Monday, July 11, 2016

The Upside of Down: Chapter 5

CRISIS: What a Bad Breakup Can Tell Us about the GM Bailout

A.K.A. How Expecting Job Security Is Basically The Same As Being A Compulsive Gambler

I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that a significant portion of this chapter is devoted to a chronology of Megan McArdle's love life that she's going to pretend is relevant to the topic. The good news (for you) is that it's not worth the pain in my hand to transcribe any of this little pity party, especially when there's so munch nonsense here to mount on slides. I'm doing us both a favor.

McArdle begins this chapter by describing a survey she posted asking people to describe "the best thing that ever happened to me." She's doing this to demonstrate that "crisis can be transformative," which means that, in Chapter 5, we're finally back to the thesis of the book. It also demonstrates that the woman who once worked IT and who often claims some expertise in technology doesn't understand how search engines work.

Oh, to be sure, if you do a Google search of the phrase "The best thing that ever happened to me," marriage and childbirth certainly do pop up...if we can agree to ignore Gladys Knight, the things that come up aren't thing we wish for; they're things most people fear more than anything.

She proceeds to run down a series of terms that did not come up for me when I typed "the best thing that ever happened to me" into Google for reasons that I'm sure many of you understand. Hey, at least she hasn't resorted to counting number of results returned.

The real reason for this incongruous opener (really the only reason - it never comes up again) is to segue into the opening of the Megan McArdle Pity Party - Relationship Edition. Here's the abridged version: McArdle dates a guy for a while, they decide to get married, the guy changes his mind, they break up, she obsesses over him for a while, then moves to DC to get a totally undeserved job. End scene, begin talking about General Motors.

A lot of this chapter is about GM. When it's all summed together, the material on GM is slightly longer than the Pity Party. I didn't know that much about GM coming into this, and having read the chapter I still don't know much. This opening section on the history of the American automotive sector up to the crash runs a whopping three and a half pages (compared to slightly less than three for the history of McArdle's breakup). And once that's done, it's time to open the junk drawer.

"Junk drawer" is a term that a literary agent used to describe a portion of the very first manuscript I ever wrote, and it's a very useful analogy. The junk drawer is that section of a non-fiction work (or the whole thing, in this case) full of bits of information that the author finds interesting and/or edifying but which aren't structured or connected in any way. It's the kind of writing you get from bloggers, basically.

There's a great example right here. McArdle decides to include a section on normalcy bias. Then we get this at the start of the next subhead:

You often hear analysts say that GM did nothing while its market share vanished, and indeed, I've just suggested as much. But this is not actually true.

Then why include it in the book at all? Well, it added two more pages, something that a manuscript this light couldn't afford to shed. But I suspect that McArdle genuinely found this interesting and wasn't going to let a little thing like irrelevance get in the way.

And after that...hoo boy.

In May of 2011, the White House posted a heartwarming video on its website, showing how the 2009 stimulus was "helping to create long-term manufacturing jobs that will help ensure America's leadership for the twenty-first century."...(insert a paragraph setting up for the punchline)...Less than four months after that video was posted, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy...


So I've hinted at this before: There's a lot of wingnut boob bait in The Upside of Down. This chapter even gets an extra helping, as we'll be complaining about those greedy unions before the end. At least these examples are on point for a business book - I've peeked ahead and you have no idea how bad it's going to get before this thing stops.

I'm not sure why any of that material is here. Again, The Upside of Down is set up as a business self-help book of the type favored by managers. Few of these people are going to respond to these id-massaging right-wing callouts. But surely McArdle couldn't have imagined that this would draw in the wingnut audience? Granted, she did get that all-important Jonah Goldberg endorsement, but I can't imagine that there are too many Breitbart or NRO readers who would endure page after page of meditations on the financial drawbacks of risk reduction just to get in a "hurr hurr Solyndra" line. If they want that, there are plenty of dealers out there ready to give them the uncut stuff.

There's not much to say about the actual content of this section. McArdle disguises the boob bait through that old politician's feint of introducing an attack under the guise of a half-assed repudiation ("Some of my honorable opponent's critics have called him a kickback-bloated alcoholic pervert who's been stealing funds to cover his gambling debts. Now I'm running a clean campaign, and I have no intention of making any of that an issue..."). There are plenty of implications, made through innuendo, that photovoltaic film is stupid - having paged through some headache-inducing technical material on solar power, I can tell you that's not true - and eventually it leads back to GM.

Did I say we were talking about GM? I'm sorry, I should have double-checked. We actually get two more pages of the Pity Party, punctuated by a story about McArdle and another boyfriend going to see a bad movie. This section even quotes some reviewers on that bad movie because hey, those extra lines add up. And this then leads into another interesting thing that McArdle wants to show off to her readers - the sunken cost fallacy.

The sunken cost fallacy is going to be McArdle's one theory to explain why GM had financial problems. That seems like one of those big oversimplified "hedgehog" theories that can't adequately explain the problems in a complex system, but all that crap was from Chapters 3 and 4 so it's obviously no longer relevant. The problem, per McArdle, is that people are focused on loss over success, illustrating this with the extreme example of compulsive gambling and a psychological test demonstrating that rephrasing a thought experiment to shift the focus from gains to losses alters how people react. As with much of the book, this is accurate but not obviously relevant.

And now we're back to GM and the villains behind it all - the UAW and auto dealers. Yes, apparently this time there were villains in the market - hey, I didn't write it, I just transcribe, and this part deserves transcription:

Many of the workers in the plants, and in management, were second- or third-generation GM employees who had watched the company provide their parents a steadily increasing standard of living and a very comfortable retirement. But it was especially hard for the union workers, many of whom had chosen the line over college or a skilled trade precisely because it offered lifetime job security and guaranteed retirement benefits. Now, decades later, they were not going to quietly admit they'd made a bad bet and see if they could get into nursing school.

This is the worst thing that's appeared in The Upside of Down thus far. Just look at that last line and consider in light of everything that came before it. You might not see a direct line of comparison between a man who expects his employer of many years to live up to its contract and a man who went to Atlantic City and put the deed to his house on red. Megan McArdle does.

...No, I can't move past this. This is the same woman who, after failing to land the starts-at-the-threshold-of-six-figures sinecure that her father had promised her, returned home to sulk for several years. The same woman who, through means I can't grasp, secured a job for which she was wholly unqualified. The woman who spent the first few years at that unearned position moaning because it didn't pay what she felt she was worth. The woman who got paid an advance to weep about being dumped almost a decade ago. This is the woman who is now looking at some fortysomething auto worker who has spent his life doing useful work and the only thing she can think of to say is "Welp, should have gone to college, huh?"

I've heard that genuine sociopaths are whiners, that the kind of person who can't grasp the concept of empathy nevertheless longs to feel the empathy of others and will seek it the only way he know how. After years of watching McArdle take to her paid blog to complain about every misfortune in her own life and then turn around and glibly dismiss the problems of others, I'm tempted to believe it.

Anyway, that's about it for Chapter 5. There's another six pages or so, but it's mostly filled with junk like this:

Ask yourself why children now have to be escorted at all times by their parents until they're old enough to sit for the SAT...

...That's really not worth analysis. Besides, I'm going easy on this chapter, because Chapter 6 is the one I've been dreading since picking this one up. You think you've seen boob bait? You think it's been blatant up until now? Just wait.


  1. It sounds like most of her material (the part that isn't padding) is a rehash of her blog and other material she's already sold. That story about her love life and sunk costs showed up in an interview with NPR and also a blog post.


    Currently McArdle is telling us that "maybe education simply isn’t the remedy for all of our economic and social ills," after telling us for a decade that the poor would be successful if they married and got a good education, because she doesn't want her taxes to go up to pay for it.

    McArdle managed to fail her way up, unlike the auto worker, because she was able to sell the prestige of her Ivy League reputation to the Koches and their think tanks. She got into the journalism program Institute for Humane Studies, which "helps" placing out its graduates into good jobs.

    She said that networking and being good at your job is the route to success and she was offered a job at the Economist at a cocktail party, which might or might not be true, but I suspect the Koch network obtained the job for her.

    Maybe the sunk cost fallacy explains why McArdle is still working. Maybe she's almost too expensive to fire.

    1. She said that networking and being good at your job is the route to success and she was offered a job at the Economist at a cocktail party, which might or might not be true, but I suspect the Koch network obtained the job for her.

      Then she changed her story, because in this version she was sitting around when Anthony Gottlieb called on her parent's home phone. Probably sells her bona fides better than anything with the phrase "cocktail party" involved.

    2. Maybe she said she made a contact that led to a job? I can't find the post to check.