The Long Decline of The London Economist

Once, long ago, at the very close of the 1970s, I discovered a most remarkable periodical.

Published on newsprint so thin as to almost be translucent, mailed out twice each fortnight tightly folded in a plain brown wrapper, it called itself a “newspaper” rather than a magazine, carried no bylines for its articles or masthead for its issues, and in its style sometimes almost seemed a strange intellectual residue of pre-war Old Europe, often ignoring the many shibboleths and taboos which so infested respectable American journalism. Its great intelligence and its plainspokenness were enormously refreshing, and with a minuscule circulation of around 50,000, few of them Americans, I felt that I had discovered a wondrous secret source of true world knowledge. Such was the old London Economist under Norman Macrae, its longtime Deputy Editor and shaping influence.

For almost twenty years I eagerly read each issue almost cover-to-cover, and was well-rewarded for my invested time. Moreover, in the blue-tinted pages of its companion Economist Intelligence Report newsletter, I read of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as rising Soviet figures, years before they ever received any mention in America’s elite media. When The Economist ran its 1985 cover highlighting the doubling of Chinese agricultural production in just seven years, I showed it round to all my friends as proof that I’d been correct during all those years I’d been predicting China’s rapid rise, and they readily conceded the point: the Oracle of London had spoken.

To some very small extent, perhaps I may even have repaid some of the benefits I received. In 1986, their editors published an especially long letter of mine, urging them to establish a regular Asia Section because of the enormously growing importance of that part of the world, and the following year they did exactly that, an important step on their path to becoming a truly global newsweekly, though there is no evidence that my suggestion played any significant role.


Alas, the very quality and uniqueness of the magazine proved its undoing. As years went by, more and more well-educated Americans discovered a periodical revealing ideas and facts largely ignored by our own elite newspapers, let alone Time and Newsweek aimed at ten million or more weekly readers. Whereas as late as the early 1990s, its advertising would still brag that it was *not* read by millions, by 2000 the million circulation mark had been reached, together with the enormous profitability provided by a decidedly upscale and elite readership.

But all these new subscribers were mostly affluent Americans, whose sensibilities and perspectives were quite different from that of the few tens of thousands of British who’d previously constituted the core readership. To these newcomers—and even more importantly to the wealthy advertisers they attracted—reality was bounded by The New York Times on the left and The Wall Street Journal on the right, and anything which pushed too far outside that envelope of respectable opinion was discordant, perhaps even disturbing. So as time went on, more and more of the sharp intellectual features which had once given the magazine such verve and originality were gradually sanded off, not completely, but to a considerable extent. The London Economist became just the plain Economist, rarely willing to violate the boundaries or taboos of the reigning DC/NYC neoconservative/neoliberal American Establishment, merely a smarter, better written, much deeper version of Time or Businessweek.

This sad intellectual decline became obvious to me over the last decade, as America’s post-9/11 policies, both foreign and domestic, swerved into almost total madness, yet continued to receive a mixture of support plus some occasional tut-tutting from a magazine which I had once so greatly respected. Perhaps the top editors recollected the case of their esteemed predecessor Francis Hirst, who had publicly broached the possibility of a negotiated peace to end the useless slaughter of WWI, and been summarily dismissed as editor in 1916 for his obvious lack of patriotism.

And the endless, unimaginable disasters which America suffered due to these absurd policies seem not to have left many editorial marks. A cursory examination of recent covers reveals such stories as: the Iranian nuclear weapons threat; the importance of “freeing Syria”; the looming collapse of Putin’s regime; the over-regulation of the American economy; and the horrific problems faced by America’s rich. Just change a few words here and there and those same covers could have been run five or ten years ago. The Economist has now simply ranks among the most elite media organs of America’s One Party State.


The factor which prompted me to provide this depressing description was a major article in the current issue entitled “China’s Achilles heel,” which several people brought to my attention as a seeming refutation of my own China/America analysis. The claim is that China’s projected demography constitutes a “deadly point of unseen weakness,” in sharp contrast to America’s quite healthy future situation. But while such “happy news” may lighten the hearts of DC pundits and the appartchiks they inform, the analysis advanced doesn’t strike me as very persuasive.

For example, the argument is made that China “will grow old before it grows rich,” and will have a median age considerably higher than America’s in 2050, 40 years hence. That may be true, but if we roll forward the economic growth rates of the last few decades, the average Chinese will have become roughly as wealthy as the average American in just another 20 years, long before that point. Extrapolate those economic trends 20 years beyond that, and Chinese will be enormously wealthier than Americans in 2050.

Obviously such economic trends might not continue, and in fact they almost certainly will not. But the changes might easily be to America’s detriment rather than China’s. It seems quite likely that the dollar’s day as the international reserve currency is rapidly drawing to a close, and once that status is lost, the greenback might easily collapse in value, and take with it the American standard of living. I very much doubt that Chinese will be wealthier than Americans by the end of this current decade, but such a result is not totally impossible.

The Economist seems to regard America’s ongoing “population Ponzi scheme” as a great ace-in-the-hole with regard to our economic growth and social requirements. But while it’s true that Bernie Madoff did very well financially for similar reasons, things didn’t work out for him in the end. Is it really a good thing that the American population is growing more rapidly than that of Mexico or Algeria, or that (as The Economist puts it) “no one knows when America will reach its population peak”?

Meanwhile, The Economist argues that China may find it almost impossible to eventually raise fertility rates back to a stable 2.1 target after decades of much lower numbers, and a vicious spiral of permanently shrinking numbers caused by “ultra-low fertility” may result. But does this make any sense? After all, if the Chinese government eliminated its restrictive one child policy, births would presumably increase. If the centralized Communist government began a mass propaganda campaign about the glories of two or three or four children, births would presumably increase even more. And if worst came to worst, the Chinese government could easily afford to pay a bonus of $5,000 or more for every second or third child, which would surely boost the birth rate enormously for low total cost. I find it difficult to believe that a determined national government commanding vast financial resources could not speedily revive a five thousand year tradition of large families if it somehow felt the need to do so. Perhaps the writer was confusing China with America, whose dysfunctional government can never seem to get anything done.

To the extent that this particular piece is representative, I fear that Economist clear-headedness has been replaced by the sort of wishful thinking that still dominates our DC/NYC ruling elites. Since these very elites presumably constitute the extended social circle of many Economist writers and editors, this is perhaps not surprising.


If we seek a contrasting case to these ideological and establishmentarian trends which have so afflicted The Economist over the last dozen years, an absolutely polar-opposite example comes to mind, in the person of columnist Paul Craig Roberts. As one of the most prominent free-market economists of the 1980s and 1990s, Roberts had served as Associate Editor of The Wall Street Journal and Assistant Treasury Secretary in the Reagan Administration. Until a decade ago, I suspect that his views on a whole range of issues and those of the Economist editors would have been reasonably close.

But whereas the aftermath of 9/11 revealed how completely the once-independent Economist had become absorbed into the DC/NYC elite consensus, Roberts’ reaction was exactly in the opposite direction. Gradually becoming more and more outraged over the irrational and indeed criminal behavior of the Bush Administration and its sycophantic media enablers, Roberts soon became unwelcome within the same conservative establishment circles in which he had once held positions of the highest possible honor. Under the old Soviet Regime, individuals of strong convictions such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov had similarly fallen from the top-most ranks of the ruling literary and scientific elite into becoming total political unpersons, completely barred from any access to the mass media and with their opinions almost unknown to the general public.

Such might also have been Roberts’ own fate twenty or thirty years ago, but the Internet changed all that. As the endless wars and disasters of the 2000s followed each other in rapid sequence, usually to the uniform cheers of all our timorous pundits, liberal and conservative alike, there developed a vast opening for someone who would forthrightly declare that the emperor had no clothes rather than laboriously describing the various colors and textures. Within just a few years, Roberts had become among the most prominent of Internet columnists, with an enormous following cutting across almost all ideological lines, left, right, and libertarian. Based on website traffic and Google searches, I would suspect that Roberts enjoys far greater readership and public influence than that vast majority of the elite columnists who perch on the pages of the NYT or WSJ or WashPost, since these individuals mostly say almost nothing interesting, and do so in a mealy-mouthed style. Does any Russian today remember the names of Pravda’s top columnists of 1985?

A perfect example of Roberts’ style and his reach came in his very generous recent column entitled “Unplugging Americans From The Matrix.” discussing my own China/America article.  The metaphor of Americans trapped in the artificial reality generated by our totally dishonest mainstream media seems a very apt one, as is the frustration of those of us who unsuccessfully attempt to awaken them.

The resonance of Roberts’ words is enormous. Within just a few days of the column’s appearance, Google revealed that it had been reprinted or heavily excerpted on a thousand or more individual websites, been translated into several non-English translations, and accrued a total readership impossible to estimate, but obviously very large given the heavy traffic back to my own article. Today’s Economist might have a subscriber base of 1.5M, but it wouldn’t surprise me if far more individuals actually read a typical Roberts column than one by “Lexington.” And who knows which of these would have been the favored choice of Norman Macrae, if he had lived through the terrible events of the last decade and seen these almost totally ignored or excused by mainstream journalists, even including the close colleagues of his own once-beloved publication.

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