Megan McArdle On The Up Side Of Down
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HH: I did want to spend some time with Megan McArdle this hour, because a week ago at this time, I flew across the country at night on Jet Blue, and was awake all night reading The Up Side Of Down, Megan’s new book, and then I flew back on Saturday, and I finished The Up Side Of Down. And I was so engrossed that my seatmate said, “What is that book?” And I said this book is what I’m going to be talking to my kids about for the next week, and then I took them to dinner on Saturday night, and they now hate you, Megan McArdle, because all I did was tell them what Megan McArdle said for, like, two hours at dinner. They’re in their 20s, and so I don’t think you’re very popular with the Hewitt children today, but welcome, it’s good to talk to you.
MM: It’s good to talk to you, too. I feel like I should give you a sales commission.
HH: Well, this is a pretty remarkable book, and I want to tell you, I made my notes for my kids, and here are the four things I told them. One is 28 and one is 25. I said I don’t want you to risk recklessly, but you must risk. I want you to understand the upside of downside, and the downside of upside. I want you never to borrow money other than for mortgages, and I want you to feel very suspicious of feeling safe, but without being anxious for the future. Those are like the hardest mixed messages to send, but that’s what The Up Side Of Down is all about.
MM: It is exactly what it’s all about. It’s about preparing for failure, and because you’re prepared, not taking it so hard. And instead of sort of collapsing when it happens, getting ready to pick yourself up and move on to something even better.
HH: That is, I found it such an uplift, I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot. I wish someone had handed me this book when I was 21, because everybody runs into walls, and everyone hits disasters, and everyone runs into setbacks. And at that point, you’ve got to reassess and get up. And we’ll walk through this, but how is the reaction? I wonder if it’s breaking out demographically to The Up Side Of Down?
MM: I have had a lot of people tell me, you know, for older people, I get a lot of, you know, same thing. For me, this was actually the book that I wished I’d had when I was unemployed for two years and when I was going through a bad breakup. It was the book that I wished I’d had to sort of walk me through hey, this is not nearly as bad as you think right now. And also, there are ways to make this better. But for young people, especially young people who are going through that experience of being home with their parents, maybe, not finding the career success early on that they thought they would have, a lot of them have said thank you, thank you for writing this book, because I thought I was the only one. And part of the book, as you now know, is talking about me going through this. And the fact is this is actually really common, including among extremely successful people.
MM: And like that message of just telling people hey, this has happened to lots of people before and they got through it, and you can, too, has been, it’s been really nice to hear how many young people took that to heart.
HH: Well, we’ll walk through some of the specifics here, but I want to begin with one of the most interesting obscure parts of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that finds in the Acknowledgements pages both Kevin Drum and Tim Carney.
MM: I wanted to make sure that this is a book that liberals and conservatives would both find something to get out of it. And I wanted to also make sure that I was being fair. So I had Kevin Drum read it in advance, and I had Tim Carney read it in advance, and both of them actually gave me useful comments of hey, you may want to consider this, too.
HH: You know, Tim was my editor on a book I wrote a few years ago, and Kevin Drum has been in the same restaurant where I ate lunch often for many years, and they’re both wonderful guys, right? They’re both extremely smart and perceptive people. But I was struck by the fact that you would seek reeds from people who are so, Kevin now with Mother Jones, Tim with the Washington Examiner. They represent polarity in D.C., but failure and recovery and improvement is not a polarizing issue.
MM: No, this is something that everyone goes through. There’s no political party that is going to be able to promise you that nothing bad is ever going to happen. And people of all political parties need to be able to recover once it has. So it was nice to actually get the reaction from both of them, of hey, this was great, I learned a lot. They offered me areas of improvement, and I was very happy to get them, but also to find out that yeah, this is really bipartisan. And there’s not a lot of that going around these days.
HH: No, there isn’t. It’s also very, very useful in a number of specific respects. But now that I’ve praised you, let me go and quibble with you one bit.
HH: Page 212. Why do hardline law and order prosecutors find it so hard to fight so hard against groups like the Innocents Project? Two pages later, the history of the American criminal justice system is full of programs that promise to be nicer to prisoners and prevent crime. The Hope Program is one of the rare ones that actually seem to work. So I thought you answered your own question. Why are we suspicious of pro-criminal rights initiatives, and then two pages later, you write that they very rarely work? Didn’t you really answer your own question there?
MM: Well, I think yes, but in the specific case I was talking about is where sometimes prosecutors do make mistakes, right? It’s not because they’re bad people. I’m very fond of prosecutors, but just because there’s no system of justice that is going to produce 100% justice every single time. I mean, you know as well as I, eyewitnesses are not always reliable. Sometimes, you just get the wrong story. And what’s been disappointing with the Innocence Project is that when the Innocence Project comes along and says hey, let’s test DNA and see if you got the wrong guy, then a lot of prosecutors will fight that rather than trying to fix a potential error. And frankly, you know, a lot of cases the Innocence Project takes, they find out the person who did it was guilty.
HH: Right, right. But I just think that the reason that people react to anything like that is that we have learned not to trust advocates of the guilty. And we may have learned that lesson too much, actually. And that’s what you run into, is that people are very suspicious of do-gooders when it comes to hardened criminals.
MM: No, I think, you know, Bill James has a great book on popular crime which I highly recommend, after you buy my book. It’s called Popular Crime, and he actually talks about this. He says you know, what happened in the 50s was that there was a laudable urge, which I think is really important, of we should try to rehabilitate criminals and get them back into society. But in the 60s and 70s, that bled over into we just shouldn’t bother trying to punish criminals in the first place. And what my chapter talks about, and what he also talks about in his book, is that’s not actually the right approach. You know, punishment matters. It is a way to correct things that are being done wrong. I mean, most criminals have done something wrong. The ideas in my book, how do you do punishment in a way that’s the best for the taxpayer and the people who have been victimized, but also, hopefully, gives you that hope of turning someone’s life around and turning them away from crime. And so I go to Hawaii, and I look at a probation program that actually does that. And it’s a great mix of kind of liberal and conservative ideas, because it’s more punishment, but it’s smaller punishment.
HH: Oh, I had no idea that program existed. I was fascinated by the prospect of certain, swift imprisonment for a short period of time upon…it’s Rudy Giuliani’s broken windows theory, isn’t it, applied to probation violation?
MM: A little bit. You know, it actually is. And one of the things that they’re actually now trying to expand this with is saying okay, can we go into areas where you’ve got a lot of crime and kind of get everyone at once, reduce crime in that area, get it to a new low equilibrium, and then move to a different area so that you don’t have to use so many resources, because the idea is that there is sort of a high crime equilibrium where there are lots of criminals encouraging each other in more crime, and a low crime equilibrium where there are very few criminals. We want to try to get to that as cheaply as possible for both the people who have committed the crimes, but just as or more importantly for the taxpayer and for the people who are victims, because crime is terribly costly to victims.
HH: Now there are many things I want to go through in The Up Side Of Down with you, Megan McArdle, why failing well is the key to success. But I also have to bring the headline right to your attention. And President Obama two hours ago threatened Russia with unspecified retaliation if they invade. They’ve already invaded. Putin has learned lessons from President Obama’s failures. And everybody learns all the time. They key off of what they learn. What do you think Putin has learned, I mean, the President, you know, and I’ll play it after the break a little bit what he had to say, but what do you think Putin assesses us as given our failure to stop him in other places?
MM: I think that he fairly assesses that we are not willing to kind of go all the way on foreign policy, that he’s fundamentally conservative, and he doesn’t want to get into a big fight with China, with Russia, with any major power. And I think more broadly, that President Obama is someone who probably could have benefited from failing more before he was president.
HH: Thank you. Exactly. Explain that to people. He doesn’t know what to do when he doesn’t succeed.
MM: No, he was, I mean, in a lot of ways, the sort of charmed life that we would all love to have, right? I mean, he was law review president and all of these incredibly prestigious roles. And he advanced so quickly through the system that he never actually until 2010 had electoral setbacks that he had to recover from, or had a policy setback where something that he had passed, had architected, either didn’t actually get passed by the larger group, or turned out not to work the way he’d expected. I think that would have been really valuable experience for him. And I kind of wish he’d run for president four or six years, or eight years later after he had had some time to get seasoned in the everyday political scrum that most politicians get before they make the Oval Office.
HH: And by contrast, Vladimir Putin failed miserably. His whole society collapsed, his KGB career was over. He had to crawl his way back up. He got thrown out once he got back in. This is a very formidable character, because he’s been around failure a lot, and he doesn’t like it, and he is acting today not to lose Ukraine.
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HH: I think it’s vital that you read it in a whole host of areas, not insignificantly in foreign policy. About an hour and a half ago, President Obama appeared before the nation, made a three minute statement which I’m going to play, and then talk with Megan before going back to The Up Side Of Down. Just in case you missed it earlier, here is what President Obama had to say at about 5:15 East Coast time today?
BO: Over the last several days, the United States has been responding to events as they unfold in Ukraine. Now throughout this crisis, we have been very clear about one fundamental principle. The Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future. Together with our European allies, we have urged an end to the violence, and encourage Ukrainians to pursue a course in which they stabilize their country, forge a broad-based government, and move to elections this spring. I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials. And we’ve made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interests. However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has an historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea. But any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine. Now the events of the past several months remind us of how difficult democracy can be in a country with deep divisions. But the Ukrainian people have also reminded us that human beings have a universal right to determine their own future. Right now, the situation remains very fluid. Vice President Biden just spoke with Prime Minister, the prime minister of Ukraine to assure him that in this difficult moment, the United States supports his government’s efforts, and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine. I also commend the Ukrainian government’s restraint and its commitment to uphold its international obligations. We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies. We will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government. And we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop. Thanks very much.
HH: That’s it. So Megan McArdle, that’s very interesting on many levels. What did you hear him saying?
MM: Well, I hear him trying to make a credible threat to Russia, or communicate that he has made a credible threat to Russia, that it should not do what it has historically done in these situations. I believe the term is fraternal assistance.
HH: Yes, yes.
MM: Where someone in Ukraine says please come help, and Russia comes in and helps by putting it back under the control of interests that are friendly to Russia. I’m not sure that he can make that sort of credible threat, because he’s just not historically demonstrated a commitment to attacking forces that are strong. I mean, you saw this with Syria, where we drew a lot of red lines and then we backed off of them and so forth. So I’m not sure that this is actually going to make much difference. But I think that’s what I heard.
HH: And you know where The Up Side Of Down talks about experts and predictions and how often they are wrong, and I loved your chapter on the fact that experts, and I’m guilty of this. I make predictions all the time, and I’m only 99% correct. But experts are usually wrong. No one saw this coming, Megan McArdle. When I began talking about this last week with a Ukrainian expert, Frank Dowse, who spent three years in Ukraine as our military attaché, fluent Russian speaker and Ukrainian speaker, he was warning about this. But nobody really believed Putin would do it because of the Olympics, because Putin is Putin. Our experts just never know what’s going on.
MM: Well, you know, as I like to say, a realistic model of the universe is the universe. Anytime that you want to, and since we can’t really just build the universe in a box and run tests on it, anytime that you want to make predictions, you have to make a lot of simplifying assumptions. And the fact is that one of those assumptions may be wrong, and it’s just hard to tell until you run the experiment, which is why I spent so much time talking about experimentation. It is just impossible to make 100% accurate predictions about the future, and I think it’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s funny almost that no one, even as things were getting quite far along in Ukraine, this was not the problem that people predicted three weeks ago. And now suddenly, it obviously is.
HH: I like to point out we were predicting this two weeks ago, not three weeks ago, because it’s traditionally a Russian response to a threat on its border of instability and the loss of control of a puppet, has traditionally been, whether directly in Czechoslovakia or Hungary, or indirectly in Poland with the Yaroslavsky government, they don’t easily allow their satellites to slip away. But the West always wants to believe the best is going to happen, Megan. I think part of The Up Side Of Down is don’t believe the best is going to happen to you, because the best isn’t going to happen to you.
MM: No, I mean, it may, but you can’t count on it. And that’s the fatal mistake. It’s not, you know, we should always hope great things for the future, and great things often happen. But it’s also true, I mean, the Soviet Union really did fall eventually. But it’s also true that you should never simply assume that because that something shouldn’t happen therefore, it won’t. And that’s a mistake that people make in all sorts of walks of life, but it’s nowhere quite as tempting as in foreign policy.
HH: Now what I do think is useful, and I appreciate, by the way, your many shout-outs to my university, Chapman University. Now I’m in the law school, and Vernon Smith holds a chair there. But he’s primarily across the street in the school business school, and you talk about Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson a lot. And what they do is they run experiments. They run experiment after experiment after experiment having to do with markets. The Pentagon is supposed to run experiment after experiment having to do with war games. But I don’t think they quite ever, war is probably the most complex of all experimental issues, what’s the famous, it never survives first contact with the enemy, a battle plan. I don’t know that you could do what Smith and Wilson do with regards to markets.
MM: Well, I don’t think that you could do it as effectively. I mean, a market is, as you say, it’s a little less complicated than war. That said, I will say that what the military is quite good at, and has gotten better at especially since Vietnam, is that they actually do spend a lot of time deconstructing what went wrong. When they do an after-action report, when that filters up, they’re very good at confronting their failures in part, I think, because it’s quite hard to ignore failures that come with a casualty count. But they’re quite ruthless. And they initiated one technique that I really like and I didn’t get to talk about in the book, which is that when you’re considering an idea, you have the most junior person in the room speak first, because that way, you don’t get this, in fact, where everyone’s just saying what they think the general wants to hear.
HH: Yeah, and in fact, copied by the Supreme Court when they go round and they cast their ballots in conference after oral argument. Always the most junior justice goes first with the Chief Justice last.
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HH: She was, well, something of a spectacular non-success for ten years, and now is a spectacular success. It’s her first book, and it’s really part memoir, part compilation of social studies, a lot of great reporting, and just a series of chapters that will grab you. Let me go to one of them that will interest this audience in particular. I think yours is the first serious treatment of Rathergate outside of the conservative press, Rathergate being the attempt by Dan Rather and Mary Mapes to smear President Bush in the course of the 2004 election. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it treated in depth in any non-conservative, and I think of you as sort of a centrist and with some libertarian leanings, but definitely not on the left-right spectrum. Have you seen it done anywhere else?
MM: Howie Kurtz’ book had, I mean, from which I was very helpful to draw on, had a bit of a rundown, but not quite as deep as I went. I went back and, because I had followed this as a blogger at the time, but I went back and reread all of the documents, reread the Thornburg Commission report, reread all the major articles that ran at the time, looked through the comment threads. It was really, really interesting to go back and see it, because at the time when it’s unfolding, you don’t appreciate what you can then see from reading the commission report and so forth, which is the ways in which they were just deliberately blinding themselves. And I don’t know that they intentionally published the documents in the first place, but the ways in which they just blinded themselves to obvious problems and then doubled down and could not hear when everyone else was telling them guys, this is obvious, you’ve been taken in by a fraud, back down. And had they just backed down, Dan Rather might have kept his job. But because they simply refused to admit that the conservative bloggers who were saying hey, there’s a problem, they really, they destroyed themselves.
HH: Now I’m curious as to one small thing, and then let’s talk about the large issue. You never named the Powerline blog by name. I consider them to have been the hammer that shattered the glass. Many of us were nibbling around on the edges. Little Green Footballs did the typographical analysis. But Powerline applied litigator skills, in essence. They absolutely litigated it to death and crushed them, and they became Time Magazine’s bloggers of the year that year as a result of that. Why didn’t you mention them by name? Were you attempting to avoid praising one or singling out another?
MM: No, it was just that I had originally had a much longer treatment even than what I had in the book, and it was so unwieldy. The main problem was just that there were so many names of people that, what my editor said is I can’t keep track of all of these people, so I cut out about 90% of the players in this, and just kept it down to Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, because they were the people who did something wrong. Powerline Blog did a great job, and you’re right. I now kind of wish that I’d praised them, because they were. They were the central clearing house. But I was focused on this huge mistake that is so much like a mistake many of us make. When we have made a hideous mistake, and instead of just saying oh, my God, I made a hideous mistake, how do I fix it, started attacking the people who told them that they had done something wrong.
HH: This goes to the problem of sunk costs, which I’ll come back to. But you did not, I don’t know if you adequately explored the ideological constraint here. They didn’t need to win. They only needed to win long enough to cripple the President’s reelection campaign, if they are genuinely ideological fanatics, and I don’t know Mapes well enough, but Rather is pretty far gone. Then even at the risk, some people will risk their careers to achieve the dethroning of George W. Bush. The moment they gave us, they knew they gave up the effort to topple him, Megan McArdle. You didn’t treat of that possibility, because I don’t think you really could believe that of someone, but they are really, really ideological.
MM: Well, I will say, and I just didn’t have room for this in the book, but my understanding that both of them are still insisting that they were wronged.
HH: You see, isn’t that amazing?
MM: And that it’s amazing if you look at these documents, because they are so obviously made in Microsoft Word, which was really 20 years after the President left the Air National Guard.
HH: It’s an astonishing, it’s a great chapter. Another great chapter, one that chilled me, actually, is medical mistakes and the story of your mom. Now I mentioned that you interweave memoir. This is a very bit like Tom Wolfe. You never quite know in the new journalism when we’re going to get a little bit of Megan, and when we’re going to get a study that’s got nothing to do with Megan. But on the couple of occasions, your breakup with your old boyfriend, and your mother’s near death experience, these are very much first-person accounts, and they’re riveting. But now I’m scared to go to the hospital, Megan. I mean, everything went wrong to your mom. She should not be alive.
MM: You know, everything went wrong except for the major thing, which is that we have really powerful antibiotics. So her appendix burst, they didn’t catch it, there were just a series of mistakes made by everyone. My mother waited too long to go to the hospital. We didn’t push her. And then they didn’t catch her appendicitis. They thought, I think they thought she had cancer, although they never actually said the C word.
HH: Hold that thought. I’ll be right back with Megan McArdle, the author of The Up Side Of Down.
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HH: Megan McArdle, when we went to break, we were talking about your mother’s catastrophic illness, her burst appendix. And one of the things I took away is don’t go to a hospital on a Saturday, because the young radiologist is going to read it as opposed to the old radiologist. But there are many lessons here, I guess the number one of which is you have to be vigilant, even when you’re surrounded by so-called experts, because experts also make mistakes.
MM: Absolutely. It was funny, because I had written about medical error so many times in the course of reporting as a policy journalist and a health care journalist. And I’d always said these sort of platitudes – make sure people wash their hands, ask for a second opinion. But when you’re there, what you realize is you know, you’re not there, you can’t be there 24 hours a day watching. And if you make them angry, if you offend them, they’re not going to take as good care of your patient. And so it was really difficult watching people not wash their hands and touch my mother, which is a categorical, A-1, the first thing they tell you. It was really, seeing it was so much more powerful than writing about it. I did learn a bunch of things you can do to make your chances better. Don’t go to the hospital on a Saturday. Don’t go to the hospital in July if you can possible help it, because that’s when the new residents start. And also, don’t go onto the floor if you have a patient there unless you have a gift for the doctors and the staff. You should always go, medical sociologists told me, with pizza or donuts or cookies or something, because then they’ll feel obligated to you, and they’ll take better care of your patient.
HH: This is transactional business, and taking it to the hospital floor is fascinating. That whole chapter is worth the book. But I also have to tell you my wow moment, and I don’t know if as an author people walk up to you and they relate to you particular things in The Up Side Of Down, but you gave me a wow moment on Page 100-101 when you were talking about brown M&Ms and David Lee Roth. I had never, ever read this or heard of this, but it’s fascinating. Tell people about Van Halen’s M&Ms policy.
MM: This is a great story. So Van Halen had in their contracts that we want a bowl of M&Ms with no brown M&Ms in it. And for years, this was quoted as wow, what divas, rock stars are jerks. But then eventually, one of them explained in his biography why they had done this. He said you know, we had this incredibly complicated show. There was a lot of construction involved. There were complicated electrical things. And someone could die if they didn’t do it correctly. And so the contract was hundreds of pages long. And we wanted to make sure that they were doing it right. So in the middle of the contract, around Page 122, we would bury this little paragraph that said in the dressing room at all times, there must be a full bowl of M&Ms with no brown M&Ms in it. And if we walked into the dressing room and we didn’t see that bowl of M&Ms, we would know they didn’t read the contract carefully, and that meant that to a near certainty, they had not constructed the sets carefully, they had not put the electrical in place right, and we wouldn’t do the show.
HH: I’ve got to read, the contract rider, according to David Lee Roth, read like a version of the Chinese yellow pages, because there was so much equipment, so many human beings to make it function. So just a little test in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say Article 148, there will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20 foot spaces evenly provided 19 amperes, this kind of thing. And Article 126 in the middle of nowhere was there will be no brown M&Ms in the back stage area upon pain of forfeiture of this show with full compensation. So when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in the bowl, well, then line check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes, it would just threaten the whole show. Sometimes, it would be literally life threatening. That is, you know, I hate long contracts. I mean, I don’t really read long contracts. I trust people, but that is of course a recipe for error.
MM: Exactly, and you know, this is what, in the book, I talk about there are different kinds of errors you can make. There are judgment errors, where you just made a mistake, you didn’t do the right thing, and you can learn from that. And there are technical errors where you don’t have a skill. You’re learning to be a surgeon. But then there’s what sociologists call a normative error. And that is I’m not doing something I know I’m supposed to do. It’s part of, you know, I’m not committed to the process of making sure that we do it right. And so what he was, what that was, was a very, very sensitive check for normative error, for people who weren’t reading carefully, for people who weren’t committed to making sure the show went off right. And it’s a great way to think about when you go into situations, if it’s complicated, if you need a check to make sure that the person that you’re dealing with is as committed to doing it right as you are, you look for those brown M&M sort of challenges in order to make sure that they really are committed.
HH: A couple of other aspects, I’ll just highlight for people. The perils of the promising pilot – new Coke, the LAUSD junk food, you run through the fact that false positives in experiments can be very, very dangerous, because their testing isn’t really testing the highly controlled circumstances under which the test yields false positives.
MM: Or not even if…there are lots of false positives. If you think, you know, if you do even a very good experiment a bunch of times, sometimes you’re just going to get a random result that isn’t correct. But there’s also the fact that things in small groups, which is what those pilots usually are, they just don’t always scale up. And the way I like to explain this is you think about arranging lunch with three friends, right? You have a procedure for that. Well, if you tried that same procedure with arranging a charity dinner for a hundred, for a thousand people, it just wouldn’t work, right? You’re not going to email everyone and say hey, what kind of food would you like, where should we meet.
MM: You need a different process.
HH: And that, it’s a great chapter. I have one question for you. You also have a talk about texting being as bad as DUI, and I believe that. But will the society ever believe that when we don’t punish texting the same way as we punish DUI?
MM: Well, I would actually put it the other way around. We’ll punish texting the way we punish DUI when we really start to believe hey, this is incredibly dangerous. We are tolerating something, it’s an example of what I all in the book groupidity, which is this thing of when we look around at other people doing something that we kind of know isn’t safe, we decide it’s safe, because a lot of other people are doing it. Well, we know lots and lots of people who text while driving, so it seems like it can’t be that bad, even though we know that it’s involved in a growing number of accidents. And studies have shown that it impairs your driving every bit as much as driving drunk.
HH: Absolutely. I am of the opinion texting while driving ought to be a DUI offense, that it ought to be a jail offense, a loss of license offense, a take away your cell phone offense, or that we ought to install blocking technology. But I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, because the ubiquity of it is everywhere, sort of like drinking and driving was in the 50s.
MM: Well, we did get to blocking out DUIs, and it was a really slow process. But it started, and this is really the thing that I found surprisingly often when writing this book, is that it’s amazing what the power of just stating these things is, that a lot of the mental changes that you need simply consist of pointing out that hey, failure is part of the process. You can actually change how you react to it just by saying that, by knowing that other people have gone through it. And similarly, you know, with DUI, the first step was we started saying hey, this is really dangerous.
HH: Stating it. I’ll be right back, one more segment with Megan McArdle on The Up Side Of Down.
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HH: I want to thank my guest, Megan McArdle, about her terrific new book, The Up Side Of Down: Why Failing Well Is The Key To Success. Megan, I want to end by talking about children. As I said when I finished your book last week, I went out and took my adult children out and said you’ve got to read this book. Now they’re young, they’re in their 20s. And so to the extent that I could have applied the lessons, I hope I did, so I think I did. But I want them to apply the lessons when they have children growing up, which is don’t overprotect your children. And you know, this is going to go down pretty hard with some people. I don’t think the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and I did, but I think a lot of people do. And as a result, I think they are really, those children are really in for some not…everyone’s in for hard knocks. It’s a question of whether you get back up again.
MM: Exactly. I think of it as the metaphor for our age is the disappearance of the high monkey bars, you know?
MM: When I was a kid, they had concrete under them, and they were seven or eight feet tall. And now, they’re really short, and they have rubber mats. I’m not against the rubber mats. We should cushion people’s falls. But the idea that we shouldn’t let kids climb high because they might fall, and instead, parents are hovering constantly and not letting them walk to school, doing their work for them, often, people say, showing up to job interviews with them, which I don’t know who thinks their kid is going to get a job with mom sitting there.
HH: What is the reason? Why did that happen? I have my theory, but I want to know why you think it happened.
MM: I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. The first is that people are having fewer kids, so each kid seems more precious. You have to take care of them more. The second thing, though, is this college admissions lottery, which has gotten completely out of control. We are trying to push more and more kids through a very narrow funnel of the admissions into a selective college. And there’s no more seats at these colleges than there were when I went in 1990. And so parents feel like they have to hover all the time making sure that their kids cannot possibly get knocked off the path to a college degree, because the premium on these degrees has increased, even as the number of slots hasn’t.
HH: That’s true. I’m going to also suggest, though, the pervasiveness of media bringing forward horror stories, that we see a lot of horror stories because we raise a lot of money for victims, and we rightly do that. But the terrible things that happen to people, and this is true especially about child abduction…
HH: Everybody knows about a child abduction, that we don’t know about it occurring more should be evidence that it doesn’t happen that often. But everybody knows about it.
MM: Well, it’s amazing that people, if you ask people what is their child more at risk from, say a gunshot or a swimming pool, most people will say obviously having a gun in the home, but it’s the reverse.
HH: It’s the reverse.
MM: Your child is much more likely to die from having a swimming pool in your home.
MM: Because…but the gunshots end up on the news, and because, you know, this is how our brains work. When we see something frequently, we assume that must be the frequency of it, and so we see lots of gunshots on the news, and no swimming pool drowning, and we assume that that represents the actual risk, when in fact the reason we see the gunshots and the child abductions is that they are so uncommon.
HH: I have barely scratched the surface of The Up Side Of Down, America. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. It’s in bookstores everywhere. It’s a marvelous read. Megan McArdle, congratulations. Follow Megan on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.
End of interview.