Reading The Economist

If you’re a strategic consultant flying to Hong Kong for a conference on East Asian futures markets, then it makes sense to read the Economist This is the magazine which depicts a world where markets can efficiently solve capitalism’s problems. A world where the only challenge is for each of us to make sure that we slot neatly into this smoothly-running system.

Painting a picture of an acceptable, almost comfortable, capitalism could never be easy. The Economist is the first to call for economic growth (i.e. accumulation of profits) whatever the consequences. For example, Chirac’s recent programme of welfare state cuts in France may be causing “social unrest” but is necessary, given the economic stagnation which could yet turn into recession: The French government “knows that its credibility on the foreign exchanges depends upon its ability to see through these reforms and to cut the budget deficit” (2 December).

In the same issue there is support for Shell’s determination to continue investing in Nigeria, in spite of General Abacha’s dictatorship. After all, Shell is by no means the only multinational investing in Nigeria and “If Shell quit Nigeria, would not some other multinational take its place?” and “Shell is neither better nor worse than most multi-nationals. Every big company worth its salt is racing to invest in China, which is no less prone than Nigeria to bump off its dissidents.”

The recent global trend towards greater “capital mobility” is welcomed by the Economist. More responsive financial markets and fewer barriers on trade now enable companies to be more selective about where they invest. Governments become providers of a “favourable climate for business” (i.e. cheaper supplies of human labour and slacker environmental regulations). The Economist welcomes this extra scrutiny of them as a welcome safeguard against “unwise” government decisions (“The World Economy – Survey”, 7 October).

It is usually by overlooking the social consequences of this economic “freedom” that a picture of an acceptable capitalism is painted. Failing that, they are simply underestimated – for example, we are told that “whatever [Shell] has done to despoil the Niger delta is now being put right.” Economic decisions are approached as intellectual puzzles where getting the right answer involves calculating how to optimise economic growth and profits.

The final sections distract you with the wonders of science and technology – “Is there life on Mars?” and “Is time travel possible?” – followed by some of life’s finer, cultural points – the architecture of Hong Kong offices or “The Car As Art”. This all, of course, fits neatly into the calculus.

Perhaps only from the luxury of a business flight, or the Economist offices, could such a world view seem acceptable. Yet the logic of the Economist is no more ruthless than that of capitalism itself. For this reason we should hardly ignore it, even if we are not left sitting comfortably.

Dan Greenwood