Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: On So Many Axes It’s Hard To No Where To Start/Outsourced Edition.

Yes, this will be largely outsourced, but just to get everyone in the mood let me quote from the introduction to Andrew Bacevich’s important new book Washington Rules (about which I’ve been blogging a bit this week).

That introduction channels (and explicitly cites) Henry Adams on the subject of education, which in both men’s tellings tends to begin only when one discovers the capacity to break free of the fetters forged through years of imbibing truths too obvious to be examined.

As Bacevich quotes Adams, “Nothing is so astonishing in education as the amount of ignorance accumulates in the form of inert facts.”

That revelation prompted this next reflection.  I want to emphasize that the identification of it with Megan McArdle is all mine — Bacevich bears no responsibility for that specific connection.  But as I read his couple of sentences describing those who attempt to get ahead within the Washington establishment by showing existing powers how perfectly you can recite your lessons, it seemed to me to describe McArdle to a tee.

Bacevich writes that:

Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes.  It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Bacevich is a better man than I am: he writes to warn, to educate.

I don’t, at least not here.

I think Megan McArdle is past instruction.  She has made her petty-Faustian deal with the the little Lucifers of DC, and it is my bet that when the bill comes due, it will be far too late for any education to have effect.

Which leads me to today’s update in the Always Wrong™ chronicles.  This one belongs almost entirely to Susan of Texas, the stalwart at The Hunting of the Snark who has more stamina than I will ever have in documenting the case study in the death of American journalism that is the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic (sic!). (h/t TBogg).

Basically, McArdle links to a post citing an anonymous source accusing HHS Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration of silencing a critic — a health insurance company — through the threat of regulatory retaliation.

Astute readers would (and did in McArdle’s comment thread) smell the obvious rat.  McArdle has long since demonstrated that she will say anything, no matter how risible, to defend her required position that the health care bill is an abomination (i.e. required by her overlords. See “promissary notes,” above).

So it comes as no surprise that she would leap at the attempt to advance the radical right-meme that government regulation = government jackboots at the door of innocent corporate citizens.  But given the convenience with which this post supports the pre-existing narrative, those who are familiar with her work know that one’s must needs check each claim.

Which her commenters do, admirably, and which Susan O’T meticulously chronicles. Go read Susan’s work — it’s fun.  Here I’ll just give you the short form, and one thought (all I got left on a busy Friday morning.)

Shorter:  McArdle takes another writer’s claims based on a “vetted” anonymous tip that a health insurance company has been silenced by a “gag order” issued by the  government.  Turns out (a) the “threat” was a widely publicized letter Secretary Sebelius sent to the head of the health insurance lobbying organization saying, in effect, that as the law requires, that insurers will be subject to regulatory review of potentially unjustified premium increases, and if that review returns confirmation, sanctions will follow.  To which she added the warning that falsely claiming that the new health care law drove the increases would not turn an unjustified increase into a justified one.

Now, you might not like it when a regulator in your business says the regulations apply to you, but McArdle had a great deal of difficulty explaining to her comment thread how this was a gag order — and in particular how this bore, at all, on her imputation that the administration was trying to suppress political speech (“dissent” in her grubby appropriation of a word whose associations with the to-her foreign concept of courage she seeks to steal).  Basically, she just made that bit up.

Actually, McArdle more or less told her readers right up front that she was doing so.  Susan noted that McArdle’s discussion of the so-called gag order began with this phrase:  “Whatever the facts….”

My FSM!  She might as well have taken out an ad in Variety to shout that this was all bullsh*t.

I’m sure no one reading this will be surprised to learn that the facts aren’t with her.

The health insurer in question, when finally contacted by the initial poster denied the existence of the gag order.  That blogger excused his error by saying that it seemed likely to him that the adminstration might threaten someone, and that if they had, and succeeded, the gag order would have prevented the company from telling him so. Sic.

McArdle ultimately updated her post to reflect this fact, after being contacted directly by the company in question.  She added this remark:

I shouldn’t have linked the HCSC situation to Sebelius’ letter, which I’ve been meaning to write about for days; I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t, for which I apologize.

Uhhh…”I took the words “gag order” to mean something they didn’t?”

Is is it just me or is she telling us here that she is functionally illiterate?

How many other things can those words mean than the one we all assumed she was talking about: that someone with power uttered a command to someone else to shut up?

Of course, this is really just word salad, the one dish I know that McArdle knows how to whip up.

Her problem was that she committed a fundamental journalistic sin in a journalistic setting.  She got something big wrong, and even admits, within the body of the piece, that she didn’t even try to get it right.

Remember: McArdle accused the Obama administration of doing something very bad that it did not do.   She used words like “creepy” and  “thuggish” to describe this alleged exercise of totalitarian power.  There is nothing here that turns on a misunderstanding of the phrase “gag order.”

Instead what you see McArdle doing is to mask this great sin with a lessor one: I’m sorry, dude, but I just didn’t understand the vocabulary.  And the dog ate my homework.  And I was kinda right anyway.

To put it another way:  honest folk don’t have to make such excuses.

Last (hell of a shorter–ed.):  Whatever else happens, remember that Megan McArdle is not a journalist.  She is a shill.  A journalist would, affirmatively, actually report on claims before publishing them.

They’d ask. They would, at a minimum, read something as brief as a letter with some attention and care.

(Again, I’m just gobsmacked by that “I took the words…to mean” line.  Bluntly — if you can’t read declarative sentences in plain English with reasonable comprehension, then journalism is the wrong trade for you.)

Negatively, of course, “journalists” who routinely get basic facts in their stories wrong get fired.

If The Atlantic were even vaguely serious about its own reputation as an elite journal, it would react to the damage that McArdle daily does to the reputation of that publication and all who publish there, even those who are truly excellent writers and thinkers (thinking of you, James Fallows and TNC).

Again, there’s a simpler way to put it:  someone who can write — and not quail at pressing the upload button — the phrase, “whatever the facts”…

…is unworthy of your trust.

Image:  “Chiron instructs young Achilles,” fresco from Herculaneum.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad behavior, bad writing, caveat lector, deceit, Health Care, Journalism and its discontents, Massive Fail, Stupidity, Uncategorized

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19 Comments on “Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: On So Many Axes It’s Hard To No Where To Start/Outsourced Edition.”

  1. Downpuppy Says:

    This is less egregious, but more fun, than the time she slandered the Kidney Foundation in the belief that a phrase from a laundry list was their entire basis for being against paying for organs. (Megan had read a letter to the New Yorker & couldn’t be bothered to look up the actual position paper)

    Megan:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/07/department-of-bizarre-arguments/21835/

    Kidney foundation:

    http://www.kidney.org/news/newsroom/positionpaper03.cfm

    It’s a good sign that while that one passed without a ripple, she’s getting ripped for this one.

    • Jim Bales Says:

      I’ve been low profile because, after 3 years, 8 months and 5 days on dialysis, my younger brother received a kidney transplant in late August.

      On the whole, I’m glad I missed McArdle’s 2009 piece — my blood pressure didn’t need the stimulus.

      Best,
      Jim Bales

      • Tom Says:

        I’m very glad to hear about your bro, Jim. Best of health to him. And yes, it’s good not to notice some things.

  2. tdd Says:

    Normally, I don’t correct spelling, but I figure since you were quoting Bacevich, you might want to get the spelling right. Trustworthiness in the blockquote has an issue.


  3. […] Letter ™. Tom Levenson, who is actually a journalist with pedigree and a position at M.I.T., also comments. And TBogg piles on. John Cole adds: Seriously- how out of whack does your thought process have to […]


  4. She clearly was incorrect. It was retracted though, and I’m not sure that I see MM as the most obnoxious right wing voice in the blogsphere, and certainly not when you count right wing talk radio, and that seems to be implication here quite often. Am I missing something?

    • SomeCallMeTim Says:

      I think she irks people here, and Brad DeLong at UC Berkeley, and Krugman in the NYT because while she’s not the most obnoxious, she’s among the most elevated (at The Atlantic), relies on academic pedigree not reflected in her analysis, and seems persistently wrong in almost the same way when she’s off.


      • McArdle is not a right-wing talk radio nut. She seems to be influential and widely read, to the point that many agencies or groups she’s maligned or misinterpreted feel the need to ask for retraction or correction. She has the right educational background (more or less) and the respect of the media establishment. Conservative and Libertarian bloggers cite her as an authority on economics. She’s been on the BBC, CNBC (Larry Kudlow’s program), CNN (Fareed Zakarias), NPR’s Marketplace, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many others.

        The most obnoxious bloggers are dangerous but not in the way McArdle is dangerous.

    • grog Says:

      It isn’t so much the volume as it is the tone. She tries to wear the mantle of a libertarian-leaning but honest truth teller, and is, in fact, nothing but a shill.

      It is the difference between a snake oil peddler that is an honest crook, and, say, a two-bit lawyer that advises folks on how to cheat on taxes. Only that would imply the lawyer actually passed the bar.

      I think the problem is that McMegan, back in the early days of blogging, looked like she was capable of self-questioning. A notable moment was when she admitted that an article she wrote was killed because she didn’t equate the Laffer curve with the orthodox tax cuts == always good propaganda.

      It turns out that she found her price. I’m very uncomfortable saying that. We all have our price. Some of us pay forgone wealth for the ability to write and say what we believe to be true, and either gamble on the idea that being factually correct and capable of insight will lead to wealth and power, or don’t care about that stuff.

      Others prefer a safe route to living in the shade of wealth and power. It only takes all your time and requires whoring out your intellect, but you get a nice home in the ‘burbs near where the players live and get invited to the parties.

      tldr; I think people pile on because she seemed like someone who could have been a thinker, but made a deliberate choice to spend her intellect on comforting the comfortable, and didn’t even get that good of a price for it. I mean, come on – exotic salt, overly complicated cooking gadgets? That’s all it cost?


  5. Thanks for the replies. I’ll try to digest all this.

  6. Gramsci Says:

    Yeah, she whips up that word salad and then sprinkles the pink sea salt of sanctimony over it.


  7. I am continually gobsmacked that she hasn’t resigned, much less been fired, over stuff like this. How is Stephen Glass worse than this assassination by unsubstantiated innuendo?

  8. surefoot Says:

    It may be the position she takes before even starting an article; she should try laying down first, she may do better work on her back. I mean how else would a person with low skills continue to be employed at The Atlantic?

  9. AJ Hill Says:

    A key characteristic of right wing faux journalism ala McArdle is Stephen Colbert’s immortal “truthiness”. Foregone conclusions – e.g.: global warming is a hoax – lend retrograde credibility to assertions, no matter what the facts may show. Thus the hacked East Anglia emails are still cited by the right as evidence of scientific fraud, even though multiple investigations have exonerated their authors of any such wrongdoing.
    In the same way, I predict, McArdle’s disingenuous conclusion that a “gag order” was imposed on the insurer will survive among conservative true believers as an example of oppressive “over regulation” by government.

  10. John Says:

    She is a shill. I occasionally used to read her pieces having been drawn to the Atlantic by Sullivan who despite his hobby horses and occasional failures of judgement because of personal relationships (eg. Peretz) is more right than wrong. She on the other hand is literally never right. The point is we’re not talking about some extreme polemicist like Breitbart and his imitators, we’re talking about someone who is supposed to be “respectable.” I occasionally challenged some of her more egregious nonsense but there was either no reply or, a speciality of hers, she moved the goalposts. A deeply dishonest woman.


  11. […] I’m actually sympathetic to that view, for all the joy I’ve taken in McArdle gigging over the last few years.  It would be better for both the […]


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