Megan McArdle, the newest professor in the DeWitt Wallace Center, is an unusual voice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. She’s a libertarian who is critical of Obamacare ― and President Trump. And she’s calling her second lecture at Duke “How an Op-Ed is Like Star Wars.”
McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, has previously written for The Economist, The Daily Beast, Newsweek and The Atlantic. New York Times columnist David Brooks called her “one of the most influential bloggers on the right.” But McArdle describes herself as a “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” libertarian, and she is happy to take aim at both sides of the aisle.
“I kind of like to argue,” McArdle said with a laugh. “It’s good for my job.”
McArdle was named the Pamela and Jack Egan Visiting Professor last spring by Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. This fall McArdle will be teaching a half-credit course on opinion writing as part of the DeWitt Wallace Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program.
“I’m really excited to have Megan teaching in our program,” said Bill Adair, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center. “She is a fresh voice and an exceptional writer.”
McArdle said she is looking forward to teaching at Duke, where the faculty and students are generally considered pretty liberal.
“It’s so useful to have people around who don’t think like you,” said McArdle, who has written about academia’s hostility toward conservatism. “We all agree on more than we disagree. In the end, politics is a relatively small portion of people’s lives.”
In the course, students will write three op-eds ― two that are policy-oriented and one that dives deep into a complicated subject, such as how to design optimal carbon pricing, McArdle said.
Although the class will largely focus on policy, McArdle will use pop culture and literature to lay the foundation for opinion writing. Looking to Darth Vader and George Orwell, McArdle said she will teach students how to structure op-eds with compelling research and persuasive data.
McArdle’s career path is different from many of her colleagues in Sanford’s policy journalism program. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with an English degree, she spent four years at a boutique consulting firm, building servers and workstations for banks.
Realizing she didn’t fit into the male-dominated world of IT, McArdle left the firm and pursued an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. She then spent a year working for a disaster recovery firm at Ground Zero and started her first blog, Live From The WTC.
“I am the Mozart of misfortune, the Paganini of poor luck. I’ve been laid off from more jobs than most people my age,” McArdle wrote in her first nonfiction book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.
McArdle eventually made her way into journalism in her early thirties by way of the blog, which she renamed “Asymmetrical Information,” an economic term that refers to an imbalance of knowledge between two parties engaged in a transaction.
“I’ve always loved asymmetrical information as a concept, because it’s rather like an onion ― you think you’ve got the measure of it, but there’s always another layer you can peel away,” said McArdle, whose Twitter account, @asymmetricinfo, has more than 40,000 followers. “I chose it because the idea that there I was, sitting in my parents’ spare bedroom, getting to write about big things just like the insiders: very asymmetrical.”
McArdle said her “wonky” career of flip-flops and failures was the key to her journalistic success. Her thorough knowledge of economic policy, technology and business has enabled her to write with authority about many topics.
“I have my dream job because I created it for myself by doing it for free,” she said. “Before [entering journalism], I was a total serial misfit.”
As we spoke over coffee, McArdle rattled off details about Napoleon’s army, 19th century science fiction, semi-automatic weapons and what she likes to call “food communism.”
“I’m an insufferable know-it-all,” McArdle said with a smile.
But McArdle’s diverse interests and experiences can make clear-cut political affiliation difficult. “If my [political] philosophy were a Facebook status, it would be ‘It’s complicated,’” she said.
For example, McArdle said her libertarianism is more of a “tendency” than an identity. She’s suspicious of big government and prefers a private solution to a public solution ― but she refuses to waste time theorizing about impractical political reform.
“You want to sit around and theorize about the ideal state, go nuts,” McArdle said. “But we’ve got this state. I always say, we’ve got to start by assuming we’re going to have Social Security and Medicare. Not because they’re necessarily good programs, but because we have them.”
McArdle has criticized both Democrats and Republicans of “secrecy” and “opacity” over national health care. In 2009, McArdle wrote that Obamacare threatened Americans’ liberty to choose their health providers and assess medical options. This past summer, McArdle said that Republicans attempting to repeal Obamacare were “short-sighted” ― looking for a quick political win without considering the economic consequences.
McArdle’s “socially liberal” views are equally, well, complicated. She has criticized libertarian Ron Paul as a racist, and written that gay people might sometimes choose their sexuality. She has addressed problems in the criminal justice system, and sympathized with James Damore, the Google employee who authored a controversial memo about women in tech. She has rebuked elitism and income immobility, and taken issue with trigger warnings and censorship on college campuses.
She has not been timid in her criticism of President Trump.
McArdle has called him an inept, ineffective and incompetent “tin-pot autocrat” who has no business in the Oval Office. But she’s more sympathetic toward his base supporters.
“Elites, in a lot of ways, dropped the ball and invited this on themselves,” said McArdle, who has written that elitist rhetoric about immigration, jobs and the economy has alienated a large segment of the U.S. populace. “The answer was not to burn the house down ― and we’re in danger of doing that.”
McArdle believes that we have entered a new age of politics influenced by social media hysteria and socioeconomic divisions. “We’re in an interesting historical moment,” she said with a sigh. “I hope we survive it with our political institutions intact.”