Russell's Blog

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The nieve Economist

Posted by Russell on May 22, 2006 at 9:22 p.m.
I've read The Economist for twelve years now, since I was a freshman in high school. When I first picked it up, it was a fount of knowledge; not only did their articles pack more ideas and data about more subjects into every column inch than I'd ever seen, but they had a way of looking at the world to which the local newspaper seemed oblivious. Every newspaper reports on the important, complicated things going on in the world, but to most newspapers, trade embargoes, interest rates, current account deficits, leveraged debt, and currency reserves are eldritch mysteries to be left to experts who furnish perfunctory prognostication that the editorial staff may then broadcast across the backmatter of the business section like seed stock over a parking lot.

But to The Economist such matters were far from mysterious; they were quantifiable, they could be compared and contrasted with other periods in history, tested against theories, and many gallons of ink could be exhausted discussing their causes and consequences. Arguments were constructed, defended, and sustained or vanquished. It was weirdly exciting to read. After trying to wring even basic comprehension out of the starvation rations offered by the newspapers, reading The Economist was a bit of a guilty pleasure. It felt as if some careless adult had accidentally let it slip into my hands, and I held the recipe for a brew of terrible power.

Since then (I was fourteen), I've done a bit of growing up, but sadly it seems that the venerable Economist has been simultaneously diminishing. This is most obvious when the topic of politics comes up -- and it always does. The great sages that write for the weekly can't seem to avoid swallowing both their feet.

For more a century and a half, The Economist has been championing its brand of classical liberalism -- free trade, civil liberties, representative government, and cultural pluralism -- on the theory that these ideas work in concert to bring about the greatest prosperity for all. Broadly speaking, they are right on the money. Where The Economist goes wrong is when they try to ascertain which politicians agree with them, and therefor for which politicians should they cheer. Here, they are but babes in the woods. You see, politicians lie about what they believe, the rascals! After 163 years in continuous publication, The Economist remains innocent to this sad fact.

To me, the rather shocking naiveté of The Economist is most apparent when they cover America. Perhaps they are uniformly naive, and I am merely detecting the divergence from sound thinking where it is most obvious to me. The mistake isn't in their data or their research -- they do a great job there. The mistake happens long before any data has been collected, articles written, or rebuttals penned. It might sound something like this: "My good man, what party supports free trade? Oh, goodness me, of coursre. The conservative party! Who's the conservative party in your little country? Oh, jolly good. We'll write some nice articles about them."

In 1922, that might have made some sense. The conservatively-aligned Republican Party, for example, once stood for free trade, civil liberties, representative government, and cultural pluralism. That was back when they were the party of Lincoln, emancipation, and unfettered trade. It may come as something of a shock, but a few things have changed since 1922. By 1980, the last "liberal" principle the Republican party stood for was free trade. But instead of curtailing the government's meddling in the private sector, Ronald Reagan presided over a huge expansion in government subsidies, in the form of peace-time defense spending, financed with borrowed money. Our current president is cut from the same cloth -- though while Reagan's voodoo economics was a suit that no self-respecting economist would don, George W. Bush is its clippings.

Nevertheless, The Economist earnestly cranks out article after article supporting the Lesser Bush. Why? Because Bush says he's for small government, which is about as close to professed support for free-market capitalism as you're going to get from conservatives nowadays. Oh, sure, he's against all those other important principles for which The Economist stands. When it comes to wiretapping millions of innocent Americans, torturing people, imprisonment without trial, gerrymandering, the injection of religion into law and jurisprudence, massive deficit spending, undermining science, corruption, and blowing hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies to his personal favorites among industry, George Bush is your man. But he says he's for small government, so The Economist swallows their pride, and frequently their feet, and stands by their man.

This week, for example, their article on immigration appears with the following byline: "George Bush is successfully wooing public opinion to his balanced proposals for managing immigration." If the polls are any indication, George Bush isn't wooing anyone. The reality is that his own party is furious that he isn't planning on the mass deportation of illegal immigrants (as the article goes on to mention), and everyone else seems to be wondering if his immigration plan is the result of a relapse into alcoholism.

To his credit, George Bush is consistent about one thing. When hurricanes destroy American cities, he's more than happy to let "the market" sort things out. When it comes to disaster recovery, George Bush steadfast in his efforts to keep the government out of people's lives.

In conclusion: Dear Economist, I'm very sorry to tell you this, but politicians lie. They even lie to you. I know it's sad. Please don't cry. It's OK. We understand that this comes as a great shock, but try to be strong. We're all here for you.

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