Saturday, March 17, 2007

Criticizing the Economist

Two examples: First up, here's James Fallows, writing in 1991:

A certain modesty would seem appropriate in The Economist’s leaders [editorials] these days, considering that after 10 years in which the Thatcher government essentially did what the magazine said, Britain has the weakest economy in Europe. (Remind me, again, why we’re looking to the British for economic advice.) But the implied message of the leaders often seems to be, “I took a First at Oxford. I’m right.”

The cover of anonymity for the magazine’s writers is an important part of its omniscient stance, among other reasons because it conceals the extreme youth of much of the staff. “The magazine is written by young people pretending to be old people,” says Michael Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker,” who now lives in England. “If American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.”

Next, here's Tom Scocca, writing in 2007:

... The smug glibness that Mr. Fallows diagnosed 16 years ago is still there—adjectives and adverbs deployed in place of evidence: “rightly,” “admirable,” “impressive,” “encouraging,” “predictable,” “worrying.” “Here,” one story begins, “are three pieces of conventional political wisdom what are almost all certainly wrong.” Almost all certainly. Elsewhere, an obituary of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declares that “Mr. Schlesinger was too young to remember the New Deal.” Mr. Schlesinger, by the piece’s own internal evidence, was born in 1917.

But The Economist is less provocative than it is aggressively boring: “The last time he ran for president John McCain spent months rolling around New Hampshire in a bus, the Straight Talk Express.” “In the absence of reliable, up-to-date information, markets go awry.” The layout is even duller—thick columns of type wrapping from page to page, like a cross between the old New Republic and the telephone book. The back page is filled with currency tables (for those who would convert the 16 different cover prices longhand). The only nod to magazine aesthetics is the sheen of the paper stock.

Stupefaction is its own form of power. “When a Garuda Indonesia airliner crashed and burst into flames at Yogyakarta airport in central Java on March 7th it naturally saddened the nation.”


The audience for this is not people who care about the world, but people who believe it is important to care about the world. When other magazines say they want to be like The Economist, they do not mean they wish to be serious. They mean they wish, by whatever means, to be taken seriously.


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    “Here,” one story begins, “are three pieces of conventional political wisdom what are almost all certainly wrong.” Almost all certainly.

    I looked it up in my copy of the March 10 Economist, and the sentence (p. 62) is: "Here are three pieces of conventional political wisdom that are all almost certainly wrong." The phrase he mockingly quotes isn't there. Of course, it's possible the American edition is less carefully proof-read.

    However, I can believe they are pandering to the US market. I used to wonder how they could possibly support the Iraq war (for which they never apologised -- the standard excuse is Bush mishandled it but it was a good idea.) I now think they figured (correctly) that opposing it would reduce sales in the US in 2003.