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March 5, 2014

W(h)ither Democracy; Latin American progress; China’s tobacco problem and poor world cancer; climate change progress: a Developmentista’s Guide to this week’s Economist

March 5, 2014
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Should I be worried about how much I enjoy The Economist? I get some stick from colleagues, who reckons it is surreptitiously Economist coverdripping neoliberal poison into my formerly socialist soul. But it’s just so good! On a good week, there are half a dozen must-read articles on development-related issues, which I try to tweet.

But based on last week’s issue, that may not be enough. So do you think I should run the occasional developmentista’s guide to the Economist, with summaries and links?

Here’s what I have in mind, based on the 1-7 March issue:

What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy? A beautifully crafted 6 page essay by someone or other (it’s very annoying that the magazine hardly ever credits authors). It starts with the big sweep of history:

‘By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and Franklin Roosevelt worried that it might not be possible to shield “the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism”.’

Now, after the democratic surges of decolonisation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is in trouble again. Putin’s Russia; the Iraq war; collapse of the Arab Spring; South Africa’s disillusion with the ANC; backsliding in Turkey, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia. Why? The global financial crisis and the rise of China (‘85% of Chinese are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans’).

This has led to disillusion in democratic heartlands such as Western Europe, and much less pulling power elsewhere.

True to The Economist’s liberal democratic values, the essay then tries to argue that it’s not all bad, pointing out lots of experimentation (eg direct democracy, shifts to long term oversight), which is reversing the decline in places like California and Finland. And anyway:

‘China’s stunning advances conceal deeper problems. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.’

But I have to say the description of the downside was a lot more persuasive than the reasons to be cheerful.

I find the best way to read the Economist is to see it as a clever, but rather right wing, participant in a seminar. Learn from them, but then try and spot any ideological sleight of hand (in this case slipping in the argument that a smaller state is the best way to defend democracy) and try to identify what is missing (I couldn’t see much, in this case – do tell me what I’ve missed).

So much for the cover story, but it’s often the bits and pieces in the back half of the magazine that are particularly useful for a development wonk. This week’s selection includes:

Lat Am poverty statsSustaining social progress in Latin America: The region’s recent ability to combine growth, poverty reduction and falling income inequality seems to be running out of steam. It was driven by expansion in education, rising wages and cash transfers. Now the challenge is to improve quality of education, progressive tax reform and (this is the Economist, after all) structural reforms e.g. to the labour market. ‘Keeping the fall in poverty and inequality going may require a squeeze on the rich—but done cleverly, so as not to deter growth-enhancing investments.’

Big Tobacco, Chinese Style: More than half of Chinese men smoke (but only 2% of women). Smoking is on course to kill 100m Chinese people this century. Will the government’s new anti-smoking policies curb it? Probably not – consumption taxes are too low to make a difference, and the China National Tobacco Corporation has huge influence (and wants to expand into other countries).

Cancer in the Developing World: ‘Low- and middle-income countries accounted for 57% of the 14m people diagnosed with cancer worldwide in 2012—but 65% of the deaths. Cancer kills more people in poor countries than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.’

A surge in climate change legislation at national level: Backsliding in Australia, Japan and Canada gets all the headlines, but overall ‘in 66 countries, accounting for 88% of carbon emissions, almost half of parliaments passed climate-change or energy-efficiency acts in 2013…. the world’s stock of climate laws has risen steeply, from fewer than 50 in 2000 to almost 500 in 2013.’

And finally, Inequality v Growth – a summary of the much-tweeted new IMF paper that argues that in most countries a bit more redistribution is actually good for growth (but thinks Europe may have already gone too far).

So was that useful? Do you want a regular summary? I’d do a poll but can’t work out how to do it in the new format, and all the techies have gone off on holiday, sorry.

I guess if you still hate The Economist, you could always claim this will undermine sales……


  1. I have been reading it (virtually) every week since I was fifteen and it has become a friendly sparing partner that gives you another lens to see through: one that remains highly influential on how the world actually works (or fails to). It is important we read through frames other than our own; and, (to quote St Thomas Aquinas) refute our opponents at the point of their best possible arguments (that we should even improve upon before knocking them down)! Meanwhile, you did not mention that it is noticeably socially liberal so that one’s trendy conscience can always sooth its doubts somewhere!

  2. You’ve actually already influenced me to subscribe to the online edition. From my last job I became aware that most civil senior civil servants seem to pay the closest attention to the FT and The Economist. It’s therefore worth reading to spot opportunities for getting issues onto a policy agenda as it carries credibility.

    I’ve been enjoying their recent focus on ‘cinderella’ development issues like cancer and road deaths.

    If you don’t do a regular summary I might start…

  3. The democracy article is a good example of why I don’t like the Economist. It has deceptively pretty good analysis – nothing new – and then is totally dogmatic about how to save democracy – i.e. reduce the size of the state. Same answer (like the World Bank) whatever the question.

  4. I spent yesterday evening reading this week’s Economist… if only I’d known this blog was coming I could’ve watched the final two episodes of House of Cards instead! Like the idea of an ‘Economist Greatest Hits’ regular blog. Any chance you could revive the ‘Links I Liked’ posts for non-twitterati or those of us who’ve given up Twitter for lent?

    1. hmmm, trouble is I tweet so many links these days, selection wd be a nightmare. When I work out how to do the opinion poll, I will ask people.

  5. The Economist has good writers.
    For a long time these writers told us that there were more important things to worry about than climate change, giving great prominence to Lomborg.
    They said that $10 per barrel oil (about 1999) showed that free trade was a success.
    They supported George Bush (43) for the presidency.
    They supported the Iraq war.
    They failed to spot the economic crisis but wrote wonderful flim-flam afterwards supporting the status quo.

    Here’s what they said about Tony Blair in 2007:
    On most measures, Mr Blair has left Britain a better place than it was in 1997. Uninterrupted economic growth has made the average Briton substantially better off, even if the tax burden has risen. There are fewer tatty schools and run-down hospitals. Although many exams lack rigour, more children are getting respectable grades and going on to universities. Thanks to the minimum wage and tax credits for poor working families, the forces relentlessly pushing up income inequality under Margaret Thatcher have been blunted.

    So they write wonderfully well, but get it hopelessly wrong on most of the most important events and trends of our times.

  6. I think this is an excellent idea. For all its faults it is influential, esp. among certain kinds of busy, powerful people. I’ve had conversations with people about my research where everything they knew about Brazil/Lula/Bolsa Família was from reading it–so I need to know what other people already know (or think they know).

    I have a love/hate relationship with the magazine. I think it is good for me to read views with which I do not always agree. At its best it provides what others already described: a thoughtful, articulate, evidence-based center-right view.

    What gets me angry on a semi-regular basis is not the positions with which I disagree, but when I find pieces intellectually dishonest. In The Body Economic the authors show how the magazine decided to apply a smoothing function to a graph in order to argue against an academic article on the health consequences of shock therapy in Eastern Europe.

    What keeps me coming back is that they cover interesting and important things. I know where they’re coming from, so can take that into account. That article on inequality and growth is a good example. I’ve heard similar arguments/findings in academic circles for some time, but it seemed like in public discourse most people just KNEW there was a growth/equality tradeoff. So it’s good to see that finding get a much wider readership.

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