I support a libertarian coming to terms with the need for collective solutions, and I was shocked to even see McArdle call for something like the WPA (186) even if she does spend considerable time bashing unions and government investment in green technology (130).

The thing is, though, the best written, and the most interesting parts of this book are not the ones that speak directly to the thesis. In a somewhat divergent structural method from a lot of social scienc book, McArdle speaks about her life a lot.  She has come face to face with relative failure, spending two years unemployed. These are the best parts of the book, and the most well written. Though theoretically building her ethos, they work independent of the thesis and would be interesting to see as a stand-alone book. (It does complicate my own priors about her. She speaks of her childhood in NYC Private Schools, her University of Chicago MBA, and when she was unemployed and changing jobs, the first job she got in journalism was with the Economist. That kind of failing up can make it easy to hate her in the jealously envious sort of way).

So, yeah,  read the book.  McArdle is a good writer who I don’t hate anymore. 

One last note: this being a book that covers social science, the Marshmallow Study has to get mentioned.  In this case, McArdle leaves it be until page 223 of 268 pages.  Therefore it gets a Marshmallow Index score of 1.2.

Michael Lewis is a National Treasure: Reading "The New New Thing"

Here’s the thing.  The book “The New New Thing” isn’t in fact a new thing.  It appears to come from a time in Michael Lewis’s life where his books didn’t automatically go into a paperback pressing.  It took me a while to figure this out.  I was at my library looking at the new shelf, and there on the shelf was this book.  I had to look, since I had not heard of the book at all and thought that it was weird that it bypassed my attention.  I cursed Amazon’s bots for not recommending this to me the first time around. Briefly, I thought their technology had failed.

So it is not a new book, but the words are fresh and come off the page as only Lewis can make them.  He is perhaps one of the better story-tellers around, so he is a bit of a national treasure.  What’s weird is that the book is basically just a long profile of Jim Clark, a dot-com (and earlier) superstar who was good with hardware and smart enough to glom on to the right software guys.  I may be part of the wrong circles, but I had never heard of the man before the book (meaning I don’t know what his last 15 years or so have been like) but the book covers an exceptional time in Clark’s life which also corresponds with the  tech bubble.  It is of a piece of the tech bubble in another way – of the five or so companies that Clark has a hand in during the book, only one at this point is immediately recognizable: the now defunct browser company Netscape. (The book did make me want to find what had happened to the company, merged into AOL and wound down around 2008 but the tech lives on in firefox)

There’s also a whole lot about Clark’s attempt to build a giant automated sailboat.  Lewis is on the not-entirely-successful maiden voyage.  Clark seems to have been of his time but also ahead of it. This makes the book interesting, but more so as an artefact of the time than of anything else. It is to be read if you’re a Lewis completest, but passable otherwise.

Reading the Econimic Consequences of the Peace: Was it too Late?

This professor Keynes provides a clear-headed and thorough look at what the treaty lays out for the German people and the German state. If conditions are not ameliorated, then there may be great consequences for for the victor nations. Let's change that before it is too late.

Unfortunately, the copy is not without its flaws.  The charts that the Professor included in the book have formatting issues that render a reading difficult.  Thankfully he explains the important issues which the charts bring up