Monday, July 18, 2016

The Upside of Down: Chapter 9

PUNISHMENT: Why Consistency Is the Secret to Breaking Bad Behavior

A.K.A. The Critic Would Both Like To Apologize For This Update But It's More Than The Chapter Deserves

The last two chapters of The Upside of Down present something of a challenge. Individually, they're very boring and add little to either the stated or unstated theses. Put them next to each other, on the hand, and you're mixing acids and bases. The incoherence is on full display here as McArdle is arguing completely contrary things in consecutive chapters. So in the name of keeping this interesting to read, I'm going to briefly touch upon the significant bits in Chapter 9 and then pick up the totality in the next post on Chapter 10.

Chapter 9 is hard for another reason, though - it's not really McArdle's work. Aside from a few little asides and the conclusion, this whole chapter is cribbed from the work of McArdle's bestie Mark Kleiman, probably from his book When Brute Force Fails. Most of it is about the parole system in Hawaii, which I'm sure is interesting to someone but is not what I expected. So instead of trying to address someone else's arguments and observations, I'm going to skip right to McArdle's immediate contribution.

This chapter is about how people must be punished swiftly and routinely to keep them in line. It's an amusing topic coming as it does after a chapter in which McArdle argued that the people who wrecked the world economy and prosecutors who put innocent people in jail shouldn't have to suffer too much. It's actually consistent, though, as this punishment should be reserved for people who violate the sacred Process. To wit, from the conclusion:
...there is a set of concrete principles we can take away. The first is that while normative errors - significant violations of the rules we live by ("by which we live," Ms. English major - Ed.) - should have consequences, those consequences should be as immediate as possible, but also as brief as possible. Doing the wrong thing should hurt, but it should not be crippling.
In other words, it probably wasn't right to fire Daniel Gallant for making an error on page four of Form XXJ-11A, but he should have gotten a good tongue lashing over it. That's the only way he'll learn to take the minutiae of the business bureaucracy seriously.
The third is that occasional mercy is not merciful. Whether you are "giving them a break" because you don't want to punish a good person for a single slip, or because you just can't face the effort needed to sanction them, what you are actually doing is breaking the link between their actions and the consequences that follow.
Obviously this is hilarious in light of some of the earlier chapters, and will seem even funnier in the next post. But I can also think of a model case that proves it right - one Megan McArdle.

As I've pointed out throughout this series, McArdle is bad at her job. She'll never admit to making any professional mistakes in The Upside of Down (I've looked ahead), but her history of poor judgment and haphazard thinking is well documented. Most people focus on the hilarious over-the-top stuff, but for this example I'd like to look at something a little boring but a lot more instructive, namely McArdle's failure to disclose anything until someone points out a conflict.

Disclosure is pretty basic - if you have a connection, be it personal, political or financial, to someone you're citing, you mention it. McArdle hasn't been terribly consistent in doing this. During the Atlantic years, she made a habit of repeatedly linking to the works of one Peter Suderman and even letting him guest post. She was romantically involved with him then, but never bothered to tell anyone. Once it came out, some of her critics (whom, as you'll recall from Chapter 6, you're supposed to listen to) accused McArdle of using her large platform to prop up her boyfriend's fledgling projects. Even if that wasn't true, it was still a serious lapse in ethics. This wasn't even an "open secret" like her connections to the think tanks that she frequently cites - there was no place to look that up. This, along with a number of similar lapses (some detailed in previous posts), led a lot of liberal commentators to predict that McArdle's time was short, that she was becoming a burden to The Atlantic and would soon be gone.

So what happened? Well...nothing. She wasn't punished for failure to disclose. Or for accepting trips from various organizations, generally a no-no for journalists. Or for making up facts and figures. Or for going for long periods of time without writing anything. She was never punished for ethical lapses or failure to do her job or even for violations of the sacred Process. In fact, her employers kept giving her more freedom throughout this period.

The result of all this? She never improved, not a bit - the exact result predicted by McArdle's supposition. But this failure to improve also didn't brake her ascent, not a bit. That's problematic to her thesis. Ironically, her own success proves that her advice is bunk.

One of my arguments has been that much of McArdle's advice, while predictable and unoriginal, is still sound as best practice, but that it's telling that McArdle succeeded despite not following any of it. It suggests that there's something beyond the sacred Process that makes things work. It also suggests an alternate interpretation - the unstated thesis.

Speaking of which:
...the fourth is that punishment should be focused on the future, not the past - on continuing the relationship, not ending it. It is for teaching, not revenge.
This is absolutely correct. It's also clearly about the 2x4 thing.

A "clue stick"
I can't be mad at these little dweebs. I'm too busy laughing. And I think some in New York are going to laugh even harder when they try to unleash some civil disobedience, Lenin style, and some New Yorker who understands the horrors of war all too well picks up a two-by-four and teaches them how very effective violence can be when it's applied in a firm, pre-emptive manner.
McArdle hates it when people bring this up, but not because she's ashamed over "youthful" (read: she was around 30) rashness. She hates it because those people are so backwards-looking. They're bringing up something she repudiated simply because it makes her look bad. (Edited for clarity - Ed.)

Now, this comment was from over a decade ago. Nothing McArdle has said or written since I took notice in 2008 matches this, and I have no reason to assume that she still favors committing physical violence against people with whom she disagrees. If people are bringing it up to suggest that McArdle is still in favor of beating protesters, then it's unfair because she doesn't.

But I don't think many of her critics actually think that McArdle is a supporter of violence. They bring it up to point out a troubling fact about the press. This was the caliber of writing and analysis that got McArdle a job with The Economist for $40k a year and benefits. McArdle wants to believe that she got that job on merit, but let's be real - it was combination of elite connections, good timing, and holding "correct" opinions in a time of madness. She was blessed to have a lot of Sensible Centrists like Mark Kleiman who were willing to seriously engage her more brutal ideas while dismissing the critics because they used naughty language and therefore were not serious people. It was all serendipity - the sacred Process had nothing to do with it.

And in the next, hopefully more relevant update, I'll explain what's wrong with the worship of the Process.


  1. "They're bringing up something she no longer believes simply because it makes her look bad." and in the next paragraph, "If people are bringing it up to suggest that McArdle is still in favor of beating protesters, then it's unfair because she doesn't." I don't get how these two sentences are supposed to make sense. Has McArdle said somewhere that she no longer believes this? If so you forgot to mention where she said it. Or has she just implied it in so many places that it's become an intrinsic part of her image? Frankly, I don't think it is the case that she no longer believes it, she's just found out she can be more popular if she pretends to have changed her mind.

    1. Has McArdle said somewhere that she no longer believes this?

      Yes, she has repudiated it many times, pretty much every time someone ever mentioned it in her comments. If you choose to believe she's lying then that's up to you.

  2. I think McArdle used violent rhetoric because everyone else was doing it, especially Andrew Sullivan, and it was fun to join in on the hippy-punching. I think she wanted to be a bully as long as she could hide in the crowd but when she was singled out, she metaphorically hid the 2x4 behind her back and said, "Who, me?"

    Also: a hint how that mess of a book got published:

    "The New America Foundation gave me a fellowship to develop the ideas in this book, which not only gave me valuable resources to do research but also gave me a moral obligation to actually produce a book at the end. Without their support, and the interaction with man brilliant fellow fellows, both this book and I would have missed a lot."

    The New American Foundation is a Pete Peterson shop; you probably know he's dedicated to eliminating Social Security.