Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Upside of Down: Introduction

A.K.A. Failing Straight Up, A.K.A. Born On 3rd And Ready To Teach You How To Hit A Homer

I have a real problem with Megan McArdle. She's my third most despised pundit.

I'm not alone in this. McArdle has developed a reputation as a grown-up Veruca Salt - uncommonly privileged and unaware of it, self-indulgent, unmotivated, ungrateful. Her career in punditry started off with a bizarre fantasy of violence committed against Iraq War protesters and somehow went downhill from there. Through circumstances I've never fully understood, she ended up at The Atlantic, where she put on a sterling show of incompetence. She fudged her math, failed to do proper research and then claimed her statements weren't meant to be factual, wrote long encomiums to her own consumerism (most famously a truly surreal account of her waiting in line to buy an iPhone in which she likened herself to a refugee), took extended periods off without explanation, slacked off during major economic upheaval (allegedly her area of expertise) and made videos of herself preparing very bland recipes.

In short, it was a dismal performance. So of course she was promoted, uplifted, and now given a book deal. How delightful.

The Upside of Down is one of those business-oriented self-help books that fill the shelves in the offices of CEOs. Like many such books, this one also blends in some misapplied behavioral science (a la David Brooks, my second most despised pundit).

My theory is that it's also meant to be an attempt to retroactively justify McArdle's career. McArdle has never been one to cop to her own flaws. Whether it was suggesting that people who were right about Iraq were just lucky, insisting that the numbers in her columns weren't meant to be taken as fact, or defending her shopping list columns by comparing herself to Mark Twain, McArdle has never been keen on admitting that she was wrong about anything. Even when she does admit fault, it's only at great length and with no small amount of hedging.

I suspect that this book (which was originally titled, no joke, Permission to Suck) was born during one of those faux mea culpa. Now that she has a defense for everything - now that routine, systemic failure is a sign of growth rather than the Peter principle at work - she's more than happy to admit to getting things wrong.

When I picked up this book, I had intended to at least try to read it through a sort of Rawlsian veil of ignorance. This is the kind of book I would have picked up at age 13 without knowing anything about the author. I had tried to do this with another dismal tome, Ross Douthat's Privilege, but I couldn't even make it through the intro before Douthat started bullshitting about his humble upbringing and the klaxons went off inside my head. McArdle is going to be harder than that, because I couldn't get through the first page without something similar happening. McArdle is trying to build a narrative of her many failures as "learning experiences" that led to her wonderful life without mentioning the family connections that made that sort of thing possible.

So instead, I'm going to be upfront with my bias, and that means telling you how McArdle made my #3 on my most hated pundits list despite so many worthy candidates. You can skip this part if you want, I won't be hurt.

2008. I'm stranded in Changchun, a city in Jilin province on the border of Russia and the Korean peninsula. I've just been fired by the people who brought me over and am currently sleeping on a stranger's futon because they ran me out of the company-owned apartment. The stranger works for the company I'm currently dealing with (SPOILER: They don't hire me either, instead opting to lie to me repeatedly in the hopes that I'll either leave on my own or get deported). It's hovering around freezing, which is to say that it's the mild part of the winter. I spend my days wandering around a city I've barely seen, dealing with some of the most corrupt individuals I've ever personally encountered - or, alternately, hanging around the office of my prospective employer and trying to find something productive to pass the time. And just for grins, I'm dealing with an episode of sinusitis.

Megan McArdle is also sick. She's dealing with a "hideous lung infection" (read: a chest cold). The housing sector is undergoing a major correction that will result in mass foreclosures and signal the start of an economic crisis that will be deeper and longer-lasting than anyone anticipated. But the "econoblogger" is far too stricken to get to the laptop and write anything about it. She's getting paid more than I've ever made at any job to do something that I've done voluntarily for years, and all she can do is complain about how it's less money than she could have made and troll for sympathy for her cold.

That's what I saw when I stopped by an internet café, the topper to weeks of watching my carefully wrought plans crumble to dust around me. And that's why I can't even pretend to be neutral where McArdle is concerned.

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