"The Economics of the Colonial Cringe," about The Economist magazine; Washington Post, 1991

The Economics of the Colonial Cringe: Pseudonomics and the Sneer on the Face of The Economist.

By James Fallows; Washington Post "Outlook"section; October 6, 1991.

Last summer, a government man who helps make international economic policy told me (with a thoughtful expression) he was reading "quite an interesting new book" about the stunning economic rise of East Asia. "The intriguing thing is, it shows that market forces really were the explanation!" he exclaimed in delight. "Industrial policies and government tinkering didn't matter that much."

By chance, I had just read the very book -- Governing the Market by Robert Wade. This detailed study, citing heaps of evidence, had in fact concluded nearly the opposite: that East Asian governments had tinkered plenty, directly benefiting industry far beyond anything "market forces" could have done.

I knew something else about the book: The Economist magazine had just reviewed it and mischaracterized its message almost exactly the way the government official had.

Had he actually read the book? Maybe, but somehow I have my doubts.

What I saw that day, I suspect, was just another illustration of the power of Washington's current Sacred Cow: The Economist magazine, which each week unwholesomely purveys smarty-pants English attitudes on our shores.

Like other sacred cows, The Economist obviously has its virtues. Compared to any of the American newsmagazines, The Economist gets by with a skeleton staff of mainly young writers, who turn out a prodigious amount of copy each week. The news stories have lots of informative tidbits, and the "leaders," or editorials, in the front of the magazine often take up usefully quirky subjects. My recent favorite is one explaining why the rise of English as an international language is a short-term convenience but a long-term disaster for Americans and Englishmen. The Koreans, Russians, Japanese and even Dutch can listen in on what we're saying. We have no private language to scheme in, as they do.

But what signifies a sacred cow is that people revere it for fashionable reasons, and out of all proportion to its real strengths and weaknesses. The Economist, whose American circulation has risen from 40,000 to 183,000 over the last 10 years, seems to have reached that point among America's professional class.

For example: Several weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile of Bill Gates, the "boy billionaire" founder of Microsoft. Here is someone with many good reasons to be vain, but the main vanity he seemed to push in the article was his association with The Economist. (Gates said that he didn't have a TV in his house, because if he had one he'd never have time to read The Economist cover to cover, "as I do now.")

As part of a feud with Newsweek's Robert Samuelson, Robert Reich, of Harvard, wrote a letter-to-the-editor that said: "I, for one, don't get my economics news from Newsweek. I rely on The Economist -- published in London." Humphrey Greddon wrote of this episode in Spy: "If so, then Reich resembles many semipretentious undergraduates, bankers and newsmagazine business writers in this country. The omniscient tone and pedantry of The Economist must impress the insecure American cousins in its readership." [2006 Update: I was then in the middle of my own little squabble with Reich, long forgotten on both sides -- I think!]

In functional terms, The Economist is more like the Wall Street Journal than like any other American publication. In each there's a kind of war going on between the news articles and the editorial pages. The news articles are not overly biased and try to convey the complex reality of, well, the news. Meanwhile, the editorials and "leaders" push a consistent line, often at odds with the facts reported on the news pages of the same issue.

For The Economist, the tension is most obvious in its coverage of Japan. According to the editorial line, Japan is becoming more and more market-minded, its trade surplus is bound to disappear, its economic mandarins are losing power by the minute and its people are about to revolt against the onerous 'salaryman' life. Meanwhile the news stories point out that things aren't evolving quite according to editorial plan. [Update: Japan's financial markets and real estate were headed for problems right about then. But its exports and trade surplus have kept chugging right along, and its mandarins and salarymen have essentially retained their same roles.]

To give one example from several hundred possibilities, last year The Economist's correspondent in Tokyo detailed the Japanese government's plan to keep foreign companies from selling advanced "amorphous metals" to Japanese customers, until Japanese firms could gear up to make the products on their own. A few pages later in the same issue, a book review announced, with great confidence but without noticeable evidence, that Asia's "stunning growth was built on efficient investment and innovation, which in turn owed everything to openness to trade."

More recently, an Economist article pointed out that Japan's trade surplus is on the rise with nearly all its partners. Its conclusion was not that the magazine should revise its theories but that readers should prepare for "whining" (translation from the British "whingeing") from the small-minded protectionists in the rest of the world.

The editorial line pushed by The Economist is also functionally similar to the Journal's. Markets nearly always work, and government meddling nearly always fails. If some fact seems not to fit this schema -- for instance, the success of Asian governments in meddling with their economies -- the fact should be harumphed out of the way. [Updated example: China.] Political leaders must above all be firm, like the Divine Mrs. T. Writers and thinkers should above all be "clever," The Economist's highest term of praise. (The Journal's counterpart is "realistic.") Those who disagree are to be mocked -- as sissies by the Journal and dim bulbs by The Economist. The world should be viewed, from above, with a pitying amusement. Why can't they be as clever as we?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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