Because There Is No Shortage of Folly…Why Not Waste Bytes on McArdle Too?

What follows is all small potatoes in the great scheme of correctly identifying the couture of Emperor Ryan (and the delusions of his many media courtiers, to be unnamed here) — especially in light of James Fallows magnificent dismembering — see John’s post below — of Ryan’s Budget Against America.™*

But still, one must pick up such scraps as one can, and amidst the debris of shattered reputations, it’s perhaps worth noting that Megan McArdle has decided to shred a bit of what little remains of hers in the attempt to savage those who’ve had the temerity to challenge the gospel according to Saint Ryan.**

In the post to which the innumerate and increasingly defensive Andrew Sullivan links (in his now famous (pathetic) slap at John), she writes that the amount of revenue the Progressive Caucus’s budget plan would raise is just 3% of GDP more than would be hauled in under Congressman Ryan (R-Modest Proposal) — which she seems to think is a risibly small sum.

Over at Forbes, E. D. Kain  swiftly pointed out the obvious, which is that 3% of GDP — as opposed to what I guess McArdle may have been thinking of, 3% of federal revenue — is big sum.  (3% of a  2010 GDP  of roughly $14.7 trillion would be around $441 billion.  3% of 2010 revenue would be about 66 billion.  Not quite an order of magnitude error, if I’ve correctly diagnosed McArdle’s mistake, but not far off.)***


Kain also points out the should-be-obvious, which is that the Ryan budget is a tissue of lies, WAGs and pulled-from-the-plumber’s-smile statisticoids.  Which means that the likely amount of extra revenue raised under the progressive proposal is signficantly larger still.

All this we know:  McArdle can’t count, and her systematic rain of error aids her efforts to defend the indefensible.

Which means that all that’s left for me to do here in lieu of my usual few thousand words of spleen is to point out that McArdle has got a reason to drastically underestimate the cash the progressive’s would raise.

In the same post she writes that the paltry sums to be raised are

hardly going to be enough, given that the big idea for entitlement cost control in the “People’s Budget” is . . . making Social Security more generous + public option for ObamaCare and quasi-price controls for pharmaceuticals.  Whether or not you think these things are a good idea, they are not, all by themselves, going to solve Medicare’s cost growth problem. [ellipsis in the original]

Leave the founding error aside and focus instead on the rhetorical sleight of hand within that little passage…


To start with, did I miss the memo from DFH HQ that we were supposed to claim that the public option and the bargaining over drug prices would solve all of Medicare’s problems in one swoop?  Passed me right by, along with just about every one not made of straw that I can remember reading.

Of course, such measures would be useful — but as everyone engaged with the health care reform effort in any kind of sincere way has repeatedly argued, actual cost growth issues turn in large part on the incentive structure of the fee-for-service model…which is exactly what many of the programs in the health care reform law are designed to address. (Thanks, Kay.)

But I don’t want to re-argue HCR just now.  Instead, just keep your eyes on McArdle’s hands as she swipes her cards across the table.

Look, she says:  something is imperfect.  It is therefore worthless.

Well, that’s an old trick, updated for the occasion:  health care reform measures may not be actually worthless. But they are hopelessly inadequate to the task, negligible, of no consequence…which allows, nay requires, McArdle to conclude with this:

No, if you want to get the budget under control without meaningfully cutting into entitlements, you’re going to need to hike taxes substantially on the middle class.

Of course!  The solution to any policy challenge is to f*ck the middle class.


Unfortunately, McArdle’s key claim here is what we technically call untrue.


Nah:  my inner George Orwell corrects me:

This is a lie.

You don’t even have to be a wild and wooly wonk to figure this out.  As  E. D. pointed out a few days ago, and I did with all y’all’s help way back last November, this handy budget calculator put out by The New York Times permits anyone, even Megan McArdle, to test approaches to the budget.  When you do, you’ll find that it is surprisingly easy to come up with plausible budget approaches that raise taxes on the rich — but not the middle class — cut spending on defense modestly, and end up in surplus by 2015.

More rigorous reporting would lead one to more sophisticated analyses, but the underlying point remains:  restore tax levels to the Clinton years; reduce military spending on unpopular, unsuccessful foreign wars; cut weapons systems that in some cases the Pentagon itself has said it doesn’t need, and you’ve gone quite a considerable distance towards getting the budget under control.

It remains true, of course, that over the long term we will have to figure out how to control medical cost inflation — but as just about everyone with a working brain (and calculator) has noted, simply shifting who pays for care onto the poor and the middle doesn’t do a thing to address that issue.  By contrast, single payer models among other approaches provide a host of policy levers on which one could pull.

So why does McArdle assert that the only way forward on the budget is to soak average Americans?


I can think of only two explanations:

Either she really doesn’t know that the Bush tax cuts and military adventurism cost what they do, which means she’s irredeemably lazy and careless in her writing, (would her editors please take note?)…

Or she does understand that there are plenty of ways to think about  the budget that could yield satisfactory results without major tax hikes on the middle class, in which case the lie is deliberate…

…and again, her editors — and especially her readers — should take note.

And with that, I promise no more McArdle for a considerable time (unless provoked)…and I’ll do my best to avoid talking about that former colleague of hers who must not be named.

*I gotta say.  Fallows’ was such fun to read that at its end I mentally reached for a cigarette.***

**Yes.  I know I’m guilty of title creep.  What are you going to do about it?

***Doug J. and others here pointed out that E. D.’s being too kind, in that McArdle misstates the difference between the two budgets, but even though we may all wish to chip in a couple of bucks to buy her a calculator that can actually subtract 18 from 22, that’s not what I’m getting on about here.

****Just to be tediously and moralistically clear: never smoked.  Lost dear folks to the cancer sticks.  Hate ’em.  But you know what I meant, amirite?

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Younger, Paying the Tax, between 1620-1640

Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, Card Players, 1918.

28 replies
  1. 1
    S. cerevisiae says:

    More rigorous reporting would lead one to more sophisticated analyses, but the underlying point remains: restore tax levels to the Clinton years; reduce military spending on unpopular, unsuccessful foreign wars; cut weapons systems that in some cases the Pentagon itself has said it doesn’t need, and you’ve gone quite a considerable distance towards getting the budget under control.

    Hear, hear! More of this please. Why don’t we mothball a couple of carrier groups and a Trident or two. That would save some serious coin.

  2. 2
    General Stuck says:

    I don’t give a shit what Mcardle thinks, says or does.

  3. 3

    Technically, 66 versus 441 can be an order of magnitude error: tens versus hundreds of billions.

    Pedantically, I learned that 441 gets rounded down to 100, and 66 gets rounded up, making them the same order of magnitude. But I don’t know if that’s the appropriate treatment here.

  4. 4
    Bruce S says:

    I have never been able to figure out why “Jane Galt” is econ editor over at The Atlantic. The irony of this post is that McArdle stares out at me over Fallows when I go to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent blog. It’s disconcerting, because she gives lightweights a bad name. I know the publisher is some sort of asshole, but even assholes should have some standards.

  5. 5

    My question is where does any liberal say that part of our plan for cost containment is to make Social Security more generous? I’ve heard people say it should be more generous, but they admit that this will cost money rather than save it. I’ve heard people say we don’t really need to do anything about Social Security because its problems are so far in the future we can’t project them accurately. And I’ve heard people say that we’ll probably need to reduce benefits or raise retirement age to keep the system solvent. But I’ve never heard a single person suggest that making Social Security more generous is part of bringing entitlement costs under control. That’s not even a straw man; it’s more like a soap bubble man.

  6. 6
    Calouste says:

    @S. cerevisiae:

    Europe is seriously cutting military spending. Long term. Britain ditched their aircraft carier (which means the closure of their one navy warf) and their Harriers. Holland is going to ditch all their tanks and about a quarter of all their military headcount. Germany is going to abolish the draft.

  7. 7
    Tim Connor says:

    @LongHairedWeirdo: No –for people who actually do estimation for a living, an order of magnitude error means just that –off by a factor of 10. The rounding routine is meaningless.

  8. 8
    Stillwater says:

    Either she really doesn’t know … Or she does understand …

    Just don’t know if I can roll with you on this P’rfesser. Surely there’s a third choice here.

    Edit: Whooops! Dunno how I missed the accusation that the lie is deliberate. That’s more like it!

    Btw: Excellent post on peak oil and such the other night. And a really excellent discussion in comments. Thanks for that.

  9. 9
    trollhattan says:

    Heh-heh, you said, “her editors.”


    Unless it’s K-lo, McArdle has never suffered the cruel slings and red pens of an honest-to-gosh editor. And look where it’s got her.


    Pink salt martinis for everyone!

  10. 10

    Not the appropriate treatment. The better approach is to look at the ratio of 441 to 66, which is about 6.7. That would round to 10- as would anything greater than sqrt(10), i.e. ~3.16. You can also think of the order of magnitude difference between 441G and 66G as log(441G) – log(66G) = 11.64 – 10.82 = 0.82, so they differ by about 0.8 orders of magnitude which would be rounded up to 1.

  11. 11
    goblue72 says:

    @Bruce S: Because David Bradley who bought the Atlantic several years back is a center-right neocon rich guy who installed Michael Kelly as his initial editor, who was also a neocon center-right guy (and tellingly, was editor-in-chief of the New Republic when Stephen Glass went on his professional lying spree).

    She’s just doing the job she was hired to do – provide an intellectual veneer, not matter how fact challenged, for the interests of her conservative wealthy bosses.

  12. 12
    Petorado says:

    @ Calouste
    Though this nation has lost its pre-eminance in manufacturing to China, our labor policies are headed to the Third World, and our public education and health rankings are suffering meteoric drops, the uber wealthy still do appreciate that we can drop the world’s most expensive ordnance on anyone in the world at any time. They may be completely selfish b*stards, but they do still retain some sort of nationalistic pride. So ixnay on the defense cutsay.

  13. 13
    Woody says:

    Yes, but only three more utterly misleading columns left, and Mr and Mrs McMegan get to the hostess table (not the guest-of-honor table, but right next door) at Mark Halperin’s next salon.

    With lowland Himalayan rock salt, yo.

  14. 14

    You’re doing a great job of holding McArdle’s feet to the fire. Granted, it’s low-hanging fruit, and granted, she’s gonna keep cranking out the same bullsheetrock over and over again, but I appreciate the care with which you fillet her.

  15. 15
    Yutsano says:

    @Petorado: You’re skipping the part where they get massively wealthy on defense contracts also. That ain’t just patriotic altruism there.

  16. 16
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:

    @S. cerevisiae: Hey, you. Good luck tomorrow. I’m actually rooting for Michigan, what with family loyalties and all, but this is the first title game in a while where I will be happy for whoever wins.

  17. 17
    Petorado says:

    As of yet, pride of profit isn’t one of the seven deadly sins, but like wonders of the world, the list needs to be expanded from time to time. Good point.

  18. 18
    Yutsano says:

    @Petorado: In the Confucian morals system the merchant class was considered some of the lowest work possible, and was only done by those who could not succeed in the other classes like mandarins or farmers. I think they may indeed have had a point there.

  19. 19
    Jebediah says:


    the same bullsheetrock over and over

    I’ve been meaning to say how much I have been enjoying your not-swearing euphicussing. Well done!

  20. 20
    rikyrah says:

    McCardle is a clown, plain and simple. A simple-minded troll of mediocre talent who, in no way, deserves a column ANYWHERE.

  21. 21
    SRW1 says:

    correctly identifying the couture of Emperor Ryan

    The kid’s still right. That’s all that’s too it.

    The only useful purpose of Emperor Ryan’s catwalk was to lure the most assiduous courtiers into the open.

    And I take it Bobo now realizes that premature ejaculations make for ugly wet spots if you insist on emphasizing your manly features by wearing no undies with your culotte.

  22. 22
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    I wonder if you would do me the courtesy of a reply to my questions about your last swoon over EDK’s Free Market Fantasy Forest.
    I am still not understanding that.
    It seems to some of us that EDK is just exactly as duplicitous as McMegan, but more clever with actual, you know….numbers.

  23. 23
    Kane says:

    In 2009, PolitiFact awarded the Lie of the Year to the deliberately false accusation that the Democrats’ reform bill would create Medicare “death panels.” In 2010, “a government takeover of health care” was the big winner of Lie of the Year.

    Any guesses on what the 2011 Lie of the Year will be?

  24. 24
    Cheryl from Maryland says:

    Here’s hoping McArdle follows Sully to the Daily Beast, where she belongs.

  25. 25
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    You know, I hate to go all Manichean on you Levenson. I know the BJ community is heavily invested in the EDK sane conservative/libertarian conversion narrative.
    But there are only two basic types of government anymore.
    Free Marketeer government and Social Justice government.
    The freemarketeers have controlled American governement for the whole of the Bush admin 8 year term, and pretty much destroyed our destroyed our economy and our educational system with free market policies.
    EDK wants a do over.
    You should at least acknowledge that.

  26. 26
    efroh says:

    @Bruce S: Unfortunately, she’s not just the resident Atlantic economics “expert”, she frequently gets called in for her “thoughts” on shows like Marketplace, which probably has done more than her Atlantic gig to make her an acceptable commentator (from the bookers’ perspective) for financial/economic news.

    And thus, so quickly and against all reason, she has become a respectable economics pundit. The only way I can figure this has happened is because she’s a woman (which pains me enormously to say, since I’m also female) and because the Economist and then the Atlantic slots (which she most likely got because she was a conservative female) gave her an enormous and undeserved stamp of approval. The sheer wrongness of her economic analyses would have long ago sunk the career of a male journalist. But because she’s one of the few prominent conservative bloggers writing about economics who, most crucially, is female, she gets a huge pass when she makes errors that would have relegated someone like Felix Salmon or ED Kain to the obscurity of the wingnut talk circuit.

    Makes me weep that we’re stuck with her instead of someone like Doris Dungey.

  27. 27

    […] and Medicaid and/or Obama’s health care reform.   We’ve discussed elsewhere McArdle’s unwillingness to countenance even the stray thought that any cost cutting measure will actually work, so chalk this up to […]

  28. 28

    […] Medicare and Medicaid and/or Obama’s health care reform.   We’ve discussed elsewhere McArdle’s unwillingness to countenance even the stray thought that any cost cutting measure will actually work, so chalk this up to her […]

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