Paste does not publish wedding announcements. However, there’s an exception to every rule. Today, we congratulate the Koch Brothers and the Washington Post on their new marriage. Libertarian Megan McArdle—a lifelong friend to the Koch empire—was just welded to the Washington Post’s Opinion page. The Post’s new motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” We’ve all been misreading that statement. It wasn’t a warning, but a threat. And there’s no darkness visible like Megan McArdle.
I promise I’m not overstating the problem, as the doctor said to the corpse. McArdle’s biography can be written in one sentence: a shallow, mean rich kid is hired by billionaires to abuse poor people and praise kitchen implements. Every detail about her existence can be folded up like origami into that single statement, the way the whole Christian religion is contained in John 3:16.
Why hire McArdle? Here is the official statement from the Post:
“Megan offers one of the liveliest, smartest, least predictable takes on policy, politics and everything else, from the history of washing machines to essential rules for living,” said Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page editor for The Post. “We’re excited to share her perspective and her distinctive voice with our readers and to deepen our coverage of economic and financial topics.”
Liveliest, smartest, least predictable takes … distinct voice … deepen our coverage. Is the Post right? Let’s consider these claims one by one.
Despite claims for McArdle’s “distinct” “voice,” every part of McArdle’s public life follows the track laid down for members of the Koch Brothers’ servant class. McArdle was born to a wealthy family. After childhood in private school, she matriculated to an Ivy League college. Then she was schooled at the University of Chicago, famous roost of Pinochetism (Which she has strong feelings about).
McArdle then worked for Public Interest Research Groups, a nonprofit founded by Nader. She declared the organization evil, and at some point decided that billionaires were being abused by the poor. In the early days after 9/11, while living in her parents’ Manhattan home, McArdle began to blog under the pseudonym of “Jane Galt.” Since she was a conservative elite in her twenties, it was perhaps inevitable that she joined the other well-educated right-wing gentry and wrote for The Economist. It was a good fit. Like her, The Economist pretended to be rational, and like her, they backed the Iraq War.
The seeds of youth contain the adult. Where were the signs of McArdle’s distinct voice? Nonexistent. In fact … why, it was eerie … supernatural, even … across the many years of McArdle’s career, it almost seemed as though another voice was speaking through her. When Playboy tied the Kochs to the Tea Party, McArdle attacked the authors of the piece, Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.
In her piece, McArdle wrote:
“I don’t see any evidence offered that Koch money funds FreedomWorks, or any astroturfing organization … from what I know of [the Kochs], astroturfing doesn’t really seem like their style.”
Which is strange, given her long history with their organization. According to a post in Naked Capitalism, McArdle was trained for “journalism” by Charles Koch’s Institute for Humane Studies. The post goes on to state that McArdle paid them back by returning in 2011 as “a guest lecturer and instructor at the Institute for Humane Studies’ “Journalism & the Free Society” summer internship program,” with a program titled “Is an ‘objective’ press possible — or even desirable?” In 2011, McArdle emceed the IHS’ fiftieth anniversary celebration. At every part of her career, according to NC, McArdle leaned on the Koch infrastructure.
How odd, that this theoretically distinct voice seemed to fit so perfectly inside the structure of power. What a coincidence, that her distinct voice sounded exactly like the voice of Charles and David Koch. The longest-running commentary on her work has been done by blogger SusanOfTexas, who claimed that McArdle’s first job was to sink the ACA:
According to SusanOfTexas, McArdle happened to leave The Atlantic “right after she was caught lying by omission on her conflict-of-interest disclosures, leaving out or underplaying most of her extensive connections to Koch-created and fed institutions.”
Is this a distinct voice?
Google defines lively as “intellectually stimulating or perceptive.” Does McArdle's catalog demonstrate a far-seeing, active, creative intellect possessing good judgment?
Here is McArdle, in her role as “econoblogger,” telling the public the upcoming Iraq War won't cost so much:
Anyone who's sat through a budget meeting knows that almost everyone overestimates their successess, underestimates their costs; it's easier to go back for money later, when you can wave a nice hunk of sunk costs around, than say up front that you think whatever it is you're proposing will be expensive as hell. But trillions? US GDP is roughly $10 trillion. Alterman is saying that over the long run, this war is going to cost us at least 20% of GDP. That's nuts, and it's not the first time I've seen those sorts of numbers around. ... But making up ridiculous numbers in order to support your predisposition isn't helpful — and when the war doesn't cost us $2t, people are going to remember that the next time you talk about the costs of a program you don't like.
According to Reuters, the Iraq War cost the U.S. at least $2.3 trillion.
In 2007, McArdle made this judgment of the housing market:
I recently overheard someone bashing Alan Greenspan for not doing something about the subprime mortgage market. That something seemed a little fuzzy, but seemed to involve stopping banks from offering those dreadful, dreadful loans. ... This seems to be a fairly common sentiment, so I think it's worth pointing out that the latest data we have shows that the overwhelming majority of subprime loans are still in good standing. Subprime securities are taking a bath because defaults are higher than were expected, not because everyone who got one is in trouble. The 85% of homeowners with subprime loans who are currently making their payments might not agree that Alan Greenspan should have, in his ineffable wisdom, prevented them from getting loans. Nor, so far, is there much evidence that the subprime problems are causing much fuss in the broader financial markets. ... There is no perfect regulatory state that will allow us all to live in a serene economic paradise, and the sooner we stop looking for one, the more effective our regulatory state will actually be.
After she was called out, she added this update:
In calmer consideration, that was too flip. But the financial holocaust that was widely feared has not come to pass, and is looking less likely to occur with each passing day.
By 2007, the subprime crash was well underway and soon became the most apocalyptic financial crisis since 1929. Ten years passed. In 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire in London killed 71 people who lived in public housing. Here is what McArdle, a decade wiser, wrote while they were still counting the bodies:
This, however, is only a quibble; even if Grenfell Tower could not have been saved, there are surely other buildings where fires will soon occur that would benefit from sprinklers. Must we wait for those deaths before we can say that his was a bad calculation? Well, no. But we should wait until we can establish that it was actually a bad calculation. ... Would more lives be saved by those measures or by sprinkler systems in public housing? It's hard to say.
Hard to say. That's an odd statement. Fire kills people. Water puts out fire.
Grenfell is a window into McArdle's capacity for judgment. As Tom Scocca wrote in a piece about the Age of Trump:
It didn't really have to do with Grenfell. With less than half the eventual death toll on the books, McArdle felt the urge to warn, in abstract economist terms, against overvaluing the lost lives. ... It was in the moral deadness behind it—the smug confidence that the still-unmeasured horror could be fit into a premade argument about regulation and sentimentality, that there was nothing to be known about Grenfell that could change McArdle's conclusions. This was news being analyzed on the premise that news could not mean anything. The world was an omelet and the lives were the necessary eggs. ... the facts, which were learned and reported after McArdle told readers not to take Grenfell as a parable about underregulation … the tower burned because it had been covered with a flammable facade of aluminum panels to make it less offensive-looking to the surrounding wealthy neighborhoods. The panels were illegal for use on high-rises in other countries, including the United States, and the manufacturer had omitted warnings about the fire hazard from the marketing materials it used in Britain. Cause and effect, knowable and avoidable.
Understanding the world requires seeing events correctly, and also seeing yourself correctly. To be a good judge of human affairs, you must accurately gauge your own capacities. To be “lively,” you must have the capacity to learn. McArdle has learned nothing.
Is this a lively voice?
As Paste's own Jacob Weindling wrote yesterday, every single journalist has written at least one terrible column. “However,” Jacob writes, “when that writer writes multiple sub-par posts, at a certain point, it reaches a critical mass where oafishness is the only logical explanation.”
Weindling's Law is an excellent rule: multiple sub-par posts indicate oafishness. But anybody can be intelligent if they have enough time to write. We need an additional criterion for intelligence. I suggest the Rule of Improv. One hallmark of cleverness is the ability to adapt well. To get a good sense of intelligence, we ought to see how a person responds under stress to unusual circumstances, when they can't control their environment.
First: Does McArdle pass Weindling's Law?
After the Iraq War had wounded, killed, and crippled somewhere between half a million to a million actual human beings, and invented ISIS, what did McArdle have to say about the invasion? Did she confess her own part in the tragedy she encouraged? Did she show humility? The worst thing to do, after all, would have been to write a self-satisfied, smug, nonchalant reply titled “I Wuz Wrong.” And that's exactly what she did. An adult human being, allegedly possessing the power of reason and human feeling, wrote this:
I erroneously believed that I could interpret the actions of Saddam Hussein. He seemed to be acting like I'd act if I had WMD. Whoops! I wasn't an Iraqi dictator, which left huge gaps in my mental model of Hussein.
Will Menaker said reading this article meant witnessing a “glib shithead rationalize her own deep moral failure.”
According to the site, Child Victims of War, “around 4.5 million children have lost one or both parents (almost 1 in 3) and approximately 600,000 children are living on the streets.” Is this the lively intellect that Post editor Hiatt prizes? What does “I Wuz Wrong” suggest about the Post's claim?
Read the rest of McArdle's essay: “I was insufficiently empathetic in imagining how Iraqis would feel about our invasion.” In another article, about the Iraqi Body Count, McArdle admits that the number matters for technocratic reasons (”... the results from these studies have important implications for a range of policies”), but prefaces it with this:
In some sense, I don't think knowing the number matters. The lower bounds of reasonable estimates are still high enough to make me think our involvement in Iraq was a bad idea, especially when considered in conjunction with the various other problems we know about, like the attacks on key infrastructure and the refugee crisis. So debating whether the number is 100,000 or an order of magnitude higher than that doesn't change my basic assessment of the situation.
Henry Farrell of the blog Crooked Timber understood McArdle back in 2010:
What there is not a plausible case for, in my opinion, is more intellectual charity towards Megan McArdle. ... While there is an excellent case for intellectual charity when one is dealing with someone whom one does not know, or who usually seems straightforward, intelligent and honest, it is positively harmful to intellectual life to extend such charity to people who engage in persistent obfuscation and shoddy argument over a period of years. ... And there is just such a pattern of lousy argument followed by obfuscation, denial, I'm-sure-I'll-shortly-get-around-to-giving-you-my-devastating-comeback-argument-soons and No!-what-I-was-really saying-even-though-it-completely-contradicts-plain-language-readings-of-my-words in McArdle's work, as can be seen if you read through some of the debates that she has been involved in over the years.
McArdle does not pass Weindling's Law.
Second: what about the Rule of Improv? Recently, McArdle was put to the test. Paste politics editor Shane Ryan wrote about it:
... Megan McArdle celebrated her 45th birthday by descending from her personal Mount Sinai with 12 rules for life. There was a lot of innocuous cloying shit like “be kind” and “be grateful” and “give yourself permission to be bad” and “eat new foods” and various other strains of seize-the-day-ish pablum.
This take was deftly mocked by Splice Today's Noah Berlatsky. He wrote: “McArdle is blaming people who, for various reasons, have no choice but to treat politics as if it's important.” To quote Shane, “McArdle would have been wise to let it die. She was not wise.”
This should have been no problem for McArdle's notional intellect. After all, if McArdle is as smart as the Post claims, a Twitter battle of wits should have been easy for her. In a broad sense, McArdle's job is owning other people online, and not being owned herself. If there was ever a time for McArdle's true mettle to shine, it was then.
How did McArdle respond?
Reader, it was a tragedy in fourteen tweets.
As Shane put it:
To understand why the thread was so insufferable, all you have to know is that even if she’s telling the truth about a period of hardship, there was always a safety net beneath her that mitigated the actual consequences afflicting those who suffer true poverty. ... This meets all the criteria for an egregious self-own—an unnecessary tirade that is obviously myopic, unflattering, and clueless. These tweets let you see inside McArdle’s vacuous soul, and once you do, you understand the intellectual abyss.
Writing intelligently requires being consistently correct and situationally nimble. Under the light of repetition, McArdle wilts. Under pressure, McArdle chokes.
Is this a writer of smart takes?
McArdle’s positions are exactly the same as your uncle’s at Thanksgiving. McArdle famously encouraged violence against peace protesters after 9/11.
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.
What did McArdle say when Matt Taibbi criticized Goldman Sachs for being a vampire squid?
But financial meltdowns don’t offer villains, for the simple reason that no one person or even one group is powerful enough to take down a whole system. ... Investment banks treated their clients disgracefully during the internet bubble, and a lot of the clients were managers who did the same to their shareholders. But what does this have to do with the current financial crisis? Perhaps more to the point, how is it a special indictment of Goldman, the ostensible topic of his piece? Other banks did more and worse.
Think of the kind of person that defends Wall Street. It’s the same kind of person who attacks food stamps:
... A better exercise is to attempt to live on the government’s thrifty food plan, which is what it uses to calculate the poverty level. It’s pretty spartan, but it’s more than $21 for a week. Since poor families getting food stamps typically spend about 125% of the thrifty food budget, you’ll have a decent idea of what their food lives involve.
There is, on the other hand, a lot of evidence of obesity among the poor; their obesity rate is estimated at 36%, and the obesity rate among poor children seems to be about twice the rate among non-poor children. The poor people are eating more calories than they need. Yet we propose to stimulate the economy by giving the poor money that can only be spent on more food.
There is no evidence whatsoever that giving poor people food stamps will cause them to reduce their calorie consumption. There is no evidence that the poor need more food.
She doesn’t like the poor eating:
The rate of obesity is twice as high among the poor as among the rich. I confess I still don’t understand why poverty is so increasingly linked with obesity.
This is not a joke:
1) The poor don’t need more food. Obesity is a problem for the poor in America; except for people who are too screwed up to get food stamps (because they don’t have an address), food insufficiency is not. 2) Food stamps only imperfectly translate into increased cash income, meaning that the poor will spend . . . more money on food.
McArdle wrote this in the same piece:
5) The economy doesn’t need a food sector more distorted by daft government programs than it already is. If you want to give money to the poor, give it to them. Even if they spend it all on drugs, it will hardly be much worse than spending it all on increasing their already astronomical obesity rates.
McArdle does not seem to be serious about “give it to them” as a philosophical principle. She canonically approves of the poor losing most everything. Their kidneys, for example:
I wonder if this isn’t the same class of objection that many of my interlocutors have about paying for kidneys. A lot of people framed the idea as “rich people buying the poor’s kidneys”, even though the actual proposal on the table is for the government to pay a bounty to kidney donors in the name of anyone who happens to need one. (Since my impression is that kidney failure disproportionately strikes the poor, the net effects are, I think progressive.) But it is true that probably more people who sell kidneys will be in the bottom half of the income distribution.
How seriously does McArdle take the plight of the poor? She compared waiting in line for an iPhone to being a refugee:
Early this morning, the Apple folks appeared with water for the needy liners. I imagine this is what it feels like to be a refugee—you sleep outside, and then smiling people in uniform hand you supplies whether you ask for them or not.
McArdle left the Atlantic for the Daily Beast/Newsweek, and after the Newtown Massacre, she wrote an article titled “There’s Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre,” she wrote this:
I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.
In October 2017, Michael Harriot wrote a piece titled “The NFL Protests Are a Perfect Study of How White Supremacy Works.” McArdle replied with a wholly predictable article: ”“Be Careful Who You Call a White Supremacist.”
Nonetheless, using “white supremacy” this way is a mistake. It leads to confusion in the national conversation because opposing sides are using a critical term in very different ways. It hampers our ability to discuss the phenomenon that the anti-racists actually want to discuss. And ultimately, if we continue to use it this way, it will lose the very emotional resonance that made it an appealing substitute for more clinical terms.
Here is McArdle writing about sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo:
But the reality is that even in the bad old days, American society did not accept sexual harassment. The boss with the roaming hands is a staple character in mid-century fiction, and he is not a well-regarded one. This does not suggest a society that thought sexual gratification was a normal perk of any reasonably senior job.
History disagrees with McArdle. As Sascha Cohen wrote in TIME, “During the 18th and 19th centuries, sexual coercion was a fact of life for female slaves in the South, as well as a common experience among free domestic workers in the North. In the early 20th century, women employed in new manufacturing and clerical positions confronted physical and verbal assaults from male supervisors.”
Two months later, McArdle wrote “Moral panics aren’t good for anyone, including the victims they’re trying to protect.”
Here is McArdle, floating intelligent design as a possibility. It’s almost as if she knows she might be called out on it, so there is a disclaimer snuck in at the end:
I don’t know how willing I am to ratify the scientific assumption that the supernatural is never a possible explanation. I am a radical skeptic; I think that the supernatural is generally a very unlikely explanation, but I can evince no proof that the laws of physics as generally observed operate always and everywhere. Nor do I think that even Young Earth creationism can be ruled out by science, if you are willing to posit the possibility of a creator; God might have created the world looking old for His own inscrutable reasons. But that’s no good way to set curricula.
Both-sidesing is a habit for McArdle. Here she is, both-sidesing torture. Here’s McArdle in 2003, in an article about Africa titled “Is Widespread Heterosexual AIDS a myth after all?” Here’s McArdle, fedora-tipping about gift exchange at Christmas.
Here is McArdle, being martyred by criticism:
I write thousands of words on innovation, and John Holbo boils my concerns about lost years of life down to “indifference to the poor”—as if, first, the poor will not be helped by new treatments, and second, we should do anything at all, no matter how horrific the results, as long as it helps the poor. Well, and third, as if the poor weren’t on Medicaid, but that’s another rant.
When McArdle half-defended Phil Jensen’s bill to allow the killing of abortion doctors in South Dakota, what was her purpose? An uncharitable reading would suggest McArdle was being obliviously naive or intentionally dense:
I imagine that commenters are going to ask me why I’m dwelling on a side question while there’s a bill to legalize the killing of abortion providers in the South Dakota legislature … The new law, according to its sponsor, would only allow justifiable homicide in the case of illegal acts that threaten a fetus; abortion is still legal in South Dakota, and will be for quite a while thanks to Roe. So no, I do not think that South Dakota is attempting to legalize terrorism. The law may be rather stupid, but it’s not a license to kill.
Being unpredictable requires an unusual perspective on human events. But McArdle is as regular as a clock. If Megan McArdle is unpredictable, then there is hope for the sun to rise in the west. Imagine what a boat owner in Orange County would say on any topic, and you have McArdle. As Ames and Levine write, “Her first blog post to go viral in the conservative blog network argued for scrapping corporate taxes.”
In many of her writings, McArdle includes a disclaimer at the bottom: “Go ahead. I triple-dog-dare you to quote me out of context.” Almost as if she knew her own habits better than the Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post.
Is this a writer of unpredictable takes?
Liveliest … smartest … least predictable takes … distinct voice … deepen our coverage.
I think we have our answer. McArdle flunks every one of Fred Hiatt’s claims. But her personal failures represent the success of a mighty system. As long as there have been men with gold paying men with sticks, the wealthy have had their monstrous defenders. McArdle is one more: she stumbles upward, higher and higher. She is the George W. Bush of punditry, except without the talent for picture-painting and electing Obama. Failure has its incarnation, and now she writes for the Washington Post.