What's the matter with Jim Cramer?

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I've seen a number of people making some variant of the claim that Jon Stewart is the only one brave enough to stand up to the financial journalists who helped get us into this mess. 

This is purest poppycock.  Jim Cramer had no influence over the twin manias that afflicted America in the last ten years:  the madness of homebuyers for ever more expensive houses, and the madness of bankers for buying bonds based on those homes.  Jim Cramer did not persuade the Asian savers to pour moronic amounts of capital into oversaturated American markets.  He did not talk up MBS or CDOs to any level that could be vaguely said to have meaningfully increased the amount of leverage in the system.  If you want a television host, or network,  to blame all of our troubles on, you'd do better to cast your ire on Home and Garden Television, and Flip This House.  They're the ones who told Americans, over and over and over and over, that it was possible to get rich by installing granite countertops.

Jim Cramer ran a show on trading.  You can say it might have been nice if he'd run a show on financial regulatory theory, but there's no reason to think that he would be any good it it--the guy's a trader, not a regulator, not a crack investigator.  The skills that make someone a good trader, like a short attention span and an appetite for risk, are not what makes someone good at economic theory or managing regulation. We lost precisely nothing, as a society, when he decided to tout stocks instead of take a dive into public policy.

Individuals, of course, did lose something by following his advice.  I'm sure a number of his viewers stuck with Bear and regretted it.  On the other hand, I'm sure a number of his viewers sold out of the stock market in October on his advice and saved themselves a bundle.   Do you know whether he has cost viewers more than he made them?  I tend to suspect he has, but I have no actual data on which to base that conclusion, only a general belief that ordinary investors can't beat the market and shouldn't try.

No, neither Jim Cramer nor CNBC created this mess.  They focus mostly on stocks, and though people tend to think of the stock markets as synonomous with the financial system, they just haven't had much to do with the current problems.  And thank God, really.  I'd rather not hand over the responsibility for the US financial system, or even my retirement account, to a guy who goes on camera to bite the heads off of plastic bulls.

The problem with Jim Cramer is the problem with the Jonas Brothers:  what he does simply isn't much good, for all that people seemingly have a large appetite to consume it.  And he encourages people to pursue a destructive activity, trading their own portfolios, when most economic research shows they'd be better off in an index fund.

But this is a minor sideshow.  Going after Jim Cramer is like trying to fix your marriage by getting new drapes.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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