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May 17, 2011

Understanding Megan McArdle, Primate

This weekend Matt Taibbi went on CNN to talk about his recent article about how Goldman Sachs appears to have engaged in massive securities fraud.

But obviously you can't have someone on American TV criticizing Goldman Sachs without having someone defending Goldman Sachs, so CNN called Megan McArdle of the Atlantic. Here's how it went:

MCARDLE: What we have to do is disclose. It's perfectly legal for a dealership to sell me a car I'm not going to like or that's too expensive for me...I haven't read the disclosure documents personally.

TAIBBI: I have.

This upset Taibbi:

TAIBBI: You're not ashamed to do the job that you do. How are you not ashamed to apologize for these billionaires who ripped off ordinary people?...

MCARDLE: How do I answer that? I think that, you know...the fact is it's not Goldman Sachs' responsibility to make sure that Morgan Stanley makes money, any more than it's the Atlantic's responsibility to make sure that Rolling Stone makes money...

TAIBBI: I don't know how that makes sense on any planet in any universe. That is just insane.

But of course Taibbi is wrong. In fact, that makes the most visceral kind of sense, RIGHT HERE ON PLANET EARTH. It makes sense like it makes sense when you haven't eaten for three days and then take that first bite of medium rare hamburger, like it makes sense when you have churning diarrhea and make it home JUST IN TIME, like it makes sense for 12-year-old boys to look at Ms. Lombard's cleavage in 6th period French. No 938-page long CDO disclosure document is going to stop that from feeling oh-so-right.

Sure, it's infuriating if you're looking at it through the lens of "rationality" or "democracy" or "facts." So don't. Look at it through the lens of animal logic. As a primate, Megan McArdle has certain powerful instincts, and one of those instincts is: the head monkeys of my tribe are always right.

McArdle isn't a "libertarian," or "right-wing," or "conservative." She's just someone who's on the side of whoever has the money and guns. If she'd been born in 1932 in the Soviet Union, she would have been a hardcore communist and an editor at Pravda who burned with hatred for the merciless imperialist capitalists. If she'd been born in the Soviet Union in 1972, she'd now be a fervent Putinite writing angry articles about the conspiracy theories of Anna Politkovskaya. If she'd been born in Egypt, she would have written press releases for Hosni Mubarak.

A certain percentage of humans just have this instinct, and there's no point in getting mad at them, any more than there is in getting mad at the 12-year-old boys in Ms. Lombard's class. You might as well get angry at the tide for coming in.

Moreover, while I wouldn't defend primates with this instinct, I can certainly comprehend it. For instance, here are some facts about the head monkeys in our time and place:

1. The Bush family is close friends with the Salinas family of Mexico, including Raul, who controlled "practically all drug shipments through Mexico" and was convicted of organizing the murder of his brother-in-law. (Also, when Raul and his brother Carlos—later president of Mexico—were children, they shot and killed their 12-year-old maid while staging a "mock" execution of her for fun.)

2. Tony Blair recently received a "golden medal of freedom" from Kosovo, because, via the 1999 war, he helped install Prime Minister Hashim Thaci—who's the head of an organized crime ring that executed prisoners and sold their organs. You can see a picture of Tony and his organ-selling buddy together here.

3. According to Hillary Clinton, she's close family friends with Hosni Mubarak, who ran an internal security service that sodomized children.

4. Barack Obama finds it hilarious to joke about murdering people with flying killer robots.

5. Some of the fallout from the genocide the U.S. supported in Guatemala in the 1980s includes things like this—apparently supervised by someone from our buddies the kaibiles.

What does this suggest? To me it suggests that the people who run the world are sociopaths. It also suggests that trying to lessen their power, somehow, is important. But I can understand why Megan McArdle's powerful instinct is that isn't true and no I haven't read the disclosure documents or New York Times articles or studies by the Council of Europe or reports by the United Nations and okay maybe it's sort of true but "I think there is a real desire to desire to track down a villain but I think that really underweights the power of human stupidity and poor system design which can produce terrible results even without anyone doing wrong" and it can't be true because shut up shut up shut up don't make me live in that world my sad little foetus won't open the envelope the head monkeys are good and nice and won't ever hurt me Megan doesn't want to be hurt.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at May 17, 2011 10:57 PM

To be fair, I looked at the link and Raul and Carlos were four and five years old (with an eight year old friend) when they killed the 12 year old. So that was pretty clearly not their fault--it's the fault of whoever placed guns and ammunition within the reach of small children. So I don't think I'd have written that part the way you did--I initially thought it was a case of 12 year olds killing 12 year olds out of sadistic glee. Staging a "mock execution" is a little weird for young kids, but that's the fault of the family no doubt. I'm not disagreeing with your main point--it's not a family I'd want to hang out with, unless I was completely coated in Kevlar.

Jon Ronson on the Brian Lehrer show today said that there is some sort of evidence that 4 percent of CEO's are psychopaths. The number seems a little low to me, but maybe I'm too cynical.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 17, 2011 11:39 PM

I enjoyed this post a great deal.

Posted by: GregMc at May 17, 2011 11:51 PM

Donald Johnson, you are one fair-minded person.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 18, 2011 12:18 AM

It's not the hunters fault they killed piggy, it's the flies...

Posted by: demize! at May 18, 2011 01:06 AM

McArdle reminds me of that prisoner in Schindler's List who tries so hard to please the German guards they end up shooting her. Poor Megan tries so hard to be the smart-ass libertarian put on earth to impress her Goldman Sachs heroes she doesn't even realize she's got neither the ruthlessness nor the smarts for the task. Since her Elizabeth Warren meltdown, McArdle has become the laughing-stock of the econ blogosphere.

Posted by: bobs at May 18, 2011 01:34 AM

Ah Friends, ALL that gold laying in her holds, JUST ONE sweet nationalization away, and THE AMERICAN TAXPAYER is back on easy street. Goldman-Sachs could do a little time. A peek into the books could dig the rats out of the bilge and on deck into daylight.
Politicians consorting with murders and thieves, a novel theory, indeed.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 18, 2011 03:24 AM

One of the best things I've read in some time. This of course calls up the immense difficulty of a country of this size with this psychology ever wresting power from the sociopaths. Trying to lessen said power must occur systemically and be a regulatory function.

Posted by: Douglas at May 18, 2011 06:37 AM

If there's one thing that's certain is this world of ours, it's that Corporate is afraid of systemic regulatory functions, Douglas. It's so obvious that they've never figured out regulatory capture.

Posted by: Jack Crow at May 18, 2011 07:47 AM

there is some sort of evidence that 4 percent of CEO's are psychopaths

If that number isn't actually closer to 90%, I would be surprised. And that holds for anyone who is able to claw his way to the top of the pile over the bodies of those who stood in his way.

Anyway, I, frankly, am much more interested in Ms Lombard and her amazing cleavage....

Posted by: NomadUK at May 18, 2011 07:52 AM

Ah, misread that. Psychopaths, yes, maybe 4% is reasonable. Sociopaths, I'm still at 90%.

But, back to Ms Lombard...

Posted by: NomadUK at May 18, 2011 07:54 AM

A very fine post.

In our time, when the marshall comes looking for the bad guy, the bad guy (who has long since incorporated and had a public offering) always says he didn't intend to do anything wrong.

You know, Marshall, it was just poor system design--you just can't underestimate the power of human stupidity.

A successful bad guy can usually get his lawyer to say this for him, often indignantly, because it's just terrible to suggest that someone with reputable accounts would commit a crime or otherwise do something that should be punished.

Proving that something more complicated than lifting a wallet or stealing a car wasn't just caused by stupidity and poor design to people who have been fed a steady diet of that sort of corporate PR explanation for all life's misfortunes can be a real challenge.

Posted by: N E at May 18, 2011 08:04 AM

Well, seriously, Jon, I was all set to send a link to this post to some friends and the Raul/Carlos part had jumped out at me, but the fact that they were 4 and 5 makes a difference--it's not their fault. It's the gun owner's fault. Accidental killing with a gun lying around the house when you are a small child is practically a rite of passage in the US. (I just threw that little exaggeration in there to take away the stigma of being called fairminded.) What does freak me out about them is the "let's play mock execution" bit. Imaginary gun battles between good guys and bad guys is common enough with kids, but I'm really curious where they got the notion to play "mock execution".

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 18, 2011 08:06 AM

"Psychopaths, yes, maybe 4% is reasonable. Sociopaths, I'm still at 90%."

Well, according to Ronson "sociopath" and "psychopath" are the same thing, so we're back to wondering if it could only be 4 percent. I'm thinking that normal people can be persuaded easily enough to behave sociopathically if they are socialized to think that's just the way things are, it's a harsh world, you gotta do what you gotta do, etc...

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 18, 2011 08:10 AM

@Douglas at May 18, 2011 06:37 AM

Trying to lessen said power must occur systemically and be a regulatory function.

I agree about the systemic character of the problem, but the regulatory function I see applicable is one like that required by certain ecosystems, where periodic fires are necessary to refresh and rejuvenate the flora. Our systemic problem is, of course, far larger geographically. Still, cleansing fire has some real attraction as a solution, as do more kinetic munitions.

Posted by: RedPhillip at May 18, 2011 09:06 AM

I'm really curious where they got the notion to play "mock execution".

My guess would be Miss Abercrombie's Charm School for the Ruling Elite. I believe they squeeze that lesson in between Neoliberal Finance and The Proper Etiquette of Torture.

Posted by: Happy Jack at May 18, 2011 09:49 AM

I second that, RedPhillip.

Corporate ain't afraid of regulatory bureaucracies. Them's easy to staff and stock with inside men.

Posted by: Jack Crow at May 18, 2011 11:05 AM

Does evolution favor these primates? When will they become extinct?

Posted by: Edward at May 18, 2011 11:08 AM

"The Most Trusted Name in News" devotes a whole six-minute interview segment with a man who has written extensively- over a three-year span- on the 2008 financial meltdown.
In general, he's written about the criminality of Wall Street and specifically about its biggest financial institution - Goldman Sachs. He has produced over 100,000 words on the subject for his magazine and that's not including a best-selling book on the subject. Additionally, he has just written another 7,000-word expose on a little-known, rarely discussed, just-released Senate sub-committee investigation in which that institution - Goldman Sachs- is directly incriminated (again) in the financial meltdown. A financial collapse, BTW, that has resulted in the elimination of more than $9 Trillion in assets over a 30-month period.
And in order to write his latest article he has read and analyzed the appx. 700-page committee report as well as the incriminating disclosure documents.
This is when the CNN braintrusts intervene:

PRODUCER 1: "Let's get another voice for the segment. Someone who might have a contrary opinion."
PRODUCER 2:"Howz about that female blogger for the Atlantic? The blogger who writes pithy stuff about complex financial issues? She's a Libertarian, ya' know and she's cute in a sweater."
P1: "Has she read Taibbi's article? The disclosure documents? The committee report? Written anything of note on the meltdown?"
P2: "Who is Taibbi again...and did I mention she likes to wear sweaters?''
P1: "Good point. Book her.''

Posted by: bayville at May 18, 2011 11:15 AM

I have to disagree with your premise that humans are wired to follow the leader. In fact some Native American tribes had no leaders. Everyone was equal in this admiral arrangement. It’s culture that creates followers not nature.

Posted by: rob payne at May 18, 2011 11:28 AM

Corporate IS very much afraid of regulatory bureaucracies and therefore goes to great lengths to coopt the regulators and minimize the regulations. But corporate would prefer to do away with the beauracracies altogther--coopting them is a distant second choice.

That being said, the folks who benefit from getting coopted do NOT want regulatory bureaucracies to stop existing, because that means they don't get PAID. And the pay is mighty fine compared to most things, though not compared to managing hedge funds or being a CEO or otherwise participating in OWNERSHIP.

So there's not always as much enthusiasm for the ideology as there might be in some quarters.

Rob Payne

Before the Europeans arrived, I doubt everyone was quite equal--perfect egalitarianism is probably about as common as perfect circles. But the indigenous cultures of the new world were much more egalitarian than what the Europeans brought. I really liked the book 1491 about that topic. And I too disagree with the premise taht human beings are hard-wired or that human nature is immutable. In modern terms, the brain's superplasticity makes human beings very adaptive, and we flatter ourselves (in a discouraging way) to think we're as good as it gets.

Posted by: N E at May 18, 2011 01:02 PM

P.S. Donald Johnson and NomadUK

People don't have to be sociopaths to act like sociopaths in their self-appointed roles as rulers, or bureacrats, or even as subjects to the extent they have accepted their subordinance to authority within some ideological system. That is where Milgram's work and the Standford Prison study and such things come into play. A perfectly decent person can do the most terrible things if placed in the right position.

Posted by: N E at May 18, 2011 01:15 PM

Jon Ronson on the Brian Lehrer show today said that there is some sort of evidence that 4 percent of CEO's are psychopaths. The number seems a little low to me, but maybe I'm too cynical.

I suggest the Documentary "The Corporation" regarding this...In it they show that regular standard operating procedure of any corporation when applied to a person then that person will be seen as being a sociopath. I forget all the criteria they mention but some are failure to connect with others, disregard for others and how your actions affect them etc...

Obviously people who rise to the top like in all authoritarian power structures internalize the values, perspective and world view of said structure...if they did not they would not rise to the top.

The problems are structural and have to do with the nature of institutions, not whether people are good or bad or with human nature which can be a lot of things...although as Mike Albert always says, garbage rises which is true enough.. The more cutthroat and ruthless you are the better your chances of moving up the latter.-Tony

Posted by: tony at May 18, 2011 02:02 PM

uhhh... that would be ladder. Sorry about that.-tony

Posted by: tony at May 18, 2011 02:06 PM

This is a terrific post. About as great as the one I read on "Iron Law of Institutions". I come here for such tremendous writing.

Posted by: Ajit at May 18, 2011 02:32 PM

I respectfully disagree. This is a good post in some ways, but I strenuously object to 90% of Jon's "this is human nature" posts. Firstly, not all primate societies are organized in the way presented. Secondly, why are we allowed to apply this logic to McArdle, but not to Taibbi? Is he some sort of aberrant mutant, or somehow inhuman?

No. I'm more inclined to believe that McArdle is the product of a certain culture, yes, that rewards the worship of power, and she is a stupid and venal person who is rewarded lavishly for her slavishness. But I refuse to believe that there's some basic tribal instinct at work, here. It implies that that instinct is impossible to resist - or natural to succumb to - which seems an unnecessary admission, precisely because this comment thread is full of people who feel and behave otherwise.

Posted by: saurabh at May 18, 2011 03:05 PM

On the question of being "hard-wired" toward capitalism, I refer you to the introduction of Chris Harmon's book A People's History of the World:

"Capitalism as a way of organizing the whole production of a country is barely three or four centuries old. As a way of organizing the whole production of the world, it is at most 150 years old....It would be remarkable indeed if a way of running things that has existed for less than 0.5 percent of our species' lifespan were to endure for the rest of it--unless that lifespan is going to be very short indeed."

Posted by: Paul Avery at May 18, 2011 03:40 PM

there's all these great corollaries to mcardle's journalistic ethics claim.

the main thing, that taibbi jumps on, is she's saying her readers pay her to read them nothing more or less than the promotional materials. her words are identical to the ad copy surrounding them.

Posted by: hapa at May 18, 2011 04:18 PM

I think mccardle just gets paid to say that shit, so she does. That doesn't have much to do with human nature except on the very general level that across all of history, people will believe and say stupid shit for money or power or glory and so on.

Posted by: N E at May 18, 2011 04:52 PM

Some humans. About 30%, according one popular internet source. (

Really, with 6+ billion people you have to expect a little variety.

Posted by: lurking gnome at May 18, 2011 05:00 PM

Supporting the rich makes McArdle feel like she is one of them when she is not, and manipulating the public with lies makes her feel clever when she is not. "Libertarian" lets her feel superior to the masses, the superstitious, badly educated losers on the right and the weak, poor losers on the left. Her Rand-addled brain thinks the rich are rich because they are better--smarter, more disciplined, more moral--and she will fight with every bone in her body to defend her authority and the basis of her self-worth--money, and the people who control it.

Posted by: Susan of Texas at May 18, 2011 05:38 PM

I'm reminded of the mission statement at one of my favorite blogs - I actually go there and read old posts, since there aren't new ones very often:

"This is a good blog. This is the best blog. This is a blog about god and the universe and those horrible screaming monkeys and that time I made a pizza out of an old tire and a can of whip cream. This is the Fafblog."

Posted by: mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at May 18, 2011 06:37 PM

re "human nature", see Bhagavad Gita on the Three Gunas

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at May 18, 2011 06:56 PM

How is it that this lil blog consistently has the wisest take on stuff anywhere?

Thanks again for another decent review of life in the maelstrom.

Posted by: Carol Dagg at May 18, 2011 10:31 PM

Interestingly enough King Juan Carlos of Spain killed his brother in some mischievous gunplay when they were kids.

Fratricide doesn't carry the same insouciant charm as shooting a beater (cf vp Cheney?) or mock-real-executing your cook, but it isn't bad.

Juan Carlos arguably redeemed himself when he put down the military coup...who knows what his brother would have done if he wore the crown?

Posted by: seth at May 19, 2011 02:50 AM

It's not that those in power are sociopaths...but rather that there are some jobs that just reward sociopathic behavior and require it to be done well. I've just finished a round of SHOGUN 2: TOTAL WAR on my PC, so is it fine if i take satisfaction that I have slaughtered thousands of pixels?

Posted by: En Ming Hee at May 19, 2011 09:11 AM

En Ming Hee: Which came first, the sociopath or the career track that rewards sociopathic behavior?

Some days it would be easier to pretend that people are inherently good, and trustworthy to make the best decisions for everyone involved despite the carry out of those decisions reflecting blatant self-involvement. If I were to become reconditioned not to recognize the plight of those around me because my social surroundings had begun to insulate me from direct interaction, I can imagine it would definitely be easier to become a Megan in this world.

Posted by: Amandasaurus at May 19, 2011 03:01 PM

Yep, ALL THAT GOLD, just sittin' there, waitin'. (and a day in court for Goldman-Sachs)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 19, 2011 03:03 PM

Thanks for posting that, Saurabh; you're absolutely right. Scientific racism has always been popular in certain educated circles, as a substitute for religion, with "evolution" taking the place of "God's will" and "our genes" taking the place of "original sin."

I also thought about how Susan of Texas's comment would read with a simple substitution: "Supporting the rich makes [Obama] feel like [he] is one of them when [he] is not, and manipulating the public with lies makes [him] feel clever when [he] is not." And so on.

"Sociopath" isn't the right term to use in any case for people who aren't "pathological" but exhibit quite common traits to a heightened degree, and who reap great rewards and social esteem for what they do. Substituting medicalizing language for theological ("pathology" for "sin", for instance) is another well-worn folkway of educated secularists. In practice it doesn't make much of a difference.

Posted by: Duncan at May 19, 2011 03:22 PM


What do you call a person with predisposition to pursue great rewards and social esteem in a cutthroat manner?

Posted by: Amandasaurus at May 19, 2011 03:59 PM

Amandasaurus: An American.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 19, 2011 06:29 PM


"Do you know what's right, what's wrong? Somehow, somewhere, a simple beautiful thing, a single morality, a single set of standards, was smashed like an atom into a million pieces. And now – now what's right for a man can be wrong for his business, what's right for his business can be wrong for his country, and what's right for his country can be wrong for the world."--- Stirling Silliphant, "Route 66"

I don't think the chicken-and-egg question you posed matters because the fundamental reality is that so many of our economic, social, political and cultural institutions reward sociopathic behaviour ie. what's right for them is wrong for everyone else. Underlying them is basically one fundamental truth: our resources are limited, our needs are limited, but our wants are unlimited. Sociopathic behaviour can be boiled down to not self-interest, but TOO MUCH of it. "It's what I want and I want it now no matter the cost." That is sociopathic behaviour in a nutshell, no? The thing is: when we come to the crunch, we have to realize that if we depend on fundamentally sociopathic institutions and sociopathic professions to maintain our world order, we're going to deserve what we get, in larger or smaller proportions.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at May 19, 2011 07:30 PM

Chomsky on the collective psychosis of human institutions:

It’s not because they’re bad people or anything. If they don’t do it—suppose some CEO says, “Okay, I’m going to take into account externalities”—then he’s out. He’s out and somebody else is in who will play by the rules. That’s the nature of the institution. You can be a perfectly nice guy in your personal life. You can sign up for the Sierra Club and give speeches about the environmental crisis or whatever, but in the role of corporate manager, you’re fixed. You have to try to maximize short-term profit and market share—in fact, that’s a legal requirement in Anglo-American corporate law—just because if you don’t do it, either your business will disappear because somebody else will outperform it in the short run, or you will just be out because you’re not doing your job and somebody else will be in. So there is an institutional irrationality. Within the institution the behavior is perfectly rational, but the institutions themselves are so totally irrational that they are designed to crash.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at May 19, 2011 11:36 PM


Posted by: Batocchio at May 20, 2011 02:25 AM

I think you're right about the invalidity of my question. I toyed with "nature versus nurture" in my head for a while and I kept coming back to the same end: I'm blurring the distinction between a psychopath and a sociopath.

Our society incubates sociopaths, so how do we go about changing this? Until more people understand what regulation actually is, free from uninformed bias; how it protects those of us not in possession of a multinational corporation from most of the struggles in life they're wont to blame on government intervention, minorities and homosexuals, how are we going to remedy a sector revered for making gods of the sociopaths we've coddled and idolized since birth?

Posted by: Amandasaurus at May 20, 2011 06:36 PM

Amandasaurus: OK, I stand corrected then,---- An Average American.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 20, 2011 06:49 PM

I wonder if this behavior was a product of their institution or do we in fact taste like baby back ribs?

Posted by: binyamin at May 21, 2011 03:41 AM

I want my baby back, baby back Brits

Posted by: Amandasaurus at May 21, 2011 10:56 PM