April 15, 2007

What’s Your Story?

By: Cheryl Miller

Megan McArdle stands out in a crowd. Over six feet tall with fair skin and delicate features, she resembles “an overgrown elf,” she says. “I’m a real oddity.”

McArdle, aka Jane Galt (or more recently “McMegan”), the proprietress of the popular group blog Asymmetrical Information, is an oddity in more ways than one. A libertarian who “doesn’t care about the income tax,” she may well be the world’s only liberaltarian.” Although her experience in journalism was limited to a stint as gossip columnist for her business school’s newspaper, she landed her first “real” job as a journalist with the Economist, where she covers American economic policy.

McArdle has something of a contrarian streak. She’s the “black sheep” of her “rabid Democrat” family. She took her pseudonym from the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged, solely to irk a frequent commenter on a New York Times Internet forum who smeared anyone to the “right of Chairman Mao” as a “Randroid.” Her most famous utterance, known in the blogosphere as “Jane’s Law,” takes a “pox on both their houses” stance: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.”

Growing up on the Upper West Side, McArdle was “a lady of the left, doyenne of popular protests and die-ins.” Her father was a political appointee in Ed Koch’s mayoralty, and an aunt was “high up” in the Clinton administration. She followed in their footsteps, becoming a campus activist in college at the University of Pennsylvania.

McArdle relished the excitement of protesting; once, she recalls, she was nearly hit by a policeman during a 1991 protest organized by ACT-UP. “The cop was aiming at someone else,” she admits. “Really, my life is not that exciting.”

Her political activism wasn’t “intellectually serious,” she says now. “I was one of those peer pressure kids . . . . My friends were in all these groups, so I joined them too. My friends were going to protest the Gulf War, so I went to protest the Gulf War.”

That changed during her junior year, when McArdle signed on to work as a canvasser for the Public Interest Research Groups, the nonprofit founded by Ralph Nader that raises money for causes like the Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign. Her experience there hurried along her “transition from ultraliberal to libertarian.” The organization was, she says, “the most deceptive, evil place I’ve ever worked.” And that’s not all: “PIRG acted like PIRG accuses other employers of acting.” The entire thing, she writes on her blog, was a scam designed “to collect your name so that they can sic telemarketers on you several times a year.”

Even as she had begun redefining her political views, though, McArdle, upon graduating from Penn in 1994, still didn’t know what to do with her life. So the “recovering English major” who had once dreamed of writing fiction applied to business school at the University of Chicago. As an undergrad, she had almost minored in economics, but hadn’t particularly enjoyed the subject: “I was like a trained seal; I would produce a consumption function for my exam and then it would immediately leak out of my head.”

That changed when she took a macroeconomics class with Professor John Huizinga in graduate school. “It just clicked,” she says.

But just as McArdle had her life all figured out — she planned to work as a management consultant at DiamondCluster after graduating in 2001 — the stock market bubble burst, and her job offer was rescinded. To save money, she moved back in with her parents. She was in “the pit of despair, trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Then September 11 happened. McArdle lost a number of friends in the World Trade Center attacks. She remembers frantically trying to track down her then boyfriend who was supposed to have training at the WTC that day. In November, she took a job at Ground Zero as “an executive copy girl” for a cleanup crew, in part because “it [was] easier to bear it all than it would be to be working somewhere else, and worrying, and unable to do anything about it.”

To help process her feelings, she began her first blog, Live from the WTC, that November. Trapped in a trailer with dial-up Internet and intermittent downtime, McArdle would often browse the Web, reading blogs: “I started reading Instapundit, and I thought, maybe I could do this.”

The blog would serve as an outlet for her political frustrations as a closet libertarian: “I lived in the Upper West Side so I couldn’t discuss these things with anyone. I would just stew.” She also hoped the blog would allow her to redirect the political disagreements she regularly had with her liberal boyfriend. It didn’t quite work. “When we stopped having political arguments, it became clear that there were even more problems with the relationship that the arguments had been masking,” she laughs. “So the blog killed my relationship.”

Her first post began, “I am writing this in the confident expectation that no one will read it, but still with the faint hope that somebody might . . .” She lasted a few weeks, blogging dutifully each day, and then took some time off over Christmas. During the break, she sent an email to Instapundit about Cornel West and racial relations at UPenn, and he, Glenn Reynolds, posted it and linked to her blog, sending a flood of new readers to her site. Encouraged, McArdle went back to blogging.

But the “big kick-off moment” came in January 2002 when she wrote a long post, on why the corporate income tax should be eliminated, while waiting for the copier in her office to be repaired. A number of different websites — including Samzidata and that of her current co-blogger Mindles H. Dreck, More Than Zero Sum — linked to her blog. She decided then that her focus would be economics. “Wow, so this is what my audience wants,” she remembers thinking. “So I began blogging more about economics and less about my dog.”

In March she was offered her first freelance assignment by Andrew Leonard, then the Senior Technology Correspondent at Salon. Leonard asked McArdle to write an article about the Netscape-Microsoft antitrust case. Another article she wrote for Salon, about fast-food lawsuits, was wryly titled “Can We Sue Our Own Fat Asses Off?”

In November, she moved her site and renamed it Asymmetrical Information. But even as her blog got bigger, she was still unsure about what she wanted to do professionally. She had recently left her job at the WTC and applied to the Foreign Service. “I was flailing,” she says. When her asthma kept her from joining the Foreign Service (“Apparently, they don’t want a foreign service full of people who are, like, ‘Well, I can only go to Paris,’” she quips), she was again at sea.

Still, she kept writing. The summer of 2003, her persistence finally paid off when she was offered a chance to interview for a writing position at the Economist. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,” she says. “I didn’t have enough clips to submit so I had to submit blog posts, and I actually made the interview. I came out of it thinking, There’s no way I got that job.” When Anthony Gottlieb, who was the editor of Economist.com at the time, called her to offer the job, McArdle immediately responded, “I’ll take it.” He was “a little taken aback . . . . Then, he said, ‘We’re thinking of paying you . . . [and] he named a figure. I was like “Wow! You’re going to pay me, even better!’”

Cheryl Miller is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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