White smoke at the Economist

by Henry on March 22, 2006

So it looks as though John Micklethwait, currently US editor, is probably going to be the new editor at the Economist; the final decision is due to be announced tomorrow. It’s down to a two man race between him and Ed Carr, and not that many people are betting on Carr ( in contrast to a few days ago, but that’s a different story ). To the surprise of many, Clive Crook didn’t make it to the final two, which is unfortunate in my books – Crook is somewhat conservative for my taste, but also a good journalist who would have made a very decent editor. Ed Carr, from all I’ve heard, would be a fine editor too, but things don’t sound good for him.

I have to say that my first reaction is to wonder whether it’s too late to cancel the recent renewal of my Economist subscription. I expect the Economist to be vehemently pro-market, but by reading certain kinds of stories with a skeptical eye, and by skipping past certain others, you can find a lot of value in its pages. It has a clear ideological bias, but it isn’t usually actively dishonest. But Micklethwait, together with his scrofulous sidekick Adrian Wooldridge, was responsible for The Right Nation which is one of the lazier and more dishonest books on American politics that I’ve had the misfortune of reading in the last few years, and for the Lexington column which has shown a pretty reliable track record as a purveyor of Republican talking points. There are still a lot of very good people working for the magazine – but I worry that it’s about to undergo a quite substantial deterioration in intellectual quality.

Update: It’s Micklethwait as expected.

{ 44 comments }

1

Luis Villa 03.22.06 at 2:47 pm

Maybe you could elaborate on what you found so dishonest about the Right Nation? I thought it was one of the more dead-on political books I’d read in a long time.

2

P O'Neill 03.22.06 at 2:54 pm

I think the Economist’s US crew use as proof that they’re not in the tank for Bush the fact that they occasionally pick fights with the National Review

The problem is that they [conservative pundits] are all much of a muchness: bit-players in a pundit industry that can’t tell the difference between political debate and a Punch and Judy show. And such knockabout stuff has a way of debasing anyone who takes part in it. For instance, Jonah Goldberg is a bright young right-winger who writes for the National Review with the same wry wit as Mr Buckley. But Amazon.com informs us that his forthcoming book, “Liberal Fascism”, argues that “liberals, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton, have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism.”

3

wcw 03.22.06 at 3:34 pm

What, calling JG “bright” isn’t enough of an indictment?

In the ’80s, the Economist was better on US news than US newsmagazines (not a very high bar, but nevertheless impressive). These days, I am not sure it is better than “cartoon paper” USA Today. I let our sub lapse a couple years back, and don’t much miss it overmuch.

4

eliza dashwood 03.22.06 at 3:38 pm

Yep, that’s it, cancel before you even read it under the new editor.

Nothing like preconceived notions.

5

soc anon 03.22.06 at 4:01 pm

There has to be some bias against hiring a man named Crook for the job. Even among economists (who are of course far too rational to ever be biased).

6

Doormat 03.22.06 at 4:06 pm

Luis, Take a look at the Crooked Timber archives (Google search seems to work better than the search on Crooked Timber itself). For example: Intelligent Design

7

schwa 03.22.06 at 4:11 pm

eliza, it would be one thing if Micklethwait didn’t have a track record, but he’s been the U.S. editor at the magazine for several years, and during his tenure the U.S. section has consistently been a blight on an otherwise valuable and informative magazine.

8

Luis Villa 03.22.06 at 4:24 pm

doormat: the most damning and coherent criticism I could find in that article the first time I read it was that the book was like an economist article, which somehow was supposed to be damning, but I couldn’t figure out why, exactly. The critique of the passage on intelligent design seems particularly flaccid- the book’s point was not whether or not intelligent design is valid, the point was whether or not people are talking about and arguing the issues on territory defined by Sullivan’s Christianists. You can’t dismiss the ‘conservatives are winning the war on ideas’ argument by saying ‘their ideas are crap.’ You have to point to ideas that liberals are arguing or advancing- and it is really hard to find any. Right Nation documents fairly well, I thought, that whether or not you agree with the right, they are setting the terms of all significant political discussions in this country right now. So… dunno. I guess I like the idea of a news magazine that tells me what is going on, as opposed to what I’d like to imagine is going on. Something about a ‘reality-based’ community, no…?

9

Doormat 03.22.06 at 4:31 pm

Luis, Well, I was mainly trying to explain why commentators on Crooked Timber think that The Right Nation is poor. But speak for yourself when you say You can’t dismiss the ‘conservatives are winning the war on ideas’ argument by saying ‘their ideas are crap.’. I can certainly dismiss conservatives for this (although I guess I accept your point that just because people are stupid for believing this stuff doesn’t mean that they don’t believe it).

However, and this is something which annoys me about the Economist, is that it’s a damn fine line they walk between “People believe this crap” and “This crap is objectively a good argument”. I sort of don’t need a magazine to tell me the first point I guess.

10

Henry 03.22.06 at 4:34 pm

luis – the main beefs that I had are summed up well in John’s post. And I think that you are misreading the book here – Micklethwait and Wooldridge are doing much more than making an empirical claim that Republicans are winning the war on ideas; they’re making the normative claim that all the exciting ideas are on the Republican side, while the Democrats are devoid of new ideas. Which, as John says, is nonsense (see also Matt Yglesias on this, _passim_ ). In fairness, I suspect that this particular claim is more Wooldridge than Micklethwait – as with much else in the _Right Nation_ it was prototyped in the _Lexington_ column first – but Micklethwait at the very least signed off on it.

11

John Quiggin 03.22.06 at 4:42 pm

I enjoyed The Witchdoctors and liked The Company, though there was a bit more triumphalism there and in Future Perfect than suited my taste. I haven’t yet read Right Nation as I’ve usually found Henry’s judgement on this kind of thing pretty good, but I should try and find the time to read it myself.

12

Luis Villa 03.22.06 at 5:42 pm

Link to the Yglesias debunking, Henry? It is quite possible I am misreading the book, as you argue; I’m inclined to completely ignore the normative claims about the ideas in order to understand the strong empirical claim that such ideas are winning elections.

(although I guess I accept your point that just because people are stupid for believing this stuff doesn’t mean that they don’t believe it).

Exxaaactly. I wouldn’t even quite put it that way- one school of thought (such as it is) has been extremely aggressive in explaining itself to the public, and the other school of thought has been incompetent at explaining itself. The retort to this in many places (I think including often here) is either ‘I don’t care if we’re not good at explaining ourselves, we’re right, and that is all that matters’, or ‘we’re fine at explaining ourselves, but people are stupid.’ I’d really like to play the optimist and push center-left politics towards ‘people are reasonable, if not brilliant, but they don’t get what we’re saying, which implies we’ve done a shitty job articulating our values. Let’s fix how we articulate them, then, and try again.’ Right Nation, whether or not it makes normative claims, does a pretty good job documenting how the right did just that, and in that sense, the book is a valuable read- you might not agree with their politics, but particularly if you disagree with their politics, you should be reading the book to study their methods deeply. At least, that is how it seemed to me.

13

Eli Rabett 03.22.06 at 5:46 pm

A really clued in friend once told me that the key to reading the Economist is to realize that they specialize in arguments that start by assuming pigs are horses and then use impecable logic to show that this means cows can fly. Of course, the only way to deal with such nonsense is to point out that pigs are not horses and their ideas are crap.

14

Henry 03.22.06 at 6:00 pm

Yglesias has posted many times on this as I recall; a quick google search revealed this “post”:http://www.tpmcafe.com/blogs/matthewyglesias?page=68 for example. He also had a more direct hit on the _Right Nation_ argument in its early form – his permalinks seem to have degraded and I can’t find my way through to the original post, but Kevin Drum’s commentary in response can be found “here”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_06/006558.php .

15

Mike 03.22.06 at 6:30 pm

Crook left the Economist some time ago.

16

Henry 03.22.06 at 6:58 pm

Yes – but was being bruited for a comeback (as revealed in the last thrilling installment of my posts on this topic).

17

Walt 03.22.06 at 7:14 pm

Luis: The problem with your argument is that I (as I’m sure many on this board are) am intimately familiar with the ideas of both liberals and conservatives, and I happen to know for a fact that the main thesis of the book is wrong. Since I know that it’s wrong, that leaves me with two possibilities: a) the authors don’t know that it’s wrong, or b) the authors know that it’s wrong, but they wrote it as part of some agenda. Conservatives have been pushing this “conservatives have all the ideas” line since forever. I assume it’s some part of their branding strategy.

What conservatives have, that liberals don’t, is an appreciation for marketing. Intelligent design is a case in point. It’s not a new idea — it’s practically the opposite of a new idea — but it is an effective media strategy. All of the actual new ideas belong to the science side — biology is in the middle of a golden age — but the conservatives have successfully promoted the appearance of intelligent design as a new idea. The Right Nation is, inadvertantly or advertantly, part of that media strategy.

18

am 03.22.06 at 8:17 pm

“things I disagree with” = “deterioration in intellectual quality”.

Partisans are funny.

19

christofay 03.22.06 at 9:24 pm

“but I worry that it’s about to undergo a quite substantial deterioration in intellectual quality.”

Sort of like Forbes business magazine.

20

jknb 03.22.06 at 10:30 pm

My two cents: I’ve subscribed to The Economist for nearly fifteen years and, sad to say, it has been in decline for most of last decade. It used to tow a refreshingly crisp and smart classical liberal line, but, in tandem with its growth in the US market, it has grown increasingly silly and has moved progressively away from “reality-based” analysis (i.e., has become more American in its “conservatism”). Micklethwait’s rise to Editor, if indeed it occurs, completes the transformation and means that I won’t be renewing my subscription. Sad.

One other thought for long time readers: The Economist used to be a pretty funny read. Again, in tandem with its growth in the US market, it has grown increasingly ill-humored. In the end, I’m with “christofay” – give it another few years and it will be in Forbes territory or worse.

So what happened? Any Economist insiders out there lurking CT with the inside dope? (As you might gather from the above, my hypothesis is that the focus on the US market killed the magazine.)

21

soubzriquet 03.23.06 at 12:03 am

re 18: sometimes there is just a decline in quality. happens, you know….

22

ajay 03.23.06 at 5:17 am

Did anyone else see the last Lexington? Blimey. Quite a change in slant. It wasn’t exactly a hatchet job, but paragraphs like this

Looking at the broader picture, Mr Bush’s critics tend to see his legacy entirely in negative terms. They have a point. Whoever succeeds him will have to clean up not just Iraq but the deficit. In fiscal terms, moving into the White House in 2009 will be like inheriting a mansion from a drunk uncle: it’s a nice house, but the roof is falling in and there’s nothing in the bank. But if you can force yourself to look beyond the administration’s proven incompetence, Mr Bush has also done more positive things to steer his successor’s hand both at home and abroad

are far from complimentary. “Proven incompetence”? “Drunk uncle”? It goes on to describe the war in Iraq as a “disaster” and refer to the White House as “stumbling on from disaster to disaster”.

I don’t know who wrote it, but I like it. A real change for the better.

23

zdenek 03.23.06 at 5:34 am

Henry – your closing remarks about the intellectual standards at the Economist are not only arrogant ( that goes without saying ) but clearly deluded. Just look at the line most contributors to CT take on conspiracy theorising ( most cant even tell what is wrong with such way of thinking )or the frequent giving pass to vulgar postmodernism ( which doesnt even operate with a distinction between good and bad argument ) to see my point.
What this means is that given the widely acknowledged dumbing down on the left I dont think a leftie like you can really in good faith even raise the objection that a magazine like Economist is lowering its intellectual standards .No ?

24

otto 03.23.06 at 6:16 am

“scrofulous sidekick”?

25

P O'Neill 03.23.06 at 10:18 am

Another angle on why the “newspaper” (as The Economist likes to be called) might have more affinity with US conservatives than one might expect can be seen with Wooldridge’s review of An Army of Davids:

Mr. Reynolds pushes his case to provocative lengths. Two of his biggest passions–as readers of Instapundit know only too well–are space colonization and “transhumanism.” Both, he believes, are better served by Davids–private citizens acting individually or as a collection of individuals–than by government bureaucrats. He says that we need to adopt a Wild West model for outer space: If we privatize space travel and give land grants to people who colonize the moon or Mars, we will soon see a space rush, even a Mars rush. As for technology improving the human condition, he is a relentless optimist. Why not allow people to put memory chips in their brains to improve their mental performance? Why not celebrate, instead of worrying over, the idea that people might be able to live for centuries, with the help of some cellular tinkering?

He’s taking these ideas more seriously than I would.

26

Henry 03.23.06 at 10:44 am

ajay – I hadn’t read this week’s Lexington yet – a newborn means that I’m a little less current than I used to be.

otto – I’ve met Wooldridge briefly. My words were carefully chosen. Best leave it at that.

zdenek – we’ve been accused of a lot of things at CT, but as far as I know, you’re the first to accuse us of giving a pass to vulgar postmodernism. My remarks build on previous posts talking about specific articles in the _Economist_ – “here”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/11/21/dishonest-mistakes/ for example. Would you care to back up your (quite bizarre) accusations with a couple of examples (if you can’t find it, there is a “search” box to the upper left of this page, which may prove useful in your endeavours). Or perhaps you’d just find it easier to continue your arguments with the leftists on your head ( so _much_ more satisfying: you _always win_ )

27

Luis Villa 03.23.06 at 10:57 am

Lexington is supposed to be trashy editorial, no?

28

Steve LaBonne 03.23.06 at 11:58 am

I just read Crook’s garbage in the current Atlantic about the supposed desirability / inevitablity of a Republican-style “consumer driven” health care system, so I have difficulty understanding why he’s supposed to be less of an idiot than Mickletwit.

29

lemuel pitkin 03.23.06 at 1:13 pm

Otto beat me to it. I note that four out of the first five google hits are for definitions; the fifth is a blog of that name.

“Morally contaminated and corrupt” seems to be the relevant definition, for those (like me) who weren’t sure.

30

Maynard Handley 03.23.06 at 1:53 pm

I call bullshit.
If you renewed recently, after five+ years of their stupidity and mendacity, I don’t take a claim to regret that seriously.
Anyone with eyes open could see what _The Economist_ had become years ago.

As for zdenek and his ridiculous “the objection that a magazine like Economist is lowering its intellectual standards”, dude, have you ever read one of their “Tech Quarterly” inserts? The thing reads like it was put together by some of the more enthusiastic 13-yr olds on Slashdot. No-one with any serious involvement in the tech sector, either scientific/engineering or financial should take it seriously.

31

ogmb 03.23.06 at 5:11 pm

Yep, that’s it, cancel before you even read it under the new editor. Nothing like preconceived notions.

Ms. Dashwood, it might not have occurred to you, but 95% of all non-purchase decisions are based on the preconceived notion that the product will probably not be worth the expense. (The other 5% are forgone repeat purchases which are based on the first-hand knowledge that the product sucked.)

If the Economist is worried about losing Henry it can always extend an offer for a number of free issues post editor change. This is the way things are handled in a free market economy.

32

Contributor A 03.23.06 at 5:59 pm

Ok, so I’d appreciate some support for “scrofulous” besides “I’ve met him.” That won’t cut it. I work with him and I’m not prepared to take your unsupported word for it, and your readers shouldn’t be.

And you’ll be anguished to hear that Micklethwait has become editor. Cancel your subscriptions now and monitor our further decline.

33

Luis Villa 03.23.06 at 11:22 pm

have you ever read one of their “Tech Quarterly” inserts? The thing reads like it was put together by some of the more enthusiastic 13-yr olds on Slashdot. No-one with any serious involvement in the tech sector, either scientific/engineering or financial should take it seriously.
That’s is an incredibly stupid statement, on par with ‘No race car drivers should take a Range Rover seriously as a race car.’ Well, duh. Anyone in the tech sector who reads the Economist for technical news should be fired on the spot. That’s not because it is bad; that’s because if you think a quarterly tech review is how you should get tech news, and getting tech news is part of your job, you’re incompetent to start with. For someone who isn’t in tech, it’s the most competent regular review I’ve seen. Spectacular? No. Comprehensive? No. Pretty well targeted and well-written for a non-technical, business audience? Yes. If I want tech news, I know where to go. If I want to give my father (a doctor) tech news, I give him a copy of the quarterly. The only serious critique of it I have is that the scope is too limited, so it can’t cover nearly enough big-picture trends. But the coverage of the trends it does cover is of fairly high quality, and certainly I haven’t seen anything better for my father or other smart-but-no-tech-background professionals anywhere- if you have, let me know.

34

Maynard Handley 03.24.06 at 1:43 am

Yes well, as the saying goes, no-one ever went broke over-estimating the stupidity of the public.

35

Jon H 03.24.06 at 1:44 am

luis writes: “If I want tech news, I know where to go. “

It’s not a matter of technical content, it’s a matter of accurately estimating the significance and real-world impact of various technologies. That doesn’t require technical content, it requires that the writers and editors be able to accurately and skeptically evaluate things, and express those evaluations, without jargon, to the reader, rather than taking tech firms’ PR as gospel and passing that on uncritically.

36

Luis Villa 03.24.06 at 1:50 am

No print publication is any good at predicting tech trends. (Again, would be happy to be corrected here.) The Economist is not substantially better or worse at it than others.

37

zdenek 03.24.06 at 4:41 am

henry- the criticism is not that you or say Chris B hold explicitly postmodernist views but rather that you give pass to them. So you indirectly promote them when your responces to commenters who are moral or epistemological relativists dont register where you stand. One of the commonest views thrown around CT is that there is no difference between western democracies and totalitarian regimes ; that Iran or nazi Germany occupies same moral space as US and so on . What is your reaction to such views ? You approve of them because you never criticise them .

What has this to do with PM ? One of the core doctrines of PM is perspectivism and moral relativism ( see Chris Bertrams post on cartoon dispute which defends moral relativism )and this is what underwrites most debates on CT ( see for instance the recent discusion of conspiracy thinking on the left ). Again tacit approval because only lazy discussion of what is wrong with conspiracy theories .

So what ? Well at minimum you have a problem with consistency : if you are concerned with maintaining intellectual standards why give pass to bullshit in your daily dealings with it ? But more important is the worry others have voiced : if you adopt Rortyan attitute to truth and see it as a type of supperstition how can you carry out the traditional left program viz. redusing inequality and reducing exploitation ? After all effort like that presuposes that we can distinguish right and wrong , no ?

38

John Quiggin 03.24.06 at 6:50 am

A hint, zdenek. Saying “A’s behaviour is no better than B’s”, where B is admittedly bad, isn’t relativism, it’s a condemnation of A.

As for postmodernism, next thing you’ll be saying we’re soft on Republicans, or on trolls.

39

zdenek 03.24.06 at 7:13 am

john — agreed but that is not the type of comparisons I have in mind . I am talking about sayng that there is no moral difference between a liberal democracy like US and Nazi Germany. The claim is not ” on some dimention there is no difference ” but rather they are morally indistinguishable .This can be characterised as the official CT position because when it is expressed on daily bases here it receives a tacit approval.

40

Cian 03.24.06 at 7:17 am

The problem with the Economist tech section is that their criteria for inclusion seems to be made by people who aren’t competent to evaluate the true importance/relevance of the things that they are covering. Selection criteria seems to be defined by how much something has been hyped. I guess this makes them no worse than Wired, but then Wired isn’t a serious publication.

41

des von bladet 03.24.06 at 8:30 am

Selection criteria seems to be defined by how much something has been hyped.

That’s the right criterion for their audience for much of the time. They will — quite reasonably — want to be briefed on the stuff everyone’s talking about.

42

eliza dashwood 03.24.06 at 10:02 am

“Ms. Dashwood, it might not have occurred to you, but 95% of all non-purchase decisions are based on the preconceived notion that the product will probably not be worth the expense. (The other 5% are forgone repeat purchases which are based on the first-hand knowledge that the product sucked.)
If the Economist is worried about losing Henry it can always extend an offer for a number of free issues post editor change. This is the way things are handled in a free market economy.”

No, OGMB, it didn’t occur to me because I don’t have the slightest idea where on earth you got those numbers from and what they represent. First of all, what is a “non-purchase” decision? I have money and I want to spend it, but I won’t buy that because I don’t think it’s worth it? Or is it, I’d really like that but I’m a bit short of money so I don’t think it’s worth it under these circumstances? The numbers you cite are 100% meaningless without the context (assuming there is any).

I don’t recall mentioning anything about the Economist being worried about losing Henry as a subscriber. There would have to be a whole lot of canceling Henrys before that happened. And if such a scenario does indeed emerge, I’m sure the Economist will take note of the free market preferences of its readers.

43

Uncle Kvetch 03.24.06 at 12:58 pm

I am talking about sayng that there is no moral difference between a liberal democracy like US and Nazi Germany. The claim is not ” on some dimention there is no difference ” but rather they are morally indistinguishable .This can be characterised as the official CT position because when it is expressed on daily bases here it receives a tacit approval.

I want a cite of this. No, actually, I want several cites, let’s say at least three, from consecutive days (since it’s said on a “daily basis”), of someone saying “the US and Nazi Germany are morally indistinguishable in every way,” and being totally ignored. Put up or shut up, Zdenek.

And we’ll just set to one side the patently ridiculous notion that when bloggers don’t explicitly smack down offensive views in their comment section, they are expressing their “tacit approval” of those views. That one’s too silly to even bother rebutting.

And as long as I’m here: What in God’s name do you get out of reading this blog, given that you’re convinced that it’s populated entirely by moral midgets? Do you enjoy being enraged on a daily basis? Or do you just enjoy being smug? I’ve got a hunch which it is, but I’ll let you enlighten us.

44

John Faughnan 03.24.06 at 11:06 pm

I want to know who wrote #20 above. I came to precisely the same conclusion in my blop posting. The years from 1986 to 1996 were superb. They started ailing around 1996 and fell off a cliff @2001. The humor, the self-deprecation, the perspective — it died. All too often they echo the OpEd pages of the WSJ. True, they ended up endorsing Kerry over Bush — but by then anything else would have been preposterous.

What did them in? What led to Lexington 2005? I’d guess it was the strategic decision to dumb down for the US market and cozy up to the WSJ. It made them tons of money but cost their soul.

I’ve substitute The Atlantic and Scientific American and maybe Newsweek. It’s the end of a 20 year subscription, I won’t renew after my last issue in September.

Comments on this entry are closed.