my review of Megan McArdle’s review of Capital In the 21st Century

I apologize in advance, because I am going to talk about a piece that I have not yet read. To be clear, I do not intend to read Megan McArdle’s “Piketty’s Tax Hikes Won’t Help the Middle Class.” I’m afraid that I can’t wait to weigh in — not on the review itself, but on its topic. How much doesn’t inequality not actually not matter?

My first objection is to McArdle’s central argument, “Taxes are gay.” I find this offensive and wrongheaded. First, taxes are bi-curious at best. Second, using the word “gay” as an insult, even against an inanimate concept such as taxes, is not the way we do things here in the 21st century. Besides, the sexual proclivities of taxes are really neither here nor there when it comes to the pressing issue of securing government revenues in a fast-paced world. Even if, as McArdle argues, “taxes are a little light in the shoes, if you get my drift,” it’s unclear what else she proposes be done to raise funding for schools, roads, and emergency services. It’s true, as McArdle says, that “God is dead and all who worship the fetid carcass of religion should be put to the sword, and their riches applied to the public coffers for the good of all,” but is that not, in a sense, a form of taxation? I think Ms. McArdle may want to check her bias, here.

Second, I find McArdle’s review, which I believe concerns Lemony Snicket’s The Capitals In the 21st Century, to be filled with distortions and misreading. It’s true, as McArdle writes, that “Snicket argues that the born wealthy are more powerful than Alexander Ovechkin on a power play.” But she misrepresents him entirely we she suggests that his preferred response is to “bar the rich from public affairs like ace goalie Jaroslav Halak blocking a slapshot.” McArdle seems intent on implying a more radical response than Snicket actually argues for. Snicket’s diagnosis is unsettling, it’s true, but I hardly think it’s fair to write “this book is like if Che Guevara rewrote Mao’s little red book right after snorting Trotsky’s ashes off of the tits of Emma Goldman.” Surely, we can discuss political differences without resorting to hyperbole!

I also find it unpersuasive when McArdle writes about the plight of the working poor. McArdle claims that the real issue for fast food workers is not their low wages, but rather “listening to the hippity-hop, dancing in public, and carrying on with the baggy clothes and the girls wearing trousers.” While I don’t doubt that culture plays a role in helping people escape poverty, this goes a bit too far. She also seems to underestimate how badly low wages hurt our most vulnerable. When McArdle argues that “your average McDonald’s worker should be satisfied, at the end of the day, to suck the disgusting gristle from the grease trap of the skillet that cooked the capitalist perfection that is the McRib, and consider themselves well paid,” I wonder who is really guilty of “class war.”

Finally, there is McArdle’s dubious takedown of Snicket’s statistics. By now, Snicket’s controversial equation “r>g,” where r = points per game from center Nicklas Backstrom and g = penalty minutes/100 for winger Tom Wilson, has become something of a mantra in left-wing circles. McArdle responds with her own equation, which seems much less convincing– s = (bs – epst)*hyk, where s stands for success, bs for number of bootstraps, epst exposure to public school teachers, and hyk the Coefficient of Hayek. While I appreciate McArdle’s focus on hard work, this seems to do little to address the book’s real thesis.

Oh, also, I think McArdle’s concluding line, “Paul Krugman is into little boys,” is just a cheap shot, and frankly not relevant to the book in question.

52 Comments

  1. This would be way funnier if the piece you were writing about was, or purported to be, a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

      1. Not really. It seemed like the kind of comment I often write, then delete without posting when I see that it doesn’t really work.

          1. I guess I wasn’t clear. The comments I delete without posting are labored, unfunny jokes involving analogies that don’t really work and don’t illuminate anything, and that make me look like I have a sixth-grade sense of humor. Everyone occasionally produces work like that, and sometimes you can turn it into something clever, but a lot of times you can’t.

    1. Is this a regular thing at Bloomberg? The not-book-review, I mean. If so I’ve got some awesome essays on Pilgrim’s Progress, Finnegan’s Wake, and Mein Kampf for your editors.

    2. Let’s be honest, though: in order for him to know that it wasn’t, he would have had to read it. And who can stand to do that?

    3. To appreciate the humor, Megan, you have to understand that the book on Megan McArdle is that she’s a shallow, glib ideologue who’s less interested in the facts of the external world than in her own thought experiments.

    4. “This would be way funnier if the piece you were writing about was, or purported to be, a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.”

      It would be less funny if your article did not have the title Piketty’s Tax Hikes Won’t Help the Middle Class.

      If it wasn’t, you know, all about Piketty and what he said.

    5. This would be way funnier if the piece you were writing about was, or purported to be, a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

      Oh, it’s pretty funny already. Someone pretending to engage with a well-researched academic argument who admits that they haven’t bothered to actually, you know, READ the argument first is inherently ridiculous.

      Don’t you think?

  2. No it wouldn’t. The whole joke is that Megan McArdle didn’t actually read Piketty’s book (as you can tell from the title of her article).

      1. She is however an incompetent hack whose success has more to do with her family’s connections than any personal talent. Any time she makes an argument based upon economics, or statistics, you know it’s going to be embarrassing.

  3. Gotta disagree with McArdle. Totally works. She seems like a very smart person who totally phoned this one in and got called out.

  4. I thought this was really over the top until I read McArdle’s piece. Apparently she defines “status goods” and “elite opportunities” as, among other things, the chance to earn a living and to have friendships.

  5. Well, at least there’s no bungled math in this non-review of the non-read book. Piketty’s book is just a jumping-off point for yet another “nothing to see here, the superrich and the self-enriching policies they favor are, like, totes the bestest” hacktacular piece. In other news, dog bites man and it’s a day that ends in -y.

  6. It depresses the shit out of me that I have to write this, but anyone who posts anything remotely sexist– anyone who targets the person and not her writing or politics– will get their comment deleted and be immediately IP banned.

  7. two things: sexism is shit. people who engage in sexist behavior are shit. sarah palin really brings this out in people–they want to engage with her stupidity, but end up aiming at her gender without even realizing it.

    as for mcardle, being a vicious hack and toady to power, a sort of reverse neo-liberal useful idiot (*in the lenin sense freddie, i’m not stooping to that kind of name calling), is really the worst. her level of analysis is third rate, her level of argumentation is fourth rate, and her level of self-awareness requires a quantum microscope to find. I do not understand how the constant lack of interesting intellect she displays does not disqualify her from writing for otherwise theoretically important outposts of thought. one of life’s mysteries, i guess. but mcardle, just be aware that your blinkered analyses are noted and hated by the best people, and gull and mislead the worst.

  8. How can you be wrong when you are just proceeding from self-evident truths to their inexorable conclusions? Facts cannot, even in principle, enter into it.

  9. I must say, I actually agree with most of she wrote there.

    She makes a mistake writing “…the general idea that income inequality is the most important thing going on in the world”, when it’s actually the extreme concentration of wealth (related, but not the same). Not a big mistake.

    I agree that taxing the super-rich and sending checks to the needy is not going to help. For starters, it’s impossible to tax the super-rich, because they have all the power. They control everything, and they are not under anybody’s control.

    Aside from that, even if it was possible, a continuous regime of income redistribution is not a solution. Like she said, people need decent, stable, and (I’ll add) well-paid jobs, and decent social conditions. This certainly implies a radical reduction in inequality because the lion’s share of the stuff produced is being appropriated by the super-rich. It would certainly involve one-time confiscation of their property, and realignment of political power, and other radical changes. But ‘tax/redistribute’ is not a solution, she’s right about that.

    1. let me guess: you didn’t read piketty either and you’re taking at face value her imaginary version of what he wrote

    2. Imagine it’s the 13th century and somebody suggests that we need to take away land from the aristocracy and give it to landless peasants.

      Stupid idea, right? For one thing, if the aristocrats hear you talking like that they’ll cut off your head.

      And for another thing, peasants don’t need land. They need decent, stable lives as serfs.

      So the whole idea is just stupid.

    3. This is the ” roll over and think of England” approach, which is to declare defeat in advance and wallow in whatever punishment your betters deem suitable for your class, gender and ethnicity.
      I’m not a fan of that, speaking as an American.

  10. When Megan McArdle says “This would be way funnier if the piece you were writing about was, or purported to be, a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.”, she totally misses the point. She’s not reviewing a book she hasn’t read. She’s attempting to respond to the arguments in the book. Her article essentially says “Here’s why Piketty’s conclusions are wrong”, without bothering to read the arguments supporting that conclusion. So she’s not interested in looking at arguments on both sides, evaluating them, and reaching a conclusion. She’s interested in starting from the conclusion, and any arguments that don’t support her preferred conclusion must be wrong, so they aren’t worth reading. Fredrik’s point is that conclusions from people with that point of view are the thing that’s not worth reading.

    1. I can’t believe I’m defending Megan McArdle (even if just from this specific accusation), but here it is: she accepts the conclusion – that inequality is growing – she just doesn’t believe it should be a concern.

      As if, for example, someone had written a book describing how people are becoming less and less religious and you replied: yeah, so? You don’t need to follow the argument if you don’t find the conclusion alarming or even particularly interesting.

      1. Doesn’t make sense. People don’t spends years researching and writing books about things that are of no concern, and people don’t review books on topics of no concern to the reviewer. Presumably, embedded in the author’s book are the bases for his concern. If you’re going to review a book, you know, review it and its arguments. If you’re not concerned with a book and its arguments don’t waste the world’s time with an article on how you’re not going to review it.

        1. Well, you might still review the book – or, rather, as in this case, publish your reaction to it – if this book is getting a lot of attention. This book has somehow become a cultural event, she reacted to it, why not.

          1. I ain’t no fancy-pants economist but I read enough of the internet to know a couple of things: Piketty is the big topic of the year, maybe in many years, in economics, and McArdle is a widely read economics pundit. She pretty much has a professional responsibility to read and react to Piketty, and you always tend to look a little smarter if you read before you react.

  11. Hilarious. And spot on. Well done, sir, well done.

    McArdle is a glibertarian doofus. Her entire piece is a strawman opinion; you can tell by the first line, “I apologize in advance, because I am going to talk about a book that I have not yet read” and then goes on to attack her own characterization of Piketty’s book with no knowledge of what that content is.

  12. I apologize in advance because I am going to talk about a review of a review that I have not yet read by someone who has not yet read it of a book that I have not yet read by someone who has not yet read it.
    I just go around the internet making random comments here and there. It can be fun.
    Nice work Mr. De Boer.

    1. I dunno, this is the kind of joke that isn’t as funny after you hear it 3 or 4 times in quick succession.

      It was pretty funny when McArdle admitted she had no idea what she was talking about but she was going to do it anyway. It was funnier when DeBoer did the same thing to her, catching the style so well you’d almost think he had read it after all.

      By the time it gets to you doing it the third time it kind of falls flat. Maybe something about your delivery….

  13. Maybe something about your pre-existing condition, and the toxins you’re trying to purge through projection.

  14. Wow, some remarkable activity here, while I was asleep. In that case, I feel I must offer another deep thought on the subject.

    You know how Dali has this painting, called Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening? You know, the one with tigers, an elephant with long legs, and a naked woman?

    Well, I suggest Megan McArdle employs the same form in her piece, and the piece could be titled Dream Caused by the Ubiquitous Discussions of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And I repeat: there’s nothing wrong with that. And I understand her perfectly.

  15. Well, I haven’t read McArdle’s review yet, though I certainly intend to. But it could simply be that she mined all the arguments from other reviews and responded to them. This is no different than commenting on a secondary scientific source, with all the corresponding dangers, I’m sure.

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