Author: Derrick Cui, Graphics: Nina Tagliabue
The BRB Bottomline
The Economist is an imperfect, classical-liberal publication that over-analyzes problems and occasionally makes grand predictions on limited information. Yet, it still remains my favorite publication by far.
A few months ago, I turned 18 years old. I barely knew who NSYNC were when they were popular, let alone who Mario Draghi was. I never experienced the stagflation of the 1970’s, never saw the towers fall on 9/11, and did not understand the 2008 financial crisis until after the fact. It is only from the last 4 years that I have started to read the news to better understand the world I live in.
A Place in TIME
I grew up in a middle class family from suburban Toronto, where our conversations at the dinner table ranged from mild complaints about the potholes on the road to the new pizza place opening on the corner. My little bubble was safe and so I assumed that the rest of the world was just like mine. One afternoon, as I brought in the mail, I looked at the pretty cover of TIME, a magazine my family continually received but never read, and decided to get past the first page.
I was shocked by what I found. Vivid depictions of wars raging, famines expanding, and nations failing in faraway places shattered my worldview and enticed me to read more. I was drawn into discussions about international and national topics through an American perspective, one that valued individuality, exceptionalism, and one whose tone was relentlessly optimistic for better or for worse. I fell in love with the emotional draw of the articles, especially the personal essays. I admired that TIME wrote stories with nuance and I found myself to be a weekly patron.
But during Trump’s years in office, TIME changed seemingly overnight. Suddenly, the newspaper turned from a global hub of competing ideas to one obsessed with the US administration. Every week’s cover seemed to be a graphic depiction of a failing president and country. The articles featured became less level-headed and catered more towards identity politics. Arguments became one-sided finger-pointing competitions and blame games. I found my devotion reeling and decided to look elsewhere.
A New York Point of View
As a result, my allegiance slowly shifted from TIME to the New Yorker, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. These publications were generally more quantitative and had a good mix of news about the economy, culture, and politics. Yet, these outlets had a different issue: they focused too much on problems without much thought about solutions. They were typical US news outlets which echoed popular sentiment, creating US-centric solutions to problems hand picked through a US lens. American culture and norms became the justifications for and against certain positions. I was also always bothered by these publications’ obsession with the stock market and their unwavering belief that the stock market represented the real economy.
I felt like these news outlets were never made to further public discourse. These were made to circulate headlines and sell copies. The WSJ Opinion section in particular has degraded into a lifeless, identity-driven yelling match that benefits no one. I had nowhere to look but out, so I started to explore publications outside of American borders.
The Day in the Life of an Economist
One of the first articles I read from The Economist looked at the problem of climate change increasingly creating unpredictable yields for farmers in Africa. Due to a limited use of traditional banking services, The Economist described creative solutions: bundling insurance with seed purchases and paying out immediately during poor weather to farmers’ mobile phones. I immediately noticed a point of view I had never seen before: one that looked at ongoing problems through economic systems and processes rather than purely individuals and crises.
The Economist, after all, was started by James Wilson, a British businessman with the goal of convincing others to object to the heavy import duties of foreign corn in 1843. This classical liberal stance has guided the newspaper since. None of the articles are individually authored which creates a consistent, singular opinion from the publication. The publication proudly considers themselves to be in the “radical center,” with beliefs in the free market and the power of deregulation while also supporting gay marriage, legalization of drugs, and the active fight against racism. Their aggressively knowledgeable arguments, trust in institutions, and belief in the power of economics continue to surprise me. With this perspective, they rigorously critique existing institutions with the goal of offering improvements.
I appreciate The Economist because they bring a realistic perspective to problems, heavily using data to support arguments. They also prize innovation, technology, and change. For example, in no other publication would the titular weekly edition focus on the innovation in economic research. Other editions have focused on the path to immortality, Africa’s space program, and breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology. I think what I love the most is their focus on the margins. After all, it is in the margins where experimentation and trend-setting begin.
When analyzing political or economic issues, the choice of topics explored are international with the tone shifting to reflect different cultures and norms. Generally, issues chosen are those that conflict with freedom, efficient markets, or stability with the intent of producing actionable solutions. Articles also flow naturally because of an effective structure. Articles begin with a hook, followed by a detailed description for the issue, analysis of relevant stakeholders, solutions, and possible confounding factors or a reflection.
The Economist is also not afraid to strongly critique or provide alternate interpretations to the mainstream opinions on the left and the right. For example, they have argued why an excess of democracy can lead to poor decisions and that left-wing activists are attacking liberalism with parallels to the confessional state. The topics chosen are intriguing and the conclusions are refreshingly unique.
Most importantly, the publication is structured to encourage intellectual discourse. Each edition begins with letters to the editor, where readers grill The Economist for missing vital details or viewpoints in their arguments. In articles, professors, scientists, think-tanks, and politicians are the most cited groups, allowing for compelling analysis from professionals. Their By Invitation series invites people from all walks of life, from the Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Tedros Adhanom, to the Former Chief of the Dallas Police Department, U. Reneé Hall to give their two cents about issues they are experts in. They also frequently review books, praising and criticizing them at will. The Economist was set up to encourage active discussion and critical thinking, and has not faltered from this course.
An Economist’s Woes
I talk as if The Economist is king. In reality, I have many critiques of the publication. I find their need for witty remarks and one-liners absurdly superficial and prone to generalization. I find their occasional robotic takes on intensely emotional and human situations apathetic. Problems are sometimes over-analyzed and grand predictions are made with very limited information or with a stretch of logic. Their focus is still intensely western-centric.
But The Economist still gets more right than wrong. The ability to be as balanced, detailed, and broad is uniquely valuable. There are some publications that I also follow, namely the IMF, The Conversation, DW, and Scientific America, but they all lack the breadth of perspective The Economist offers. The world has its fair share of deficient publications perpetuating fake news or sliding into the pits of polarization. I appreciate the effort that gets put into The Economist every single week and I hope they continue to be engaging and thought-provoking.