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.