Megan McArdle is Even More Always Wrong Than Usual: Arithmetic is Hard/Mostly Outsourced edition

By now most everyone who cares (a swiftly dwindling number, I hope) has heard of Megan McArdle’s spectacular meltdown when confronted by arithmetical and analytical errors of the most damning sort.

By far the best account of this comes in a spectacular fisking of McArdle by her own commenters, as organized by the invaluable (and stronger-stomached-than-I) Susan of Texas over at The Hunting of The Snark.

I’m not going to bother linking to McArdle herself. Why reward her with even the mote of traffic that might come her way, when SoT provides the complete text with commentary.  A veritable Talmud of McArdle.(I’m not sure I can really get my head around that concept–ed.)

In short form:  Ms McArdle can’t count, and she can’t think either — but those errors of argument are rather more strategic than they appear.  (She can’t deal with criticism either, which leads to much hilarity in this instance.*

So, to begin with, McArdle mistakes $250 for $25, and then uses the lower number as her estimate of how much money could flow to each American if taxes on the wealthiest were allowed to return to the levels experienced in the last epoch of budget surplus and sustained job creation and economic growth.**

She then went on to make an claim in large part based on that error: that the stimulus effect of choosing to recapture foregone revenue from the rich would be tiny, given that $25 buys no more than “one pizza dinner per person.”

Now, you can get the full takedown on the serial sins of fact and logic that McArdle made at Susan of Texas’s place.  Here, I just want to add two thoughts.

For one, McArdle’s first order claim — that redistributing to the population at large the money that is now earmarked for tax cuts for the rich will have no effect because the sums involved are trivial — allows her to ignore the reality of class and economic life as it is lived by most Americans.

In fact, as the upper-middle-class McArdle chooses not to know, the difference between a $100 supplement to income for a family of four and $1,000 boost is potentially life-changing, especially at the economic margin.

That’s roughly one month mortgage payment or better at median house prices right now.***

That’s one more month of high-deductible health insurance for the family in my home state of Massachusetts.

That’s the food budget for about a month and a half.

You get the idea.

More broadly, the real failure lies with her claim that one basically can’t figure out whether or not spending money on unemployment insurance is good for the economy (and not simply struggling individuals) as compared with retaining the current tax structure.  She writes:

it assumes that the rather optimistic estimates of Mark Zandi about the size of the stimulus multiplier are correct. Estimating stimulus multipliers is incredibly difficult when you try to do it at the macro level (how much spending equals how much extra GDP), and even more difficult when you try to figure out whether food stamps are better than a jobs program–the examples are fewer, and the amounts are smaller, making it hard to pick up direct effects.

I.e., you can’t figure out what a given policy will do (according to McArdle, ex cathedra)…and worse — even if there were a discernable impact, it wouldn’t matter. Why not?  Because the measures of success are meaningless:

It also assumes that any measured increase in GDP measures some improvement in human welfare. It is trivially true that if you increase one component of a measured variable, that variable will get bigger. It’s much harder to know that any particular increase in GDP represents a real change in human welfare, or merely moving chess pieces around the board.

Now that last statement is simply nonsense, as stalwart McArdle commenter Zosima pointed out. measures may be imperfect for all kinds of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of meaning.

But McArdle, I think, doesn’t really care if she’s wrong or risible.  Her real goal is to advance the notion that government action informed by reason and empirical knowledge is impossible.

Hence the value (for her) in repeating stuff like this.  This isn’t about the stimulus, in other words, or appropriate tax policy.  It’s about the impossiblity of governance.

In that light, the key fact to remember is that McArdle’s lapses of reasoning and fact are features, not bugs.   Remember the mission as declared by her home institution: “TheAtlantic – shaping the national debate on the most critical issues of our times, from politics, business, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture.”

McArdle is indeed trying to shape the debate, to constrain what might be possible in the exercise of government power.  Mere logic, paltry fact may not be permitted to get in the way.  She is Always Wrong™ — by design.

*Here I shamelessly steal from Susan, uber smart serial commenter Aimai’s summary dismissal of the divine Ms MM on McArdle’s comment thread:

Hm, lets see if the site lets me post. Can I ask whether this long, incoherent and off point attack by Megan on poster zosina is, in fact, by Megan? I mean, look–for one thing the “Megan” in this post claims to be the child of academics when the real Megan, as far as I know, is the child of a former public employee turned lobbyist and a realtor. Second of all the real Megan presumably grasps that “being the child of academics” doesn’t actually amount to an argument. No, really it doesn’t. Actually, and for real, I’m the child of a Nobel Prize winner and for kicks I’ll add I’m a third generation Harvardite. So what? This really, really, really, never comes up in academic arguments which are actually won and lost not by some kind of bizarre blood test but by concrete arguments. The “you are tedious and lack charm” argument is also one that I have yet to see adduced in a respectable discussion. Certainly, on the basis of the evidence from this thread, its hard to tell which of the two of you, the “megan” poster and the zosina poster is the younger. If I didn’t know that the real Megan is 37 I’d have had to award this avatar the palm for most juvenile approach to intellectual discussion. Finally, I have yet to see the imaginary comments “Megan” refute any of Zosina’s points. If this thread “Megan” isn’t the real Megan I think the real Megan might want to step in and clean up the comments by deleting her. But if she is the real Megan I think the Atlantic might want to step in and jerk the blog entirely. This is a positively craptacular piece of incoherent special pleading on Megan’s part, from the first post to the comment thread. Really, its shameful. And you don’t have to be the “child of academics” to know that.

aimai

**McArdle later tried to excuse herself by noting that her calculator could not handle the millions – billions quantities in the division.  To which I respond that it one of the skills we train our students in at the MIT Science Writing Program is that of estimation, and the honing of a nose for suspect numbers.  I would have thought that someone so inordinately proud of her role as “Business and Economic Editor of The Atlantic” would have cultivated the same.  If she hasn’t, then I would respectfully suggest that this is just one more piece of evidence that she is unqualified for the position she now holds.  I mean, dude — was it so hard to reconfigure the 75 billion/.3 billion raw number into 750/3?  There.  That wasn’t so hard.

***That statement is based on the following calculation:  take the median price for a new home as of Q1 2010, subtract 10 percent for a down payment and come up with a mortgage balance of $195,000 (give or take a buck).  At the current 30 year mortgage rate of 5.36%, you get a principal and interest payment of $1090 and a couple of cents.)

Image:  Francisco de Goya “Old people eating soup,” 1819-23

Explore posts in the same categories: Arithmetic, bad ideas, bad writing, Conservatives, Journalism and its discontents, libertarian nonsense, Uncategorized, words mattter

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7 Comments on “Megan McArdle is Even More Always Wrong Than Usual: Arithmetic is Hard/Mostly Outsourced edition”


  1. Nice analysis.

    Also, where is Ms. McArdle getting her pizza dinners? Even with a 10% tax, our Little Caesar’s “hot and ready” gives us a large cheese for $6. Trader Joe’s provides organic bagged salad greens for less than $3 (and a bottle of dressing for about another $3). Throw in a gallon of milk (which gets the kids through most of the week) for $4, and that’s $16 for a pizza dinner for our family of four.

    This is shades of GHW Bush at the supermarket, startled by the UPC scanners. Not exactly in touch with the people and their situation, is she?

    • KWillow Says:

      She gets CustomPizza, made with Organic cheese from specially bred cows, with sausage or pepperoni hand made in Vermont, garnished with pink Antarctic sea salt and red pepper from somewhere remote & exotic, plus her delivery person expects a $5 minimum tip. Except, as a libertarian, she stiffs the delivery person.

  2. thonyc Says:

    …Megan McArdle’s spectacular meltdown when confronted by arithmetical and analytical errors of the most damning sort.

    She ran out of fingers!

  3. Blake Stacey Says:

    Frozen pizza for one is about four bucks at the supermarket across the street from my home.

    Claim: During a photo opportunity at a 1988 grocers’ convention, President George Bush was “amazed” at encountering supermarket scanners for the first time.

    Status: False.

    Snopes


  4. Dang those kids at Snopes!

    But, I don’t actually believe that Ms. McArdle believes a pizza dinner is $25 per head, either.

  5. yorksranter Says:

    She also claims that meat was unaffordable for the majority of Londoners in the 1990s, so thar ye go.


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