TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, if you had asked a typical senior American corporate type or public official what his or her weekly reading consisted of, the answer would usually have run something like this: “Time, Newsweek and maybe U.S. News & World Report . . . oh, yes, and the Economist.” Today, instead of being an afterthought, the Economist probably would head the list. It might even be the only publication mentioned. U.S. News & World Report ceased being a full-scale newsmagazine years ago. Newsweek, since 2010 the feeble foster child of Tina Brown’s flamboyant Daily Beast website, has lost much of its influence and most of its original staffers and subscribers. Even mighty Time, once the educated American middle class’s undisputed arbiter of all things political, economic, social and cultural, has suffered massive staff and circulation hemorrhaging and is in the throes of a seemingly endless search for a new identity. Time knows it isn’t what it used to be but still can’t make up its mind what it should become.
All of this would seem to be conclusive evidence that the era of the weekly newsmagazine is over, rendered obsolete by burgeoning electronic media and 24/7 cable-news coverage and commentary. But if the once-great redwoods of American weekly journalism are all dead, dying or seriously ill, a smaller, older English oak survives and flourishes, possibly because it has never tried to be anything other than itself: a literate, informed (and occasionally smug) publication aimed at a literate, informed (and occasionally smug) readership. First published in 1843, which makes it eighty years older than Time and ninety years older than Newsweek, the Economist remains true to the statement of purpose printed in its first issue, still proudly run each week at the foot of its contents page: a pledge of commitment to the “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
The age of Victorian optimism is long gone, and the sun has forever set on the British Empire. But the Economist goes on, the exemplar of that old Victorian determination to get things done and do them right. Today, it is arguably more influential, more widely read and more prestigious than at any other time in its 169-year history and in a way that is unlike any other magazine. Why is this so? And how well does the quality of its content live up to the Economist’s lofty status?
Answering the first question is easier than answering the second. More than any other serious news journal since the invention of the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century, the Economist is the beneficiary of a unique, global linguistic confluence: the universal dominance of the English language. This triumph was made possible by an event unprecedented in world history: one language being shared by two successive global superpowers that, between them, have led the shaping of the modern world from the dawn of parliamentary politics and the Industrial Revolution all the way to the present day. Power has shifted from one country to the other, and may do so again, but the English language remains paramount. Starting in Great Britain, it began a triumphant march that would see it become the mother tongue of countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all originally colonized and populated by people of Anglo-Saxon heritage. But it didn’t end there. English also is the language of the educated elite in Asian, African, Pacific and West Indian countries once part of the vast British Empire. To cite one small piece of evidence, many of today’s best-written (and best-selling) English-language novels are written by English-speaking Indians, Pakistanis, Caribbeans and Africans, all linguistic beneficiaries of a now-defunct British Empire and a still-expanding global market for English-language fiction.
Meanwhile, even as England—first overextended and then exhausted by two world wars—ceased to be a superpower, a new English-speaking colossus, the United States, filled the void, not just because of its military and economic might but also because of its scientific and technological supremacy. Around the world, English (now with an American inflection) expanded ever further as the international language of science, commerce, academia, sea and air transport, diplomacy and, thanks to globalized media, even popular culture. At the same time, millions of foreign students, especially promising or privileged ones, have completed their educations at prestigious American and English universities after having learned English at home as a second language.
One result is a growing worldwide elite audience of English speakers and readers—about 1.5 million subscribers—for whom the Economist is the perfect fit, comprehensively covering as it does both the United States and the United Kingdom and offering more thorough coverage of the rest of the world than any rival English-language periodical. The Economist has become the premiere worldwide newsweekly for the new global elite.
NOT EVERYONE is happy about this, especially those who view the world from a more leftward angle. Thus the Observer, a soft-Left—and possibly envious—English weekly newspaper with little influence or impact outside the British Isles, grumbles that the Economist’s writers “rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation.” There is some truth to this. At heart, the Economist remains what it began as, an advocate of the classic nineteenth-century English strain of liberalism that favored social reform, open markets and a representative form of government with a franchise that expanded in tandem with better, increasingly accessible education and resultant economic progress. There is nothing new here, but these qualities remain the key to progress in functioning democracies—and will have to evolve in lawless, corrupt police states in much of the Third World and many parts of the former Soviet Union if they are to become stable, free societies.
The problem in countries such as Russia is not that ailing state industries and underdeveloped state natural resources were truly, lawfully privatized. It is that they were grabbed up by Kremlin insiders, transforming a handful of crooks, fixers and members of the old nomenklatura into a corrupt and entrenched new oligarchy while leaving most ordinary Russians out in the cold. The same applies to “free elections” held before the emergence of a literate, informed electorate and freely competitive political institutions in backward countries without strong rule-of-law traditions. When the results turn ugly, the reason is not a failure of liberalization but the use of superficially “liberal” labels as cover for replacing an old set of oppressors with a new one through violence, intimidation, corruption, and the lack of a “liberal” foundation of individual rights and protections.
In such cases, while the economic and political remedies advocated by the Economist may seem passé to trendy left-wingers in the West, they remain the best—and possibly the only—cure for what ails most of the nations and people of the Third World and much of the former Soviet Union (not to mention overextended, overregulated European welfare states tottering on the brink of bankruptcy).
Thus, by consistently championing basic values such as reform, social improvement, free trade and individual rights, the Economist stands for values that are timeless, proven and certainly not outdated. Indeed, on many of today’s hot-button issues, the Economist’s brand of what might be called liberal libertarianism is—depending on your perspective—“politically correct” in the best or worst sense of the term. For example, it has emerged as a leading voice—critics might call it an alarmist one—in the global-warming debate. It also strongly advocates national gun control in the United States, favors abolition of capital punishment and has “come out” in favor of gay marriage.
While he must have found the Economist’s endorsement of gay marriage gratifying, Andrew Sullivan, a longtime gay-rights activist and former editor of the New Republic, had another ax to grind. Sullivan, who happens to be of working-class British origins, was more driven by class than gender considerations when, in the pages of the New Republic, he denounced the Economist staff for being dominated by graduates of Oxford University’s elite Magdalen College.
Sullivan’s class animosity already may have been out of date when he wrote about it. To cite one human statistic, at that time the late Peter David, a graduate of the University of London rather than even one of Oxford’s less prestigious colleges, already had been a member of the Economist’s staff for fifteen years and eventually would earn distinction for his nuanced analysis of Middle East complexities. He once wrote that “it is necessary to remember that what people call ‘the Arab world’ is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably not one thing at all,” a central fact that seems to have eluded ideologically driven Arabists and Israeli partisans alike. More recently, as the magazine’s Washington bureau chief and author of the “Lexington” column on American life and politics, David was just hitting his stride before his premature death in a motoring accident in Virginia this May. The son of Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to England from South Africa, Peter David represented the kind of educated, informed intelligence that characterizes the Economist at its best and has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s ethnicity or old school tie.
Another kind of criticism comes from intellectually pretentious, slightly envious Yanks rather than class-embittered Brits. James Fallows, who once wrote speeches for President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, complained in a 1991 Washington Post piece that the Economist “unwholesomely purveys smarty-pants English attitudes on our shores.” This is about as valid—or invalid—as accusing the American-owned and -led International Herald Tribune or the European edition of the Wall Street Journal of “unwholesomely” purveying “smarty-pants” American attitudes on the shores of Europe and the United Kingdom.
Admittedly, there are times when the Economist leans a little heavily on plummy English props and mannerisms. Michael Lewis, the popular American financial writer and author of Liar’s Poker, once attributed the magazine’s sometimes laboriously polished prose and tone to the fact that the Economist “is written by young people pretending to be old people,” adding that if American readers “got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions.” This may be the reason almost all of the publication’s articles still lack bylines, much less accompanying photos of the writers. Besides, that hint of pseudo-Dickensian creakiness in its prose is part of the Economist’s charm and its distinctive brand. It also helps to explain its success among educated English speakers around the world who still prize good writing that requires a modicum of sophistication and literary grounding on the part of its readers rather than being written down to the lowest common denominator. As for Fallows, someone should have reminded him that, for the most part, “smarty-pants” tend to be much better writers than sans culottes.
The American journalist who has come closest to pinning down the Economist’s winning formula is Michael Hirschorn, in a perceptive essay in the July/August 2009 issue of the Atlantic. He suggests that the secret of the Economist’s success
is not its brilliance, or its hauteur, or its typeface. The writing in Time and Newsweek may be every bit as smart, as assured, as the writing in The Economist. But neither one feels like the only magazine you need to read. You may like the new Time and Newsweek. But you must—or at least, brilliant marketing has convinced you that you must—subscribe to The Economist.
This may explain how an idiosyncratic publication—produced by an allegedly pimply writing staff of about seventy-five from a cramped space in London’s St. James’s quarter—has proved to be David to rival American Goliaths such as Time and Newsweek.
SO MUCH for the Economist’s success. What about the quality of its content? Is it worthy of the pedestal on which it now perches? One way to find out is to look at how well the Economist’s running coverage and commentary stand up over time and after the fact. To do this I engaged in a twenty-two-week monitoring of the magazine, encompassing weekly issues from February 18 through July 14, 2012.
Although I have followed the Economist for most of my adult life, this meant immersing myself in each issue in a way I never had before. Twenty years ago, Microsoft’s Bill Gates said that one reason he didn’t have a TV set was that watching it wouldn’t leave him enough time to read each issue of the Economist from cover to cover. For the first—and probably the last—time in my life, I found myself emulating Bill Gates. Trudging through the Economist, week after week, I found I was watching less and less television, especially television news and documentaries of the “serious” sort which, even at their best, cannot convey as much information as a really well-written article.
Looking back on it now, in the very first issue I monitored there were several items that held up very well—and that addressed serious subjects ignored or oversimplified by most American media. The lead editorial (or, if you’re English, the leading leader) was entitled “Over-regulated America: The home of laissez-faire is being suffocated by excessive and badly written regulation.” It proved to be a compact, compelling condemnation of the ill-considered Dodd-Frank law Congress passed in 2010, concluding that it is
far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.
This is likely one reason why “hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York.”
Here, in a single page, the Economist addressed the overarching problem of runaway federal regulation and the legitimate concerns that can lead to bad legislation, providing strong supporting examples and powerful statistical data to back up its position. It wasn’t just interesting or convincing. It was useful; most readers would come away better informed on the subject than they had been before, even if they didn’t buy in to the Economist’s opinion on all points.
The second leader in the same issue, subtitled “The euro may survive brinkmanship over Greece, but the road to recovery will be long and hard,” was a prescient warning of the crisis to come within the euro zone due to stagnating economies and ruinous debt levels in Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain. The Economist definitely saw this one coming.
Less pressing but equally prescient was a third leader dealing with India’s often meddlesome, hectoring attitude toward weaker neighbors such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Pakistan. At a time when India’s diplomatic charm offensive was winning uncritical praise from Washington and most American media, the Economist took a more informed look at India’s increasingly imperious attitude toward its South Asian neighbors and the problems it could lead to.
Not so clear-sighted was the following week’s “Lexington” column on the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Although Peter David, author of the column, was a gifted journalist and had been based in Washington since 2009, this was his first full-time, on-the-ground experience of an American presidential campaign. Like most foreign journalists dropped into that surreal world for the first time, he seemed to be unduly influenced by the groupthink of the predominantly liberal Washington press corps. In his February 25 column, David unrolled a scenario that dramatically overestimated the influence of fringe elements in the Tea Party and the Christian Right while ignoring the essentially moderate-conservative alignment of rank-and-file Republican voters. So it came as no surprise that he bought into the widely held but mistaken view of liberal inside-the-Beltway pundits, declaring that:
It is now clear . . . that a large share of the party’s conservatives just do not like Mr Romney. This traps the party in a fratricidal exercise that could continue for months, if not all the way to the party convention in Tampa in August. Even if he loses next week in Michigan, Mr Santorum should pick up enough delegates to keep his hope alive. . . . There is new talk of an “open” convention, where no candidate has a majority and the call goes out for a white knight, if one can be found. Mr Obama is a lucky man.
Is that so?
The Economist’s lead editorial the next week demonstrated a clearer, more farsighted understanding of a very different kind of presidential election. Headlined “The beginning of the end of Putin: Vladimir Putin will once again become Russia’s president. Even so, his time is running out,” it foresaw the victory Putin’s brass-knuckle tactics would win at the polls. But it also foresaw its hollowness:
Everybody in Russia knows that Vladimir Putin . . . will be elected president on March 4th. This is not because he is overwhelmingly popular, but because his support will be supplemented by a potent mixture of vote-rigging and the debarring of all plausible alternative candidates. The uncertainty will come after the election, not before.
The March 17 Economist sported a cartoon cover suggesting that the recovery had finally arrived. A featured briefing on the American economy agreed, concluding that “economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected. It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold. . . . it now seems that, at last, they have.”
Call it irrational exuberance, premature miscalculation or whatever. The Economist clearly jumped the gun on this one. In fairness, it was not alone in doing so. The conventional wisdom on Wall Street and among Washington movers and shakers at the time was that happy days were, indeed, here again. It is not very surprising that the conventional wisdom proved wrong yet again; it is, however, a little disappointing to find the Economist joining the errant chorus.
On a more positive note, by March 24 the Economist had finally sobered up about the race for the Republican presidential nomination. No more pipe dreams about a Tea Party rebellion derailing the Romney candidacy and leading to a brokered convention. Instead: “Mr Romney has won over half of the delegates awarded so far. That pace, if sustained, will be more than enough to secure him the nomination outright.” Better late than never.
One of the signature virtues of the Economist is its ability to spot and put into perspective quiet but important developments ignored by most of the mass media. A small but striking example of this was a brief, boxed item in “The Americas” section of the May 5issue. Headlined “Gendercide in Canada? A study shows more boys than girls are being born to some ethnic groups,” this disturbing story reported on data that indicated growing numbers of Asian-born mothers in Canada are deliberately aborting female embryos purely on the basis of their sex, especially in the case of a second or third expected child. Thus, in Ontario, a study revealed that Indian-born mothers giving birth to a third child had “1,883 sons and 1,385 daughters, a hugely distorted ratio of 136 to 100” that could only be explained by parents deliberately targeting female fetuses for abortion. “In India and China,” the Economist noted, “sex-selective abortions are seen as crimes against humanity. Why should Canada view them any differently?”
THE ECONOMIST has always prided itself on not panicking and taking the long view. The Lexington column in its May 12 issue was an example of that approach at its best. It also turned out to be Peter David’s posthumous valedictory, running two days after his death. As I write this, the Obama-Romney race for the White House is only beginning to heat up; by the time it appears, the election will be in its last stretch and Americans will have been undergoing a constant media bombardment, much of it negative and almost all of it overstated. They should take comfort from something David pointed to in his inadvertent May 12 farewell. He called it the “binary illusion”:
People tend to think in black and white. America is either in decline or it is ordained to be for ever the world’s greatest nation. Government is either paralysed or it is running amok, stifling liberty and enterprise and snuffing out the American dream. The election campaign accentuates the negative and sharpens this binary illusion. . . . On a variety of objective measures, [America] is in an awful mess right now. And yet America of all countries has plenty of grounds to hope for a better future, despite its underperforming politics, and no matter who triumphs in November.
Like the United States, the Economist has a number of glaring imperfections. But, also like the United States, it usually manages to sort things out and muddle through. Along the way it also keeps its eye out for the exotic, amusing and interesting subjects we enjoy reading about but are seldom served up by the mass media.
This is particularly true when it comes to the Economist’s books-and-arts section and its highly selective, sometimes offbeat obituaries. Two noteworthy examples appeared in the May 19 issue, the first being a detailed piece on the Turkish government’s aggressive campaign to recover art and artifacts from foreign museums and reclaim them as part of Turkey’s cultural heritage. The Economist takes a balanced approach, sympathizing with the Turkish desire to revive its neglected, multiethnic Ottoman past, which Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, deliberately disparaged in order to forge a new, ethnically unified nation-state. But it also points out that many of the “Turkish” treasures being sought were the work of other peoples and cultures—Greeks, Medes, Romans, Byzantines and possibly even Trojans—who occupied what would become the Ottoman Empire and parts of modern Turkey long before the first Turkic nomads migrated there from the Asian steppes.
The second piece, a perceptive and balanced obituary of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s foremost modern man of letters, captured all of the flamboyant, conflicting qualities that somehow managed to coexist in an elegant, self-professed Marxist with aristocratic tastes who spoke out against tyrannies of the Left as well as the Right and was equally at home in Paris, New York and Mexico. The obituary managed to make a more coherent and likeable whole out of the bundle of contradictions that was Carlos Fuentes—whom I happened to know—in a way the man himself never quite did in either his books or his life.
The same mix of the good, the bad and the uneven ran through my immersion reading of the Economist all the way to the July 14 issue. Particularly valuable was the running coverage of the ongoing crisis within the European Union and, more particularly, the euro zone. The Economist, from its offshore perch in London, is “so near yet so far” from the European mainland in a way that gives it both a detachment and a close-up understanding of Europe that is unique.
The first glimpse at my long-awaited July 14 last number reminded me of some of the things I most admire—and a few I most dislike—about the Economist. The cover story, which turned out to be a very good one, was: “Comeback kid: Rebuilding America’s economy.” But the cover art was a silly, campy figure of a flexing bodybuilder’s torso topped with a somber “Uncle Sam Needs You” head glowering at the reader. The off-putting part was two red-white-and-blue tassels attached to Uncle Sam’s nipples as if he were now working as a male stripper. Someone in authority at St. James’s Street should keep a closer eye on the art department.
In sum, then, I came away from twenty-two weeks of monitoring the Economist convinced that it is, indeed, the very best magazine of its kind—a status made easier by the fact that it is arguably the only magazine of its kind. For all its flukes and flaws, its level of intelligent reporting and analysis and the breadth of its coverage—geographically, politically, economically, scientifically, intellectually and artistically—is simply unmatched. There are frustrating moments when I am tempted to dismiss it by paraphrasing a few lines Dean Swift penned about a drafty old Irish manor house he enjoyed visiting:
It is just half a blessing and just half a curse—I wish, my dear sirs, it were better or worse.
Yet, at the end of the day, I have to admit that it passes the Robinson Crusoe test with flying colors: if I were marooned on a desert isle and could receive only one magazine, it would have to be the Economist.
Aram Bakshian Jr., a contributing editor to The National Interest, served as an aide to presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. His writing on politics, history and the arts has been published widely in the United States and abroad.Pullquote: One of the signature virtues of the Economist is its ability to spot and put into perspective quiet but important developments ignored by most of the mass media.Image: Essay Types: Book Review