Why I ended my subscription to The Economist

As a weekly published each Friday, it is ideal for Rip van Winkle readers who are asleep for most of the time awaking intermittently on publication day.
One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.
One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.

The Economist has reputedly over 1.6 million subscribers globally. After May 2024, it has one less. My cancellation brings to an end over 35 years of reading The Economist. Originally the subscription was a present for a relative who passed on the pre-digital print version to me weekly; after she died, I continued until recently.

Wanna-be?

Founded in 1843 by Scottish economist James Wilson, The Economist describes itself as a 'newspaper' rather than a magazine. With its fire-engine-red masthead, sometimes striking covers and distinctive typeface, The Economist is a publishing success.

Its ubiquity was brought home to me some two decades ago in Madagascar – a location not noted for availability of the printed word in any form. Our travels required frequent transits through the capital – Antananarivo. At the threadbare international airport, a teenage vendor inevitably had copies of The Economist. We came to recognise each other and he would supply the newspaper, both the latest edition and back issues that I had missed.

Today, via its print and digital editions, it claims a readership of 6.5 million. For much of its history, it had a modest circulation. The expansion seems to date from the 1980s.

But throughout its history, The Economist’s reach has been less important than its readership. Its target audience has always been the elite, originally the higher circles of the landed and monied interests.

Politicians, such as Franklin D Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, George W Bush and Angela Merkel, and business leaders were/are regular readers. In a profile in the New York Times Magazine, Bill Gates, then a young prodigy, claimed that he did not have a TV because it would prevent him from his cover-to-cover reading of The Economist each week.

Half the readership is estimated to be in North America, a fifth in the UK, and the rest split around the world, concentrated in Europe. Less than 30 percent of its readership is women.

Its audience would self-describe as: management or professional, high income and high influence. James Fallows had a different take. Readers, particularly American and non-UK buyers, were buying into certain myths. One was snobbery – anything English must be better.  Another was status anxiety. Readership, like other luxury brands, offered differentiation. Aspirants imitated their rich and influential role models.

Throughout its history, The Economist’s marketing has used these subliminal concerns. One ad read: "I never read The Economist." The speaker is: "Management trainee - aged 44." Another ad proclaimed: “It’s lonely at the top, but at least there’s something to read.”

Oxbridge Blues

My earnest and careful readership did not deliver the coveted affluence and influence. Over time, disappointment permeated my view of the newspaper which has prominent critics – Alexander Zevin’s book Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist as well as pieces from Fallow, Adam Tooze and Pankaj Mishra.

The initial attraction, other than imbuing me with the sought-after intellectual rank, was The Economist’s coverage of global affairs beyond that featured in other media. But it was, I discovered, an economics oriented version of the Reader's Digest. It enabled you to say you were across issues when, in reality, you were not. It was an older version of scrolling through headlines or a newsfeed.

There were other weaknesses.

As a weekly published each Friday, it is ideal for Rip van Winkle readers who are asleep for most of the time awaking intermittently on publication day. While less problematic when news sources were slower, instant news and 24/7 media cycles can make The Economist appear dated. A multiplicity of newsletters that subscribers can sign up for provide more timely coverage. But this means large portions of the weekly edition is often redundant appealing mainly to readers with memory issues.

The content is allegedly the work of around seventy journalists mostly working out of London, although increased data and graphical intensity may have increased numbers in recent years. The model presents available information in The Economist style rather than original reporting. It is a human version of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Economist has a limiting homogeneity, in part, because of the remarkable longevity of its editors. In its 180+ year history, there have been only 17 editors. Articles lack the customary authorial by-line.  The anonymity is puzzling as the correspondents and writers are actually listed on its website.

John Ralston Saul in his 2002 The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense questioned the attempt to fake the appearance of a single sagacious personality. He thought that hiding the names of the authors was designed “to create the illusion that they dispense disinterested truth rather than opinion”.

Michael Lewis suggested that the anonymity covered the callow youth of The Economist’s staff. He told Fallows that it is “written by young people pretending to be old people”. If readers, especially Americans, “got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves”.

The journalists are predominantly white and mainly educated at Oxford, especially Magdalen College, and Cambridge. Qualifications seem heavily skewed towards "a First at Oxbridge”. This selection bias is similar to the British intelligence services (remember Philby, MacLean and Burgess) and the civil service (described by Dominic Cummings  as a 'horror show' or 'weirdos and misfits'). This lack of diversity is apparently advantageous producing an uniform point of view, even if it is wrong.

The style is Oxbridge undergraduate – obscure vocabulary, tendentious wordplay, self-conscious understatement, unconvincing self-disparagement, mordant wit and irony. Leaders offer strong opinion consistent with the gospel. Stories desperately seek informative and quirky anecdotes to highlight the author’s cleverness. The Obituary section strives constantly to surprise the reader with the obscure departed. The tone is frequently condescending and clubby – the reader, a part of a select group, is being let in on precious secrets.

One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.
Death and the cinema

The opinion column labels summarise the stylistic tendencies.

Bagehot, which comments on Britain, is named after the 19th-century British constitutional expert and one-time editor of the newspaper. European commentary is titled Charlemagne after the Emperor of the Frankish Empire. Chaguan, named after Chengdu’s traditional Chinese Tea houses, is where observations on China are placed. Banyan, which provides opinions on Asia, takes its name from the eponymous tree common to the region. Buttonwood provides analysis of financial matters. It is baptized after the tree where early Wall Street traders gathered. Schumpeter is the opinion column for business matters.

The phrasing struggles with the anonymity - "your correspondent",  "this reviewer" or “[name of column] was informed..." etc. The most characteristic aspect of the writing is its certainty. The Economist  combines reporting, commentary and fearless didactic prescriptions for every problem to nations, policymakers, businesses and individuals despite uncertain domain expertise.

A former writer summed up this glibness as the author knowing that three steps must be taken but unsure of what they are. An ability to re-write history or self-justify, especially its often inaccurate forecasts, is a feature. An expensive education provides one alibi: “as Lord Keynes stated ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ “. The statement may in fact be that of Paul Samuelson not Keynes.

The sought after effect is of omniscience that the newspaper believes plays well with its reader. The Economist’s best-and-brightest ivy league educated staff are always right. The formula of hiring well-educated graduates from the best schools to regurgitate information or specialist publication is profitable. But this best practice modern journalism has risks not least of all its susceptibility to AI-driven substitution.

Opinionated

For ancients like me looking for mundane facts, The Economist’s frequent inability to differentiate between datum and opinion is unsatisfactory. Despite protestation of a time when publications recited facts, journalism has always been biased. Historically, it has reflected the opinion of media owners and their agendas. The troubling aspect is the confusion between fact and opinion, the author's seeming inability to tell the difference or superimposition of editorial views on events.

The philosophical blinkers are consistent with a publication created to muster support for abolishing the British Corn Laws (1815–1846), a system of import tariffs. It combines some version of conservatism, free markets, free trade, free immigration, deregulation and globalisation. On social issues, it espouses individual rights and vague liberal values.

Former Defence Secretary Robert Gates once noted that President Joe Biden had been "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades". As Zevin’s analysis reveals The Economist has often found itself similarly wrong-footed on pivotal issues throughout its existence.

Democracy has been relegated behind property rights and commerce. The newspaper was less than supportive of universal suffrage masking its opposition behind questions of what democracy required and meant. In the American Civil War, it sympathised with the slavery-supporting South on the grounds of free trade – the cotton planters needed export markets.

The Economist justified empire and colonialism on grounds of economics and stability. Global wealth creation demanded imperialism vindicating invasions, annexation, occupation, pacification, violence and exploitation. The struggles and rights of colonised people were barely acknowledged.

One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.
The rich are different! Or are they?

The newspaper likes most wars involving the USA and the UK. It opposed the two twentieth century world wars because of the threat to trade and capital flows. The Economist saw World War Two as a welcome opportunity to revive liberalism following the stagnation of the 1930s.

During the cold war, the newspaper was rabidly anti-communist,  conveniently mislabelling nationalism and the liberation fight of colonised peoples to provide an excuse for intervention. It unabashedly supported dubious policies – the US orchestrated removal of Mohammad Mosaddegh's elected Iranian government and replacement by the Shah; the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo; the replacement of Sukarno by Suharto in Indonesia; and the bloody right-wing coup led by General Pinochet that overthrew Chile’s Allende government. Apocryphal reports suggest that an editor danced around the office in London when the news of Salvador Allende's apparent suicide was received shouting: "My enemy is dead." Violence and foreign interference was justifiable where economic success was at stake.

During the Vietnam war, the newspaper supported the US. The My Lai massacre was the fog of war. Saturation bombing of North Vietnam and the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos (where ordinary people are still being injured and killed by US mines and unexploded munitions) was insufficient for The Economist. Much of its war reporting of this period has been characterised as little more then propaganda served up by the US intelligence services (surely an oxymoron).

The 1989 fall of the Soviet Union and allied eastern European regimes was celebrated by The Economist as a victory of democracy and free markets. It cheered on Western economists' 'shock therapy' to transition these economies to market-based structures. In the Soviet Union, deregulation and privatisation transferred large swathes of national wealth into the hands of oligarchs. In Russia, Anatoly Chubais is reviled as the politician who sold off state assets at bargain basement prices. The Economist admired his dynamic vision. The steep social costs were the price of progress which the newspaper bemoaned was taking place too slowly.

The editorial policies place blind faith in markets, which are assumed to nearly always be more efficient in allocating resources. The approach dismisses the role of states in allowing an economy to flourish through the provision of essential economic and social infrastructure.

The Economist embraced global finance although its understanding was incomplete. Its 2012 Special Report on Financial Innovation, argued that financial innovation was positive: "Finance has a very good record of solving big problems, from enabling people to realise the value of future income through products like mortgages to protecting borrowers from the risk of interest-rate fluctuations." The Report confidently stated: "The evidence … suggests that the market does a brilliant job of nurturing and refining instruments that people want." This was despite conceding that it was difficult to actually measure the benefits of financial innovation. The newspaper followed the dictum of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956: "Here is the conclusion on which I base my facts."

The faith in markets and financial wizards did not preclude unfettered support for massive government bailouts of financial institutions after the 2008 financial crisis. There are, the newspaper declared, no atheists or laissez-faire advocates in foxholes. Pragmatism not political or economic dogma, was required because only governments could restart capital flows in a crisis. The fault was with the people not the system or the underlying ideology. The newspaper once supported Mussolini for sorting out the Italian economy and making the trains run on time.

The Economist’s record on social issues is equally equivocal. Voting rights for women, described as having no capacity for reason, were resisted. It rushed to the defence of climate sceptic Bjørn Lomborg on the grounds of freedom of speech. When it finally succumbed, devoting an issue to the climate emergency, the emphasis was on market-based solutions and 'wunderwaffe' technology, much of which did not exist at least on a commercial scale.

Criticism of specific editorial positions could be defended on the grounds that it was the orthodoxy of the time. But as critics, like Zevin, point out, it was something fundamental – an ambivalence to facts and an overweening ideological certainty. Manichean perspectives on Afghanistan, Iraq, the Ukraine war and the Gaza genocide show that old attitudes persist. 

In economic and financial matters, The Economist has become an apologist for a system unconstrained by moral or ethical concerns and uncontrollable by elected governments. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it questioned government intervention such as social controls, subsidised vaccine production and unprecedented income support on the grounds that it was meddling in markets and restricting personal freedoms.

Events now defy neat categorisation heightening editorial confusion. The US, which has not prevailed in a military conflict since World War 2, if you exclude Panama and Granada, is flailing. The UK has receded into impotent and comic irrelevance. The rise of and unpleasant dependence on China, which has steadfastly refused to embrace The Economist's prescribed path to prosperity, is galling.

Adulation of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is difficult to square with a legacy of unsound finances, political instability and policy drift. The degeneration of unfettered finance into highly leveraged speculation and repeated episodes of instability and disorder was unexpected. Tensions between demographics, immigration, trade restrictions, sovereignty, security, rule of law, regulation, incentives, inequality and sustainability are often irreconcilable. To paraphrase William James, the newspaper's thinking seems like a rearrangement of prejudices.

Adding to the muddle is the aging and dying male readership. Attempts to widen its appeal to women and other nationalities and the influx of bright-young-things, with more contemporary preoccupations risk alienating the existing readership.

The Economist struggles to understand why a superior viewpoint is reviled by the vast majority of people, who have been left behind. It deplores the disparity between their perfect system and public dissatisfaction manifested in growing populism and voter acrimony and which it is unable to either explain or offer an antidote to. The newspaper seems trapped between celebrating the past, lamenting the present and its extravagant hopes for the future.

It risks becoming a mouthpiece for an isolated rich, powerful, and networked power clique without connection to the societies in which they operate.  It exemplifies Keynes' view that capitalism cannot survive if its workings are reduced to merely furnishing the wealthy with the means of getting wealthier.

One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.
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Whimpers

Despite my growing distrust and dislike, the subscription rolled on. There was comfort in reading a Soviet-era Pravda-like publication – providing clarity about what was untrue and knowing the official view on things. I fretted about the pros and cons of alternatives which were plagued by problems. There was sloth. There was fear that I would miss out on the one item of knowledge that would assure my wealth and power. My eventual cancellation was not from principled pique but for mundane reasons – whimpers not bangs.

On or about 12 April 2024, I was unable to access my digital weekly edition. I assumed some software update or technical gremlin. When the problem continued, I contacted the help desk and was diverted to a site in Southern India. The online chat – real or mechanised - suggested reboots, changed passwords, deleting cookies and caches. When the problem continued, it was elevated to the technical team. The promised rapid fix did not eventuate.

Over the next few weeks, I settled into a routine of emailed complaints which were met by implacable form responses without resolution. It was unclear whether the problem was unique to me or a wider glitch. Finally, I rang The Economist in Singapore threatening cancellation. My problem was further escalated (my issue had risen to heights higher than the Burj Khalifa).

There being no further communication or progress, about one month after the start of these problems, I rang to cancel my subscription and arrange a refund. This focused attention. There was much consultation with supervisors. I was offered a half-price renewal if I did not cancel. The fact that a renewal without access was useless had to be explained carefully and repeatedly to different staff members who were miffed at my lack of gratitude for this generous concession. I gave them three business days to restore access.

Nothing happened and I rang to terminate. Like HAL, the customer service person couldn't do that. His supervisor would get back to me. Threats of a nuclear strike led to a manager coming on the line. The supervisor big-heartedly (he told me so) agreed to the cancellation and backdating the refund to the time of lost access. I was welcome to re-subscribe but only at full rates. I thought it wise to agree the amount due to me. He demurred as this was done automatically.

The refund was A$11.42 short. I emailed my highly-technical calculations (amount paid divided by the number of issues paid for multiplied by the number of missed issues). The shortfall, presumably validated by some human or artificial intelligence, was eventually paid ending my decades old relationship with The Economist. Regular emails arrive now asking me to 'rate' the newspaper’s customer service!

It seems fitting that The Economist was undone by the things it espouses. I had exercised my freedom of choice. The Economist  will not miss me but the sentiment is mutual! 

Extraneus,  in Latin an outsider, is a former financier and author. A reasonable club cricketer, he took up a career in money markets because he wasn't good enough to be a professional cricketer and needed to make a living especially as no one offered him a job as a cricket commentator or allowed him to pursue his other passions.

One of the two covers of The Economist's June edition.
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