"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?

The real question about this editorial approach is why it's paid off better for The Economist than for the Journal. Why is it impossible to imagine a professor boasting in print, "I rely on the Wall Street Journal -- published in New York"? Why do people apparently buy the Journal (or The Washington Post or the New York Times) only if they want actually to read it -- rather than just to carry it around, as a suspiciously large number of Economist "readers" seem to do?

The roots of the explanation stretch back to 1776 and America's incomplete separation from the motherland. England is a perfectly nice little country, with many achievements to its credit. If you like to attend plays, want to read comic novels, hope to spare your skin the damaging effects of the sun, then England's the place for you. Countries once part of its empire, including America, are much better off than those that were under the Spanish or French. But England has two completely loathsome traits, which in exported form are involved in the reverence for The Economist.

The first is, of course, the English class system. Yes, America has its own tangled class problem, which is becoming worse as public schools and the military lose their democratizing function. But Americans can still be embarrassed by obvious reminders of class difference. Except perhaps in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, when the refrigerator repairman comes to the doctor's house, the doctor is supposed to treat him as if they're equals -- not as "My good man."

Perhaps it is not England's fault, or The Economist's, that those Americans who would love to have a similar class system here -- with themselves on top! -- take on English airs. (As Henry Allen of The Post has pointed out, the right response to this phenomenon is not Anglophobia but Anglophilophobia.) But The Economist has certainly, if only half-consciously, traded on the "published in London" snob appeal. "Americans imagine that The Economist is better written," says Time magazine's Richard Stengel, "because they impute an English accent to what they read."

There are certain English products whose quaintness is put on mainly for export purposes -- they're the equivalent of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe-style tourist traps, which the locals avoid. Something similar is going on with The Economist. The Economist now has considerably fewer readers -- and is strangely less influential -- in England than in America. Indeed, it is disdained by the very Englishmen whom many American readers would most love to emulate: the secure upper and upper middle classes.

In America, the magazine presents itself as a kind of voice of the super-confident English aristocracy, whereas its advertisements within England play on the status-anxiety of its readers there. For example, one billboard displayed in England reads in bold print: "I never read The Economist." The punch line comes in the identification of the hapless confessor of this dereliction, a "Management trainee -- aged 44."

Another key to the magazine's boom in America during the 1980s must lie in its sycophancy toward Ronald Reagan in particular and American culture in general. We are all so used to being sneered at by the French or Swedes. To hear someone who poses as a British aristocrat celebrating American vigor -- it's just irresistible! If it came from the Wall Street Journal or USA Today, we'd consider it plain boosterism, but it works from The Economist, since we imagine we're overhearing the foreigners' real views. I think the flattery is actually the most refined and vicious version of the old British condescension toward the colonies. These Yanks! They'll believe anything! Let's give them another dose of how the world looks up to them!

The other ugly English trait promoting The Economist's success in America is the Oxford Union argumentative style. At its epitome, it involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.

American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control. The forte of Oxford-style debate is to be able to sound certain and convincing about a topic pulled out of the air a few minutes before, such as "Resolved: That women are not the fairer sex." (The BBC radio shows "My Word" and "My Music," carried on National Public Radio, give a sample of the desired impromptu glibness.)

Economist leaders and the covers that trumpet their message offer Americans a blast of this style. Michael Kinsley, who once worked at The Economist, wrote that the standard Economist leader gives you the feeling that the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately -- and then tried to think what the steps should be.

A certain modesty would seem appropriate in The Economist's leaders 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."

This brings us back to Robert Wade's book. The crucial paragraph of The Economist review -- the one that convinced my friend the official, and presumably tens of thousands of other readers, that Wade's years of research supported the magazine's preexisting world view -- was this:

"The [Asian] dragons differed from other developing countries in avoiding distortions to exchange rates and other key prices, as much as in their style of intervening. Intervention is part of the story -- but perhaps the smaller part. That being so, Mr. Wade's prescriptions seem unduly heavy on intervention, and unduly light on getting prices right."

These few lines are a marvel of Oxbridge glibness, and they deserve lapidary study. Notice the all-important word "perhaps." Without the slightest hint of evidence, it serves to dismiss everything Wade has painstakingly argued in the book. It clears the way for: "That being so . . . " What being so? That someone who has Taken a First can wave off the book's argument with "perhaps"?

The "that being so" style of discourse is not wholly alien to the United States -- think of William Buckley on TV. But Americans know how to put his views in perspective. The complications of Anglophilic snobbery and Oxbridge-style swagger prevent most American readers from realizing that, when they read Economist leaders, they're essentially reading Wall Street Journal editorials, written with even less self-doubt.

Several months ago, when I was visiting Australia, I walked through the spectacular botanical gardens in Melbourne with a native-born Australian and a British expatriate. I was bedazzled by the lushness, and said how much I admired it. The Australian deferentially said to the Briton, "Well, I suppose it can't quite compare with Kew." "Ah, Kew!" the Englishman said, and then said no more, as if he were too polite to detail all the ways in which London's Kew Gardens were superior. A few seconds later, the Australian slapped himself on the forehead. "The colonial cringe!" he said. He'd made himself feel inferior about something that was objectively superb.

Ah, Economist! Ah, Kew!


James Fallows is Washington Editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He used to live in England.