Eric Alterman is no wonk. He is an English professor, after all. And although he is perhaps better described as a historian, he is no mathematician. So you can imagine just how humbling it is when he starts making calculations. Like back in 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, he predicted, “George W. Bush deliberately misled the country to launch an unnecessary war that will embroil this country in what could be decades of chaos, mayhem and murder, and cost us hundreds of billions and quite possibly trillions, while destroying the nation’s fiscal health in the process.” Ouch! He must regret saying that now!
At that time, Jane Galt—later revealed to be right wing hack and pseudo-libertarian Megan McArdle—was on hand to call Alterman on his bullshit. She wrote that while most things tend to end up costing more than first estimated, he was way off target. “But trillions? US GDP is roughly $10 trillion. Alterman is saying that over the long run, this war is going to cost us at least 20% of GDP. That’s nuts, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen those sorts of numbers around.” That had to sting! I can’t imagine how Eric Alterman could even show his face in public after that.
After she was done “proving” that Alterman’s numbers were wrong, she went after another well know innumerate: economist James Galbraith. He made the outlandish prediction that the Iraq War could take 5 years and 200,000 troops. What an idiot! No wonder the only people who ever quote him are similarly mushy headed thinkers like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. But McArdle was not afraid, she even went so far as to try to school Galbraith on what an opportunity cost is. Of course, as Jon Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution noted, she can’t even do basic arithmetic like division. But her point is not Galbraith; she is above all focus on the evil English professor and his suggestion that the Iraq War might cost more than Bush and company said.
Of course, it turned out that McArdle was completely wrong. The war really was that expensive, it really did take that many toops, it really did take that much time. Actually, it took more of all of them: money, troops, time. It also cost far more lives than she estimated. Gin and Tacos dredged up this old Jane Galt article last month and gave it the whole FJM treatment, A Very Special Time Warp FJM. It goes step by step, tearing McArdle apart. It wasn’t hard. As they said, “Megan McArdle labors mightily, and almost always unsuccessfully, to write columns that do not immediately collapse under the weight of mild scrutiny.” And this one was written ten years earlier!
But what I find most interesting is that it doesn’t matter that McArdle was totally wrong about this and so much else besides. She is still a shining light in conservative media. Last year, right after the election, David Brooks wrote, The Conservative Future. He was looking at all the new ideas and open minded thinking on the right. He highlighted Megan McArdle and wrote that she was one of the “soft libertarians” who “start from broadly libertarian premises but do not apply them in a doctrinaire way.” Apparently, nothing that McArdle can say or do will ever make her anything but a smart and insightful thinker.
Meanwhile, Eric Alterman continues to be the star on the left that he has long been. But being right doesn’t matter any more than McArdle being wrong matters. To some extent, that’s simply because he’s a liberal. Liberals are expected to be right when it comes to facts. Conservatives are only supposed to be right in a postmodern sense of the word—you know, where being right is the same as holding an opinion. What’s more, it is another example of conservative affirmative action. We can’t hold conservatives accountable because the pool of conservatives who can pass for intelligent political observers is so small.
Still, I think we need to point out the gross incompetence of commentators wherever we see it. I do it to liberal commentators all the time. There isn’t nearly as much fun to be had going after conservatives. Shooting fish in a barrel is easy compared to it.
Update (26 September 2013 8:05 pm)
In a private tweet, Megan McArdle responded, “Yes, you’re right, I was wrong about the Iraq War.” I always hate getting these kinds of responses, because it makes it all so very personal. It isn’t my intention to make her feel bad. My point is that no one is held accountable once they get a certain level of fame. So I don’t particularly care that she was wrong in this particular case. I don’t even particularly care that she has been wrong so often about so many things. (Just two months ago, I wrote, Megan McArdle’s Ridiculous Anti-Filibuster-Reform Argument.) The point is that it doesn’t matter. She will continue to be well paid to blather on. And this is part of why our politics is so screwed up.