Sunday, July 25, 2010

All This Time and "Jane Galt" is Still an Idiot

Nice bit from Thomas Levinson about Megan McArdle, the most baffling "economic analysis" in the Union:

The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”

The answer: ”When his lips move.”

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle. Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.

Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism. In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism. Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?

But the problem is that McArdle is useful: she advances an agenda — that which comforts the comfortable — and she does so with what I think is truly her original talent, the capacity not to notice the ridicule and ferociously dismissive debunking that she so often attracts.

Being able to be wrong in a form and fashion that aids the powerful, and possessing the ability not to mind a life that must be thus lived in willing embrace of error…now that’s a trick.
See, you can always tell who wasn't around back in the day, around 2002-2003; back when men were men, women were women, and even conservatives used pseudonyms because they weren't being given BS sinecures at otherwise-respectable publications. "Jane" was always wrong. She was probably the most reliably wrong blogger I can easily think of. Glenn occasionally said something insightful about law, that green footballs guy would talk about tech, and even that one guy who called me a "megalomaniac" would post some interesting stuff about cell phone tech.

(I think his name was Steve something-or-other.)

But Jane? No, Jane was always wrong. She was either citing some bit of Econ101 lunacy as gospel truth, or erecting some strawman about Krugman, or writing apologias for Wall Street/Pharma Corps/Other Big Businesses, or predicting the doom of the Democrats and saying that the Republicans are a bigger-tent party than the Dems. It was always some damned thing, and it was always wrong.

(No, I didn't make up that last one. )

Thing is, it didn't matter. It was quickly apparent that she was being rewarded for being convenient, not right; the arguments were just cover for people to use when justifying their pre-existing opinions, nothing more. As Levinson said, she "aids the powerful"; not surprising, considering she's a child of immense privilege who exploited that position to get where she is today. "Right" doesn't matter as much as "rich and useful".

Levinson demolishes her hamfisted attacks on Elizabeth Warren; I won't really get into that, since you can read it yourself. But there is a bit that I'll focus on:

McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm. As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so...this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy...[e]verytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.
She dropped the pseudonym years ago, and that adds an interesting spin to Levinson's point. Jane Galt" was an obvious pseudonym, just as "Demosthenes" is. The strength and weakness of a pseudonym is that it starts off as a Tabula Rasa; there is no reason to trust you, but no reason to distrust you, either. You have to build up your own reputation and "authority" through the strength of your arguments. If you're right, you develop authority; if you're wrong, people have no reason to trust you.

She was always wrong. She was always getting demolished. Real progressive economists—she's not really an economist, by the by—and even pseudonymous progressives like me would tear her up on a daily basis.  Sure, she might be good for some laffs, but you would never cite her. She could never successfully argue from authority, much as she tried, because she didn't have any.

So she pulled the ripcord, ditched "Jane Galt", and became Megan. She didn't have to drag around that reputation anymore, because most people who weren't around during her "Jane" days would just engage with "Megan McArdle, economic analyst". The baggage was gone, and she could move on. Sure, there would be the occasional wiseass who would bring up Jane Galt, but no matter; she still gets to be an "expert" in the eyes of most people thanks to her position. Everything that pseudonymity rejects—real-world authority, the credibility involved in using your real name, your physical presence in a real community—is propping her up now. Galt may have always been wrong, but she's Megan now.

But Megan's always wrong too. Levinson called it, and loads of other people (TBogg, Brad DeLong, Atrios, lots of others) agree. She's just as wrong now as she was then, if not more so. As I said, Levinson has completely demolished her; and now every time she tries to act like an authority, someone can just point to Levinson and say "why should we take you seriously again?" It's a good question. I couldn't answer it.

It's Jane all over again. But this time, she's got nothing to escape to. She's stuck with "Megan", stuck with Levinson, and stuck with her own poorly-thought-out opinions and tattered "authority". Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.

Edit: I'd also highly suggest Susan of Texas' collection of comments from Megan's blog, where Megan gets schooled over and over again. That's something that was always true back in the Galt days; her comment threads would be immensely entertaining, since her commentators would absolutely tear her up. I think they had a drinking game or something.

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