Monday, 24 June 2013

The incomparable Economist

I've been reading The Economist since the late 1950s, when my father used to bring it home from his job with Ireland's Revenue Commissioners (the Irish IRD). In those days it was printed on a strange greyish paper - whether this was some legacy of British wartime austerity, or a considered design choice in the way the Financial Times was printed on pink paper, or an early eco-friendly use of some recycled pulp, I still don't know - and it looked in general a rather dull affair (though, even then, its graphs were outstandingly clear and useful), and of possible interest only to folks like my father, people who we might today call policy wonks.

I didn't appreciate it at the time, but its editorial message also had little mass appeal back then, as the Sixties and Seventies were the high point of active government macro and micro management of the economy. The Economist's message of free (or at least freer) markets didn't get much of a look-in.

Perhaps because it was so steadfastly rigorous, disciplined, intelligent and professional, and unwilling to tack to the fads of the day or aim to the lowest common denominator (although it has glammed up its paper stock and its overall look), it has gone from strength to strength. Even today, when in many markets any good idea is quickly copied (if not outright plagiarised or reverse engineered) and quickly improved on, there's still nothing like it for the breadth and depth of its coverage of global current affairs. It makes you  feel like a citizen of the world to read it.

In a way, it's a drawback that it's called The Economist. I've wished it onto all sorts of folks, and a surprising number of them had always resisted picking it off the magazine rack, because they assumed it would be only about economics. If you're one of them, here's the news: it covers current affairs of all kinds, science and technology, books, business, finance, and, of course, a dose of economics (notably the 'Schumpeter' column). Go and look for yourself here.

I generally read it backwards, starting with the obituary of the week at the back, and then the book reviews, also at the back, before heading for the Letters page towards the front, and in particular the last letter printed, which is normally something witty. And after that I start out from the front and read the whole thing, though I have to confess to moving fairly rapidly through the Latin America and Africa sections.

It's not perfect - there is something between a harmless joke and an ingrained bias in its negative treatment of  France (even accepting that there is currently much to criticise France about), and it gives surprisingly little coverage to its Irish neighbour, though again that may be understandable in a magazine aiming at global reach  - but overall it continues to be highly impressive.

As time has gone by, and I'm sure you're the same, I've been migrating from hard copy to online publications, and not just because so much online is free: I'm happy to pay my subscription to get through the paywall to good content. But The Economist is different: if I end up with only one hard copy magazine in my hot little hand, the Economist will be it. And that's even after allowing for NZ Post's steadily deteriorating level of service in getting it to me on time.

Two things of particular local interest in the latest print issue (June 15th).

We've been having a debate about the introduction of national standards in schools. On p36 of the print edition, or here online, the Economist notes that (referring to the equivalent policy debate in the US), "The most important question, naturally, is whether tougher standards will lead to better results. In rich countries, school systems with exams based on robust national standards (ie, similar to Common Core [proposed US ones]) perform 16 points better on the PISA test (an international benchmark) than school systems without them, says Andreas Schleicher, an education expert at the OECD, a rich-country think-tank. This puts them half a school year ahead. The effect is larger than almost any other national variable". If correct, why are the teaching unions so opposed to national standards here?

The other thing I noted was in the piece on the retirement of Sir Melvyn King from governing the Bank of England (p45 of the print edition, here online). As I've noted in other posts, there have been various initiatives from opposition parties to change our existing monetary policy, in my opinion for the worse. One of the arguments for change is that what we are doing is passé, and that 'modern' monetary policy has moved on to other, better ways of arranging affairs. As the article points out, however, we did indeed pioneer 'inflation  targetting', but far from our regime being an oddity (at the beginning) or a backwater (now), the reality is that today there are 30 inflation targetting central banks. Our approach doesn't look, on that evidence, to be in any way unusual or backward. Quite the reverse: we adopted the right thing early, and stuck with it, and others have seen that it works.

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