Is The Economist Left-Wing or Right-Wing? Neither.

Last week, The Economist turned 170 years old. Readers have pondered whether the magazine leans left or right. So The Economist explains itself:

SOME readers, particularly those used to the left-right split in most democratic legislatures, are bamboozled by The Economist’s political stance. We like free enterprise and tend to favour deregulation and privatisation. But we also like gay marriage, want to legalise drugs and disapprove of monarchy. So is the newspaper right-wing or left-wing?

Neither, is the answer. The Economist was founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a British businessman who objected to heavy import duties on foreign corn. Mr Wilson and his friends in the Anti-Corn Law League were classical liberals in the tradition of Adam Smith and, later, the likes of John Stuart Mill and William Ewart Gladstone. This intellectual ancestry has guided the newspaper’s instincts ever since: it opposes all undue curtailment of an individual’s economic or personal freedom. But like its founders, it is not dogmatic. Where there is a liberal case for government to do something, The Economist will air it. Early in its life, its writers were keen supporters of the income tax, for example. Since then it has backed causes like universal health care and gun control. But its starting point is that government should only remove power and wealth from individuals when it has an excellent reason to do so.

Furthermore:

When The Economist opines on new ideas and policies, it does so on the basis of their merits, not of who supports or opposes them. Last October, for example, it outlined a programme of reforms to combat inequality. Some, like attacking monopolies and targeting public spending on the poor and the young, had a leftish hue. Others, like raising retirement ages and introducing more choice in education, were more rightish. The result, “True Progressivism”, was a blend of the two: neither right nor left, but all the better for it, and coming instead from what we like to call the radical centre. 

More explainers like this, media organizations around the world.

In Praise of Laziness

Very good piece in The Economist on disruptions, endless meetings, and pointless tasks. Many people mistake being busy for being productive, whereas they’re often not correlated!

Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much—too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.

Not just business people, but everyone would be better off if they did less and thought more.

The Economist on Obesity in America

The CDC estimates obesity-related health care costs $147 billion per year. The Economist has a very skeptical take on whether America can do something about the obesity epidemic:

I very much doubt America is going to do anything, as a matter of public health policy, that has any appreciable effect on obesity rates in the next couple of decades. It’s not that it’s impossible for governments to hold down obesity; France, which had rapidly rising childhood obesity early this century, instituted an aggressive set of public-health interventions including school-based food and exercise shifts, nurse assessments of overweight kids, visits to families where overweight kids were identified, and so forth. Their childhood obesity rates stabilised at a fraction of America’s. The problem isn’t that it’s not possible; rather, it’s that America is incapable of doing it.

America’s national governing ideology is based almost entirely on the assertion of negative rights, with a few exceptions for positive rights and public goods such as universal elementary education, national defence and highways. But it’s become increasingly clear over the past decade that the country simply doesn’t have the political vocabulary that would allow it to institute effective national programmes to improve eating and exercise habits or culture. A country that can’t think of a vision of public life beyond freedom of individual choice, including the individual choice to watch TV and eat a Big Mac, is not going to be able to craft public policies that encourage people to exercise and eat right. We’re the fattest country on earth because that’s what our political philosophy leads to. We ought to incorporate that into the way we see ourselves; it’s certainly the way other countries see us.

I disagree. Here is one comment on what America can do:

1. Stop subsidising the production of grains (especially wheat and corn). This just makes cheap carbohydrates cheaper.

2. End USDA control of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. The job of the USDA is to promote the sale of US agricultural products, not human health. There is an inherent conflict of interest here, which leads to guidelines that ignore the science.

3. Consider taxing (added) sugar, much like the other substances that create negative externalities are taxed (eg alcohol and tobacco).

The Merits of the PhD Degree: Is It a Waste of Time?

I read over a dozen articles this weekend, but it was an article in The Economist which I thought was worth mentioning here. Aptly titled “Why Doing a PhD Is Often a Waste of Time,” the author goes in depth discussing reasons why attaining a PhD degree isn’t worth the cost or the time commitment. As always, I encourage you to read the entire piece, but I do highlight some notable passages below.

This was a nice introduction to the PhD degree:

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

Some consider graduate work (working for the PhD) as slave labor (see Reference 1 at bottom):

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

An interesting implication in the passage below (that because professors are expensive to hire and cultivate, it is much easier to employ graduate students, regardless of whether they go on to acquire a PhD):

But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates

The large number of drop-outs from PhD programs in the United States was a striking statistic:

In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

But I think the most important passage in the piece is this one, regarding the premium that a PhD affords (or not) over Masters and B.S. degrees (I bold the two sentences most revealing sentences in the entire piece):

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Sobering to read these statistics (and I wish The Economist linked to some outside sources for vetting).

The article is factual in nature and doesn’t go in depth of non-economic purposes of pursuing a PhD degree:

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead.###

And it’s hard to argue with that argument: there will always be students who are passionate about research or have found a particular problem that they want to solve. For the rest of us, a PhD degree is out of reach, and perhaps for the reasons explained in the article, that’s a good thing.

One last note: always be cautious of the bias present in journalism, such as this dinger near the end of the piece:

Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology

Overall, I think this is a really solid article, articulating the draw-backs of the PhD degree. As I mentioned above, I would be interested in reading the other side of the argument from respected sources.

###

Reference:

1) A letter from Erick Carreira (an associate professor at Caltech at the time) to a member of his research team, in which Carreira explains that work on evenings and weekends is required. But also see Carreira’s response in The Boston Globe.

Links of the Day (02/05/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading over the last few days:

(1) “Who Dat Owns ‘Who Dat’? Dat’s Us, Sez da NFL” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting scenario is unfolding on the streets of New Orleans. The NFL is telling vendors that they can’t sell t-shirts with the words “Who Dat” printed on them, presumably because the NFL owns the trademark on the phrase. It sounds like the NFL is trying to seize as much profit as this surge by the Saints leads to Super Bowl Sunday. Is this a case of a monopoly or something else?

(2) “The State of Molecular Cuisine” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting look into the world of molecular gastronomy.

(3) “Why Twitter Will Endure” [New York Times] – David Carr explains why Twitter is here to stay. It’s a very insightful piece which has gained more traction recently, as another columnist named George Packer wrote a column in The New Yorker opposing the use of Twitter:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell.

What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Packer hasn’t actually created a Twitter account and discovered Twitter for himself. He’s relying on hearsay. If you’re on Twitter, what’s your opinion of its usefulness? If you aren’t on Twitter, why not?

(4) “Hi There” [The Economist] – a very interesting piece on how different cultures address and treat politeness and/or respect. Did you know that the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, is the only person in the world who can seriously be addressed as Serenity? Definitely worth reading.