Some years ago, my mother got me a Christmas present I had asked for: a subscription to the Economist. And she has been kind enough to renew my subscription each Christmas since. Now, however, I am seriously considering asking her not to renew it anymore. Not because I'm not grateful for her gift (it's a pretty expensive news-weekly); but because the Economist has changed, mostly for the worse.
I have, to be sure, been having second thoughts about the Economist for some time since 2009, when they began describing America's increasingly unhinged radical right as just a bunch of people understandably concerned about excessive taxation; while dismissing the ever-more-strident hatemongers as just a "grumpy fringe" of this otherwise-perfectly-respectable group of concerned citizens (the "tiny minority" excuse that they themselves rightly reject).
From such glib comments, from the blind-spot they reflect in that magazine's otherwise excellent coverage of relevant world affairs, and from nonsensical anti-progressive raving editorials such as "The Criminalization of American Business" (8/30 - 9/5/2014), it has become apparent that the Economist has been sliding further and further away from sensible coverage of world affairs from a pragmatic and businesslike point of view, and ever deeper into a position of lazy, complacent repetition of pro-business libertarian talking-points.
But the real tipping-point here is a negative review of a book about the history of slavery in the USA -- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist -- which the (unnamed) Economist critic brushed off thusly:
Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.
Ah yes, our only evidence for how evil slavery really was is just a bunch of anecdotes, which "real historians" can't trust. And the Economist is all about the hard numbers, not emotion-laden (and therefore unreliable) anecdotes.
Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.
The Economist have since withdrawn that review, which is an improvement -- but only a small one. We still have to ask how such obviously amoral and willfully-blind nonsense made it past the editors of a magazine that boasts its own "intelligence unit." And the answer should be obvious to anyone familiar with their overall expressed bias: what this reviewer said about slavery really isn't all that different from what the Economist routinely says about every policy of busting unions and forcing down wages in the name of "productivity:" lower wages mean increased productivity, which means greater wealth for "society" as a "whole" (the offending review is careful to point out that the wealthiest states back then were slave-states); and we should therefore stop focusing entirely on negative consequences of economic change for this or that "special interest" group, and look instead at the numbers that show the positive outcomes for (some less well-defined) "whole." Oh, and don't ever question the rationality of successful businessmen -- they'd NEVER do anything that would damage valuable human capital, amirite?
The fact that these rigorous upstanding Tories would parrot the same rhetoric about slavery as they parrot about unions, minimum-wage laws, and any mention of wealth-inequality, pretty clearly shows the whole lot of them are, at best, droning along on autopilot as they try to ignore the ever-more-obvious shortcomings of the laissez-faire capitalist ideology they exist to defend. Methinks their so-called "intelligence unit" needs a Jason Bourne to shake things up a bit.
Here are some other responses to the Economist's blithering, from a comment by "Freedmen's Patrol" on this blog:
The Economist Condemns Ed Baptist for his Book on Slavery
The Economist and White Supremacy
The latter has information about Grandin’s book and a link to the review, which the magazine has not retracted.
And here's another opinion on Baptist's book:
While most everyone can agree that The Economist review was awful (and cowardly- as there is not an author listed), I would like to comment on Dr. Baptist’s wonderful and scholarly work, which I had the privilege to read in pre-published form. It is a highly readable, well documented inter-disciplinary piece, which reminds the reader that history, economics, geography and sociology are intertwined. Dr. Baptist connected the dots from all of these in a way which produced more “ah ha!” moments than any book I have read in some time. (And I have read plenty of 19th century history) Please treat yourself to a copy.
Terri Weiner (Village Books, Bellingham, WA)