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August 17, 2010


The blot Gin & Tacos has taken a look back at a 2003 Megan McArdle post ridiculing everyone who thought the invasion of Iraq would cost a lot of money. It's painfully entertaining and well worth reading.

However, even G&T missed the worst McArdle-y part:

The war will certainly cost more than the $60b and change that the President is asking for. But it is not going to run us several trillion dollars (though even if it did, that would work out to less than 0.1% of GDP over the next 20 years.)

Do you see? She was off by a factor of ten. The total U.S. GDP from 2003-2023 will probably be in the neighborhood of $300 trillion. So it is true that at a cost of $2 trillion (the amount McArdle was talking about) or even the current estimated cost of $3 trillion, the war will likely cost less than 1.0% of the 2003-2023 GDP. But not "less than 0.1%."

It's at times like these that I struggle with my own admonition not to get angry at the dung beetles. I mean, anybody can make a mistake with a calculator. But to not notice that your answer implies that the U.S. GDP will total more than two quadrillion dollars over the next twenty years? While being incredibly condescending and wrong more generally? And then years later to be off by a factor of ten again? If it were me I'd reconsider my career choices just out of a sense of shame.

But as always, of course, the fault doesn't truly lie with McArdle, but with the Atlantic's owner David Bradley and the Atlantic's advertisers. This is clearly what they wanted: a "Business and Economics Editor" who can't handle 7th grade math. Indeed, if she COULD handle 7th grade math, Bradley surely would never have hired her in the first place. She'd always be giving him answers he didn't like.

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who wants to dig through the McArdle-y archives to find what's surely there: her declaiming about the horrendous shortfall in Social Security over the next 75 years without putting it into context of 75 years of GDP.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at August 17, 2010 07:08 AM

David Bradley, not Bennett.

If you must dig into McArdle, have some fun with it-

Posted by: Downpuppy at August 17, 2010 08:48 AM

Whoops -- thanks, now corrected. I was combining David Bradley (the owner) with James Bennett (the editor).

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at August 17, 2010 08:55 AM

I was combining David Bradley (the owner) with James Bennett (the editor). And there I was thinking it was more of that famous wit.

Posted by: drip at August 17, 2010 09:23 AM

Well, I followed the link to Gin & Tacos. Looked like a pretty decent blog, not a blot at all, as you say in your first sentence. McArdle, of course, IS a blot on journalism as a whole and the internet as a bunch of tubes.

Posted by: tom allen at August 17, 2010 10:04 AM

Does anybody even know what a quadrillion is? Trillions blow enough fuses in my brain. Somebody needs to update 'how to lie with statistics.'

I once had a economics professor who had calculated the value of the trinkets the Indians got for Manhattan, then assumed the money was invested at a modest rate of return so that it doubled in value every ten years. He ultimately reached the conclusion that the Indians got a good deal with their sale of Manhattan because their investment due to compound interest would have yielded some huge number in the trillions of dollars. That guy was a finance professor and economist, yet he argued with a straight face (though admittedly with a self-satisfied chuckle) that the time value of money could have turned $5 worth of beads into trillions of dollars if only the Indians had possessed any business sense back in their pre-casino days.

That P.S. on this post is very astute. The numbers are a ruse. It's not about them. That's also why the Bush deficits were okay but the Obama deficits are not.

Posted by: N E at August 17, 2010 10:05 AM

Can I haz bonus for finding her post where she says that even though she was wrong about Iraq she's still more awesomer than the people who were right?

Posted by: Downpuppy at August 17, 2010 11:01 AM

What a quadrillion is depends on whether you're speaking British or American:

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 17, 2010 11:18 AM

Here's McArdle explaining that Bush would be a better choice in 2004, because "Kerry's health care plan would, in my opinon, kill far more people, and cost more, than the Iraq war ever will."

McArdle is an embarrassment of riches--emphasis on embarrassment.

Posted by: Susan Of Texas at August 17, 2010 12:03 PM

I heard that lady on the radio the other day. Though surprised to discover the identity of the speaker, it was a comfort insofar as the foolishness of her arguments precede her.

Posted by: JRB at August 17, 2010 02:55 PM

@NE, you're right. It's not about the numbers, it's about the politics of the numbers. Former Vice President Why Won't He Die in His Sleep Tonight, Jesus? made that very clear, as in What Reagan Proved. That wisdom (credit where it's due, though fuck him and his slime-trail family anyway) is no longer operative in right-wing circles, obviously.

Posted by: ch.url at August 18, 2010 01:06 AM

This reminds me much like my first blog entry I ever did on full employment and inflation, and my later one on prosperity and leftism. Both were half-assed, one was almost entirely unsourced. In my defense, I was pretty upfront with my credentials, and any scale I created that was arbitrary was labeled as such.

There is a certain personal satisfaction from advocacy through writing, but propaganda is cheap and war is expensive, those are just the rules. If you think war is cheap and your writing is valuable, then you kind of have things backwards.

Posted by: LT at August 20, 2010 03:08 PM