Spanking the Economist

My apologies to Claus Vistesen over at Alpha.Sources. I think I lead him to believe that I was going to write a post focusing on a recent article on demographics in last week’s Economist. And that was what I sat down to write. But when I started writing a long standing grudge against The Economist started coming out. This forced me to cut out a lot of stuff I was going to bring out about The Economist article. When you are over 6 pages you have got to cut your losses.

I have been a subscriber to the British magazine The Economist ever since I got my driver’s license. I can date it that precisely because subscribing to The Economist is one of the first things that I did when I got my first real job. I was not paid much, so the subscription price took up a sizable percentage of my yearly income at the time.

Thankfully, it does not take up the same percentage of my yearly income today. But I am still a subscriber. I have never let my subscription lapse.

With a tale like that, you might think that I am big fan of The Economist. But the truth is that I have a love/hate relationship with The Economist. I love The Economist because of its international coverage. I am not aware of any weekly periodical that even comes close to The Economist as far as international coverage is concerned. I don’t even think that there is a combination of other periodicals that could replace The Economist‘s international coverage.

But The Economist has also taught me why democracy is the least bad of all the bad ways to govern men and they remind me of it every week. That is where the hate comes in.

Now I suppose you all are wondering (a) why I need to be taught that democracy is the least bad way to govern men and (b) why being taught such a thing would leave me with negative feelings for The Economist.

To understand the answer to question (a) you need to understand that I work and live in totally different environment than the majority of my readers. Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.

Since this is going to be a rant about The Economist and not about my fellow workers, I don’t want to put too much effort into enlightening you all. Let me just say that prolonged exposure to people who are only semi-literate and whose primary goal in life is to drink more beer can cause one to question the wisdom of universal suffrage.

It not so much the fact that my fellow blue collar workers are ignorant that bothers me. Being finite creatures, all of us humans are basically ignorant. But when people form definite and strong opinions on subjects they know nothing about, and when they don’t care to learn anything about the subjects they are pontificating about, it bothers me. Even worse is when they should know something but don’t.

For example, you would think that someone who has voted their whole life long in every type of election from school board to national would understand the difference between a primary and a election, right? How could someone possibly spend a lifetime going to elections and not know the difference? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I have met such a person.

In fact, I received quite a lecture from such a person. He happened to mention that he was going to vote and how he could not decide if he should vote for this Democrat or that Republican. I made what I thought was an innocent observation that he did not have to deal with all that complexity quite yet as it was only primary season and he could only choose among those candidates that belonged to the same party as he did.

That set him off. I received a detailed lecture on how you could vote for whoever you wanted to in America and no matter what I said I could not convince him otherwise. Seeing as I was only a teenager at the time and he was a man of much electoral experience I thought that perhaps I was mistaken and my state had moved on to an open primary system without me knowing it. But it soon became apparent that this gentleman (who also happened to be my boss at the time) did not understand the difference between an election to a public office and a primary.

After he went to the primary he was forced to admit that I was right. But if I were to go and ask him today what the difference was between a primary and an election I doubt he would be able to tell me. He has probably already forgotten about going to the primary and discovering that they do not work like an election to public office.

Experience has taught me that most of my fellow blue collar workers are not ignorant because they lack opportunities to learn. Rather they are ignorant because they never learn anything from their life’s experiences. My old boss is sadly typical of your average blue collar worker.

I could go on and on with various examples, but I think I have wasted enough time explaining the answer to question (a). Presumably you have at least a glimmer of understanding of why I might sometimes have my doubts about the wisdom of universal suffrage.

But as I said, The Economist never fails to reassure me that universal suffrage is the least bad way to govern men. Unfortunately, the reassurance does not come from The Economist‘s frequent arguments in favor of democracy. Rather, the reassurance comes from the fact that The Economist has repeatedly demonstrated that the highly educated elites of the world are no better than the ignorant hillbillies of the world when it comes to formulating opinions.

Sure, the people who write The Economist are far more educated and intelligent than most of the people that I work with. But for all that they know and for all that they have higher intellectual capabilities, The Economist comes by its opinions the same way any hillbilly does. They go by their emotions and what they want to be true. Any fact that contradicts what they want to be true, they ignore.

A famous example of this was The Economist article “Arms and the Man.” This article was based on research supposedly done by Michael Bellesiles that later became a book called Arming America. Now The Economist was really enamored with this research. They even made this article their cover story for that week’s issue. The only problem was that just about everything in the article was false and The Economist should have known it.

The reason that I say that The Economist should have know that most of Michael Bellesiles work was false has to do with this one little passage in the “Arms and the Man” article….

So, contrary to popular belief and legend, and contrary even to the declarations of the founding fathers, gun ownership was rare in the first half of America’s history as an independent country. It was especially low in parts of the countryside and on the frontier, the very areas where guns are imagined to have been most important. By no stretch of the imagination was America founded on the private ownership of weapons.

You have to be arrogant to write something like contrary even to the declarations of the founding fathers, gun ownership was rare in the first half of America’s history. I mean, founding fathers were alive at the time and the writers of The Economist were not. It is pretty cheeky to think that the founding fathers did not know how widespread gun ownership was in their time and that we in this day are only now discovering the truth.

But even if you are so arrogant as to ignore the words of the founding fathers, one has to wonder how The Economist thought that the Americans managed to exterminate the Native Americans if guns were really so rare on the frontier. Surely The Economist did not think that North American continent was really “empty” and the American settlers could just peaceably go where ever they wanted to. Surely the writers for The Economist know enough early American history to know that it was just one long series of small wars with Native American tribes. Surely The Economist knew that most of those small wars were fought by militia’s made up of all the able-bodied men on the frontier. Kind of hard to square all those facts with the idea that most people on the American frontier were peaceable folk who did not own a weapon, is it not?

I don’t really need to belabor this point. Everyone knows by now Michael Bellesiles faked most of his data. He even had to give up his job as professor of History at Emory University after they conducted an investigation into his research practices. Even The Economist had to concede that almost everything in their article was false.

But the fact that so many educated people fell for his made-up story shows how little value education has on improving people’s discernment. If you can say “America has committed genocide against Native Americans” out of one side of your mouth and “American people on the frontier were peaceful folk who did not even have a weapon” out of the other side of your mouth, you have no business pretending that the facts have anything to do with your opinions. And if the facts have nothing to do with how you form your opinions why not be ignorant? Of what advantage is it to be well read and educated?

It would be nice if “Arms and the Man” was a one off. Unfortunately, The Economist continually demonstrates the same disregard for the facts and for consistent reasoning that they showed in “Arms and the Man.” To be sure, the reliance on fake data that characterized the “Arms and the Man” story is presumably a rare occurrence (otherwise I would not read it at all). Most often The Economist simply chooses to ignore the inconvenient facts and march happily down the road of irrationality.

An excellent example of how they do this can be found in last week’s article entitled “Suddenly, the old world looks younger.” There is no false data in this article that I am aware of, but the data that is there is irrationally used. Moreover, the data that is not there constitutes a lie by omission.

To understand why I would make such strong claims let us consider the stated purposes of this article. In the beginning of the article the author writes…..

This article will argue that pessimism is no longer justified. It would be too much to say Europe’s population is bouncing back. But its long-term decline is starting to bottom out, and is even rising in a few places.

This is the standard by which we will judge the article. I would note a couple of things. The first is that The Economist seems to be conceding that pessimism was once justified yet it never says why the pessimism was once justified. That makes it hard to pin them down on what has changed to make the pessimism unjustified now. The second is that the bottoming out that The Economist is talking about is fertility rates (the number of children that each woman has on average). This is important to note because if fertility rates bottom out below replacement rate and stay there, it is hard to see how that is an argument for optimism.

I bring out those nitpicks just to point out that The Economist‘s argument does not make much sense even in its formulation of intent. About the only concrete thing you can get out of it is that you should be optimistic, not pessimistic. But this is just sloppy writing. The real crimes come later in the article.

The most fundamental error in The Economist‘s article can found in this passage….

But countries are not doomed to fall into this trap. Over the past few years, almost a dozen places have not only avoided it, but begun to reverse their decline. France is leading the way.

Now maybe it is just because I am ignorant hillbilly, but I always thought that you should be careful not to give too much weight to every little up and down tick in a data series. I have always been taught that what matters is the trend line that runs through the data series. If you look at Europe’s demographic data over the last 30+ years you will see up ticks and down ticks. But the overall trend line is resolutely down. Why should we take data from the last few years as overturning this 30+ year trend?

Imagine, if you will, that Europe goes through a few years of economic recession. Let us say that birth rates drop really low due to rough economic times. Let us say that a doom and gloomer like Mark Steyn (a target of The Economist‘s article) extrapolates the trend of those few years of hardship into the future and argues that they are doomed sooner than anyone thought. Don’t you think that under this scenario The Economist would be at the forefront of those arguing that you should not project a trend on the basis of only few years’ data?

The Economist should know better than to treat data this way. If you are going to say that the last few data points in a series mark the change of a trend you had better make a darned good argument as to why this so. But in “Suddenly, the old world looks younger” The Economist does not even try to make the case for why this represents a changing trend. They just say the equivalent of “look, good news, we can all relax now”.

But since economic growth has been good in Europe recently (at least in those countries that have seen their demographics rise) I think we can reasonably wonder what will happen if the business cycle turns downward. Given that economic hardship and birth rates are linked, I think that it is reasonable to think that the birth rates will go down again. So unless we assume that the business cycle will always stay high in Europe, I think we ought to look at the current up tick in birth rates as being temporary. The true trend will reveal itself over a complete business cycle.

Even if you want to accept The Economist‘s assertion that the uptick of the last few years represents a fundamental change in trend, you still have to admit that The Economist is playing fast and loose with the data. This is because the uptick is only happening in 12 countries that do not represent the majority of Europe population. Even if you go beyond those 12 countries and include all the countries in Europe with a halfway healthy birth rate, you still do not have a majority of Europe’s population. The Economist does its best to obscure that fact. It says…

If you take account of late childbearing, you find that 16 European countries, with a total population of 234m, now have fertility rates of 1.8 or more. Half are above 2.0. Despite near-panic about “inevitably” declining population, then, some European countries are growing quite strongly. They are rare examples of bucking the trend that, as countries get richer, their birth rates fall.

16 countries and 234 million sounds like a lot don’t it? But how big is the total European population? Well, if you go by Wikipedia the total figure is 728 million. If you go by The Council of Europe the figure is 815 million. That kind of puts the percentage of Europe population that is just below replacement rate into perspective doesn’t it?

I don’t know what figures The Economist would use for Europe as whole because The Economist is careful never to look at Europe as whole. This is kind of odd for an article that said in its statement of intent “And just as everyone whinges about the weather, but does nothing about it, so everyone in Europe complains, but does nothing, about population. This article will argue that pessimism is no longer justified.”

If you are going to argue that pessimism for Europe as a whole is no longer justified, you ought to look at the population of Europe as whole don’t you think? But if The Economist looked at Europe as a whole they would have to show that close to two thirds of Europe’s population was way below replacement rate. For the matter, most of population in the one third that is doing “well” is slightly below replacement rate. That fact would damage their case against pessimism, now wouldn’t it?

All I am trying to demonstrate is that The Economist is so desperate to present the demographic situation of Europe in a positive light that they sacrifice the internal coherency of their article. We are told that there is no reason for pessimism in regards to Europe’s future as a whole and yet the article asks us to only focus on that small minority of countries that have experienced good demographical news in the last couple of years. How is this honest?

Why does this matter? Who cares if the reasoning behind your average Economist opinion piece is no better than the reasoning of your average ignorant hillbilly? There are two reasons.

The first reason is purely selfish on my part. A subscription to The Economist is not cheap, especially if you are a laborer by trade. I would rather not spend all that money to be bombarded with the type of drivel that I can hear everyday at work. As I said before, I put up with it because of their international coverage. But gee whiz; can’t they raise their game a little?

But there is a more important reason for being concerned/disgusted with the poor reasoning that seems to be epidemic at The Economist.

If you take a look around the world you will see a growing backlash against the ideas that The Economist has traditionally stood for. Democracy is getting a bad name in Latin America and the Middle East. Trade and immigration are everywhere under attack. Nationalism is everywhere resurgent. Riding these waves of discontent are increasingly vocal demagogues who just love to whip up the fears and concerns of the crowds.

If you were so inclined you could say that The Economist is broadly right and that the demagogues are broadly wrong. Certainly that would be true for me. But I happen to believe that when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the means are as important as the ends. There in lies the really serious problem that I have with The Economist.

I cannot honestly point to The Economist and say that it is more reasonable than the rising crowd of demagogues. I cannot say that The Economist is fairer minded than the rising crowd of demagogues. Because I cannot say those things, I have to think that The Economist does more harm to its ideals than your average demagogue.

When it comes right down to it, if the elites cannot argue any better than demagogues, why shouldn’t the hillbillies believe whatever they want to believe?

13 Responses to “Spanking the Economist”

  1. […] For this Week’s essay of the week we bring you a post by the Ape Man. Frankly, it is more of a rant then an essay, but it is late at night and we are desperate to meet the deadline. Besides, it is long enough to be an essay even if the quality of the idea is not up to snuff. […]

  2. jrod says:

    good post. I’ve been a longtime subscriber as well, and lately I’ve noticed an increasing lack of fair-minded writing. You nailed the problem with that demographic article. I felt there was something a little “off” about it, but I wasn’t bothered enough to figure it out.
    I posted a similar rant last Summer about a World Cup article that appeared in the Lexington Column.

  3. Ape Man says:

    Glad you liked the post. If the night had not gotten so late on me I could have made the rant longer. Even some of those articles in the Economist that are reasonably coherent taken on their own are absurd in the broader context of the Economist.

    Take their recent take on Israel’s 1967 war for example. How the Economist managed to condemn Israel for launching a preemptive strike on their Arab neighbors on the very same pages that they used to support the invasion of Iraq with out blushing is beyond me.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that reasonable people can support the current Iraq war and I believe that reasonable people can oppose the current Iraq war. I guess I am also prepared to grant that reasonable people could believe that it was unwise for Israel to have preemptively attacked in 1967 (myself, I don’t know how any government on the face of the Earth could have done anything different and have expected to survive, but that is just me).

    But how can you support the Iraq war and condemn Israel’s decision in 1967? I mean Israel had an army massed at its borders, its shipping was cut of in violation of previous agreement, and America would not give Israel a security guarantee even though they promised that if given one they would sit tight. Oh, and all the countries that Israel attacked were in legal state of war with Israel (which does not matter to me, but The Economist normally worries about legalities).

    How is that less of a reason for a preemptive strike then the failure of Iraq to fully comply with a UN resolution and the suspicion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? Even if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, how would that have made the decision to invade Iraq anymore right then Israel’s preemptive strike?

    To be sure, Israel could not be sure that Nasser’s army would actually attack. But if Iraq had really had weapons of mass destruction, we could never have been sure that they would be used against American interests. In either case, who would have wanted to sit around and find out?

    The double standard is just galling.

    Don’t get me wrong though. I am willing to entertain the arguments of those who want to argue that Israel made a mistake. It is just that the Economist does not seem to be applying a consistent moral standard to both cases.

    And I could go on and on with similar examples. But I guess I should just let it go.

  4. Edward Hugh says:

    “Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.”

    Well, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. One of the US writers I am familiar with from the second half of the 20th century is Charles Bukowski, and one of the reasons I enjoyed reading him so much (the others would be purely literary) was that he seemed to talk about the kind of people I personally kept bumping into.

    A gentler and earlier version of the same would be John Fante.

    On the Economist I sympathise with your frustrations entirely. Much of their apparently informative economic analysis suffers from these kinds of defects.

    I also have been reading the Economist since I left high school, although I never had a subscription it was for many years the first thing I read on entering a library. Nowadays, thankfully, there is the internet.

    On why I didn’t give them a rant, and on reflection, perhaps it was because I have given up on trying to “convert and convince” them, and would rather simply use the attention that one of their articles attracts to a topic to try and get people to think a *bit* more critically about the matter in hand.

    I say a bit, since these days I try to be more realistic about what you can and can’t do at any moment in time.

  5. I am coming in a bit late here Ape Man, sorry for that …

    No need to apologies at all, I enjoyed your little rant.

    Between the two of you I think you and Edward pretty much covers my opinion on the Economist piece on European Fertility. What I am most dissapointed about is as also noted by both yourself and Edward the implied complacency within the narrative. I want to say at this point that this is a fine balance since all this talk about the US v Europe and how Europe is destined to falter is equally as unsatisfying I think since it really does not help at all. In this way I think the comparison with Al Gore’s climate discourse is striking since if you buy into these doomsday projections, what do we need (social) scientists for? I mean, in that case it is already game over.

    This is the funny thing about demographics since it kind of comes in ‘in between’. As such, while I clearly do not see the demise of the European continent in any given sense of the word we ARE going to have tremendous challenges and these challenges will first and foremost be contained within specific countries and regions. However, and since ageing through the demographic transition is a universal tendendy the global shift in demographic developments WILL have serious global repercussions. In this light I DO think that the Economist piece is too complacent since their underlying assumption about a ‘non-correlation’ between economic growth and demographics is so clearly wrong.

  6. […] After the spanking that I gave The Economist awhile ago, I thought that I ought to point out why I still read The Economist by pointing out some of this week’s noteworthy articles. […]

  7. Guy says:

    “Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.”

    There are more than you think 🙂 I come from a blue collar background myself. But you raise a very, very important issue in this excellent rant:

    “The Economist comes by its opinions the same way any hillbilly does. They go by their emotions and what they want to be true. Any fact that contradicts what they want to be true, they ignore.”

    I am afraid this is going to be one of my hobby horses in the coming time: the role of psychology in society. It ties in neatly with demography and with something that has frustrated me personally in news coverage/analysis: too little focus on what people actually think and feel and how this can influence, or not, events.

    In Belgium a recent survey revealed that bloggers, of all people, had been more correct in predicting the outcome of the recent June elections in Belgium than established pollsters. The survey measured “talk”, the number of times certain politicians were talked about on weblogs. For me weblogs in general represent more or less the vox populi, the voice of the people even though bloggers tend to be more educated or curious than the average population. It would be great if more blue collar people got into the business of blogging and/or commenting on blogs. That way we would get a more accurate picture of what voters think and how they think. After all, they represent the largest potential voting block in any given country.

    Secondly, the importance of emotions. I too come across people who vote or pontificate rather on the basis of their emotions than on actual facts. And I myself fall into the same trap sometimes, I am a human being after all, but at least I am aware of it. And I too was shocked, years ago, to find out that people who should know better do exactly the same thing. Sometimes even for a living. Media trends seem to reflect this. What is all this crap, for instance, about “breaking” news followed immediately by analysis? How can you judge the importance of an event at the very moment it takes place? Very often it is hindsight, and only hindsight, that makes the picture clear because single events are more often than not the consequences of very subtle and very complex trends (like demography).

    But breaking news attracts readers/viewers and is commercially interesting. The media cater to consumers and are in a way defined by them. Who are these consumers for mass media (those with the most impact)? Right, common people. Do many pundits or even politicians know what really goes on among the common people? Rarely. Or their knowledge is fragmented or based on distant memories or geared towards populism/manipulation and whatever.

    Has anyone questioned, since you mention the name, the psychology behind a guy like Mark Steyn? It would go a long way in understanding his motives and way of thinking. And it might explain his appeal to many.

    In short, we should have a multi-disciplinary approach to the coverage and analysis of events. And we should always remain humble considering the complexity of it all. Human beings and their interactions are complex, it is almost impossible to create stable models for them that predict everything, or even anything. And I am not even mentioning the element of “chance”.

    People and societies move all the time to the rhythm of their daily experiences, perceived or real, and their emotions/needs/desires. I could go on and on about this, even when I realize that the complexity of it all is almost overwhelming, but we should definitely put humans back into the equation, be it through demographics and/or psychology and/or sociology. No matter how tricky interpretations in that area are.

  8. Guy says:

    Darn it, I am going to post my reaction to AFOE and see if we can bring more people into this discussion. You are unto something here, Ape Man.

  9. […] Below you’ll find a reaction I posted to an excellent rant by Ape Man on what he believes are some shortcomings in the news coverage of The Economist. His rant ties into what Edward posted below in his post Bad Journalism at The Economist and raises some, in my opinion, hugely important issues. Please go and read what he and Edward have written. I reproduce my own comment here, slightly altered, because… well, I am simply excited about this and, like Nokia, blogs are also about connecting people and ideas. […]

  10. […] In a recent Afoe post on European Fertility (which was really an extended review of an article in the Economist) I took some considerable stick in comments for being too soft on the journalists over at the Economist who were behind the article (mainly because a large chunk of the “good news” they claimed to have found was, when all is said and done, spin, as Ape Man ably explains in this most moderate of rants from a lifelong Economist subscriber). […]

  11. […] The latest round of incoming foreign traffic comes by way of a blog called A Fistful of Euros. It was started by a passing mention of my rant against the Economist in this piece here by Edward Hugh. But apparently my rant inspired another contributor to A Fistful of Euros by the name of Guy La Roche to write his own post on the subject called Vox populi versus “erudition.” […]

  12. […] In a comment left on my rant against the Economist and in a post on Fistful of Euros, Guy La Roche asks…. Has anyone questioned, since Ape Man mentioned the name, the psychology behind a guy like Mark Steyn? It would go a long way in understanding his motives and way of thinking. And it might explain his appeal to many. […]

  13. […] Now I think I have compensated for Mr. Hugh’s over-niceness in my last post. But I never really dealt with any issue in The Economist’s article that Mr. Hugh had not already tackled in his own overly nice way. As time permits this week, I would like to raise the various issues in The Economist’s article on demographics that Mr. Hugh did not address in his post. I am not doing this to continue to pile it onto The Economist (I like a good rant, but you can have too much of a good thing), but because I think there are some important points that often get overlooked and The Economist’s article is a good springboard for talking about them. […]

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