Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why I Do Not Trust The Economist

Today Crooked Timber points to various reasons not to trust The Economist. CT's been down this road before; see this 2006 post, which highlights an instance of The Economist's astonishing cluelessness about American politics:

This piece on the demise of Mark Warner’s and George Felix Allen’s respective president hopes is a case in point. Most of the article is pretty unexceptionable. The peculiar bit is this summation of the current state of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But whatever the reason, [Warner’s] retreat has created a vacuum. He had positioned himself as the centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination and the darling of the party’s liberal activists. Southerners, Westerners and moderates are now shopping for a new candidate, perhaps Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico or Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana or former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the vice-presidential nominee in 2004.

So Hillary Clinton is apparently the "darling of the party’s liberal activists." ... [deletia] ... Equally bizarre is the suggestion that centrists might want to gravitate towards John Edwards. This could just be the result of sloppy thinking that telescopes “Southerners, Westerners and moderates” into a unified category, but to the extent that Edwards might appeal to Southerners and Westerners, it’s not because he’s a moderate. It’s because he’s running the most economically populist campaign that a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination has run in recent history. These claims don’t seem biased to me so much as clueless.

Now, if this magazine, whose primary readership is the educated upper middle class in the US and UK, cannot understand basic facts about politics in the US — an English-speaking nation with an open, internationally distributed press, and where 47% of its readers live (cite) — how can you believe anything they say about, say, Kyrgyzstan or Qatar or China?

Brad DeLong rounds up some reactions to the above CT post. A few months earlier, of course, he had called new Economist editor John Micklethwait possibly the stupidest magazine editor alive.

Then there's this James Fallows piece in The Atlantic from 1991.

So basically The Economist is unreliable. It is frequently both biased and clueless, and if you read it, then it is very hard to tell when they are being one or the other or neither or both. (Note that merely biased, but not clueless, would be far better, because then you might be able to mentally correct for that bias.)

When a publication reaches a certain threshold of unreliability, reading it becomes less like improving your image of the world than like adding white noise to the image. Individual points may be perturbed closer to reality, but overall you'll just end up with a fuzzier image. Has The Economist has passed that threshold? I honestly don't know enough to say for certain, but given how annoying I find its tone and its politics, I'm not terribly motivated to give them the benefit of the doubt.


  1. I think you might be projecting a little bit. It's obvious now that HIllary Clinton is the centrist candidate and Obama/Edwards are the more liberal candidates. But I don't think that was necessarily obvious in October 2006. Obama hadn't yet entered the race, and while Edwards had adopted generally populist themes in 2004, his 2004 stumps speeches had been so vague that he could easily have tacked to the right for 2008 if he had thought that's the direction the political winds were blowing.

    Keep in mind, for example, that HIllary Clinton and John Edwards had virtually identical positions on the Iraq war circa 2005. Only after the 2006 elections made it clear that the Democratic base was pissed off about the war did the candidate begin tacking more seriously in the anti-war direction. Edwards tacked further left, apologizing for his war vote and attacking Hillary for being too hawkish. But IIRC, that all happened after October 2006. Based on the information it had available to it, I don't think there was anything obviously wrong about the Economist's take.

    Remember that in the 2000 primary, George W. Bush started out as the centrist alternative to Steve Forbes, only to find himself outflanked from the center by John McCain. Candidates re-fashion themselves in the opening months of a campaign all the time, and while the Economist's analysis here isn't the most astute thing you were likely to read in 2006, it's wasn't obviously wrong, either.

  2. Perhaps I should not have excised this from the original Crooked Timber quote, which provides more hard data:

    Now, we don’t have any really decisive evidence on this – the only surveys that I know of which try to figure out what “liberal activists” want are the Pew survey (which focuses on Howard Dean supporters) and the Blogpac survey, which draws from a sample of MoveOn email list subscribers. Neither is definitive – but Pew finds that Clinton polls number 4 or number 3 among former Dean activists depending on which question you look at, while the Blogpac survey finds her to be joint fifth with Joe Biden, and to have higher unfavourable ratings than any other listed candidate. Given that Clinton has specifically tried to position herself as the centrist alternative over the last couple of years, this is about what one would expect.

    Clinton has not been the "darling of the party's liberal activists" since... well, ever, as far as I know.

  3. That's a good point. Now that I've had a chance to look at some old news stories, it also appears that John Edwards's apology on the Iraq war occurred before Octboer 2006. So the shape of the Clinton/Edwards contrast probably should have been obvious to the Economist by then.