Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Up Side of Down

I recently mentioned that I was reading The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle. Having finished the book now, a few thoughts. It so happens I read it during a couple of weeks that were considerably failure-ridden for me, including learning that some work I had done would not get some recognition I thought due. So I took a particular interest in the book's message about the importance, inevitability and potential value of failure for individuals and organizations.

McArdle, who has carved out a high-profile career as a journalist and blogger, refers frequently in the book to her own experiences of failure and (often consequently) success. She currently is a columnist at Bloomberg. (Note: I had brief conversations with her about a decade ago at a couple of events that attracted libertarian and journalist types, but I have no personal connection to her.)

Had I known beforehand that the book would include so much personal narrative, I probably would've expected the result to be smug and self-indulgent. As it happens, I found that she writes thoughtfully on subjects such as a long-term failed relationship and a long stretch of unemployment. One absorbing discussion is about how her mother's life could have been ended (and thankfully was not) by a series of mistakes (by the author and her mother, as well as by medical personnel).

Occasionally, a self-referential passage rubbed me a bit the wrong way, such as this:
Not to gloat, but I have one of the greatest jobs in the world: I call smart people, and they agreeably spend hours explaining complicated topics to me. Then I write it up for people like you.
That seems a bit condescending, and also reminded me of an old New Yorker cartoon: a bizarre alien monster sits in a living room watching a PBS show say it was made possible by "viewers like you."

At the book's end, McArdle discusses how frugality enables her and her husband to take some risks, such as her undertaking "a personal project that meant not having a paycheck for six months," the result being this book. How much of a risk that was, however, would depend on factors not mentioned, such as what advance Viking may or may not have paid, and what employment arrangement may or may not have been set up to commence or resume after the six months.

But trying not to be someone who kids himself, let me acknowledge that these critical points may not be entirely disconnected from professional jealousy about her column and book. On a brighter note, it sounds like my backyard is a lot nicer than McArdle's, and since she lives in Washington it is unlikely that she will ever run into Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff at a hair salon.

Leaving aside the book's personal angles, there is much else, with some other themes including "farmer versus forager" types of economic activity and attitudes. (Entrepreneurs thrive where there is much forager mentality--recognition that even the talented and hardworking will often fail.) There is an interesting discussion of trial-and-error experimentation in business and government, including the uncertainties that remain even after carefully controlled trials. (Here, McArdle discusses, and provides a useful complement to, Jim Manzi's book Uncontrolled, which I reviewed elsewhere.)

McArdle ranges broadly across various types of failures and related subjects such as blame and guilt. Her discussion of the financial crisis pokes holes in left-wing and right-wing narratives about what went wrong and who did it. Her sketch of a firm but fair (and above all consistent) probation court in Hawaii shows what seems like a promising approach to dealing with criminal recidivism. She looks at the difficulties of declaring bankruptcy in Denmark, and of firing anybody throughout the EU, as examples of the problems that arise from excessive aversion to risk and failure.

There is much discussion of the failure of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes to authenticate the documents they presented that supposedly showed malfeasance in George W. Bush's National Guard record, and importantly about their resistance to recognizing that they had a problem. That episode was, of course, a triumph for conservative and libertarian bloggers and commentors, and it's a perfectly valid case study. Still, one could imagine any number of case studies in which some kind of intellectual or political failure attached to the right, and such episodes are relatively sparse in the book.

As a libertarian journalist, McArdle has been fairly iconoclastic, going against her own "side" on issues such as the supposed need for a gold standard or competing currencies. It is laudable that she does so, at a time when so much opinion journalism settles too readily into ideological or partisan polarization. Moreover, she is a writer who tends to focus on substance at a time when so much opinionating is superficial, obnoxious snark.

Precisely because she is not dismissible as an ideologue or hack, I would have expected somewhat more in this book that might challenge or discomfit libertarian or conservative readers. There would have been no shortage of material to choose from: the cherry-picked data and poor planning that the Bush administration brought to the Iraq War, for example; or the "unskewing" whereby many right-wingers convinced themselves that, polls be damned, Romney was going to win; or the right's misleading rhetoric about light bulb regulation. (Granted, re the latter, going out of her way to criticize Reason magazine, where her husband works, would have been an odd bit of contrarianism.)

Still, in writing a book on failure, McArdle has delved into a topic about which there will always be much more that could be said. What is in The Up Side of Down is of considerable value, and should be read by people in many fields and of many ideological orientations.

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