Megan McArdle’s new book, The Upside of Down, is out this week, and I just can’t recommend it enough.
We conservatives value markets and like to argue that they make for far better means of obtaining and applying knowledge than the a priori certitudes of technocratic know-it-alls. But we are not always ready to contend with what that commitment to decentralized, dispersed, trial-and-error learning really means: It means lots and lots of errors, and lots and lots of failures, and it requires us to constantly keep in mind that these errors and failures are what make success possible.
That sort of humility doesn’t come easy, especially if you’re the person doing the failing. It requires great champions who will help us see the virtue of humble open-mindedness and the value of learning from calamity, grueling and difficult though it always is. I think McArdle’s wonderful book puts her high on the list of such champions. Her easy command of the intricacies of our complicated economy make her especially well suited to the task in our own time, and her talent for storytelling, disarming humor, and keen eye for just the right detail to make a key point would serve readers well at any time. You should read this book.I suspect he did not read the book, going by the fact that he did not mention anything at all in the text. But at least we know how humble and open-minded McArdle is.
Tyler Cowen give McArdle's book an enthusiastic if oddly nebulous thumbs up.
That is the forthcoming book by Megan McArdle and the subtitle is Why Failing Well is the Key to Success. I think this book will be a big deal. It is extremely well written, engages the reader, is based upon entirely fresh anecdotes and research results, and develops an important point. I look forward to seeing it make its mark.As some commenters point out, Cowen comes perilously close to damning with faint praise. He does not say the book is good or important. But he does say it's well-written; a lot of people like McArdle's chatty style and copious anecdotes, although going by what I have seen in reviews, McArdle has told those tales many times before.
DCist lets us know McArdle's message: "We can turn failures around best by learning from them, and failing faster next time in order to sooner reach success." The more times and the faster you fail the more successful you will be, and everyone needs to hurry up and fail often in order to learn what will work!
Failure magazine reviews the book as well, naturally.
McArdle traces cultural attitudes to failure back to differences between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Hunter-gatherers forgive failure easily. They must, as hunter-gatherers can scour a forest for prey and still return home empty-handed if they aren’t lucky enough to cross paths with an animal. Thus, survival requires that successful hunters share meat with those who failed to catch anything (often through no fault of their own). When a community transitions to agriculture, though, that lax approach is disastrous because inadequate sanctions for shirking mean people play hooky from the fields. Thus, agrarian societies emphasize individual responsibility and insist that those who neglect their crops suffer the penalty of meager or nonexistent harvests. McArdle explains that modern economies are more like hunter-gatherer societies in terms of the uncertain connection between effort and reward. No one can tell for sure if a new product will take off or flop. Accordingly, she argues that gentle policies toward failed risk-takers, such as the option to declare bankruptcy and start over, encourage industriousness and enterprise.
I would dearly love to know how McArdle determined these "facts." Early societies of prehistoric man often hunted in groups, going by their artwork and artifacts. They would share the meat because they all participated in the hunt. Others might have operated differently; McArdle's gross generalization leaves holes in her narrative that one could drive a truck through. And McArdle has obviously never read the Bible or heard of gleaning. Prehistoric society wrote into their laws that crops must be shared with the poor and hungry.
According to the Holiness Code and the Deuteronomic Code of the Torah, farmers should leave the corners of their fields unharvested, and they should not attempt to harvest any left-overs that had been forgotten when they had harvested the majority of a field. On one of the two occasions that this is mentioned by the Holiness Code, it adds that, in vineyards, some grapes should be left ungathered, an argument made also by the Deuteronomic Code.
These verses additionally argue that olive trees should not be beaten on multiple occasions, and whatever remains from the first set of beatings should be left. According to the Holiness Code, these things should be left for the poor and for strangers, and the Deuteronomic Code commands that it should be left for widows, strangers, and paternal orphans.
The Book of Ruth features gleaning by the widow Ruth to provide for herself and Naomi, also a widow.
Jesus and his disciples practiced a form of gleaning as they walked through grain fields breaking off heads of wheat to eat. The expectation to glean rather than beg, steal, or covet is a basis for Paul's seemingly harsh injunction: "Whoever does not work, neither shall he eat."II Thessalonians 3:10Ah, McArdle. You never disappoint. No doubt her failures will lead her to even greater literary success!