When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?

I recently got around to looking at my latest issue of The Economist.  Here’s the cover:

If you can’t make it out, that’s a huge Barack Obama, a small Mitt Romney, and the following caption: “Big government or small? America’s great debate.”

Now, how you could draw a contrast between two men who passed structurally identical health care plans—in which government regulation is used to incent people to buy insurance from private companies—baffled me. The caption, if anything, should have been “Small government or tiny?” So I peeked inside, where things get worse.

The premise of the article is that President Obama has made government bigger. But there’s no intelligent way to make this case, because it just isn’t true by any meaningful measure. There’s a chart in the print edition (which I can’t find online) showing government employment as a percentage of total employment and as a percentage of the potential labor force (correcting for the overall business cycle). The former line went up from 2007 to 2010 (hey! big government!), but the latter line has only gone down since 2002. In other words, government employment is declining as a share of the working-age population, a point also made by Catherine Rampell earlier. And this isn’t a recent phenomenon: the government’s civilian workforce, which was around 1 percent of the population from the 1950s until the early 1990s, is now down around 0.7 percent (see the BLS, Current Employment Statistics).

There’s another chart that purports to show growth in “federal regulatory employment.” But simply glancing at the components of the columns shows that the big increases have been in the TSA and, more recently, “Other Homeland Security.” If Mitt Romney wants to differentiate himself from Barack Obama by slashing homeland security staffing, then The Economist has a point—but I doubt it.

Some of these points are made in the body of the article itself (I suspect the writer knows more or less what’s going on, and the more egregious flaws are due to the editors) , but the only logical conclusion of those caveats is that the article should not have been written in the first place, let alone splashed with a silly graphic on the cover. The only thing the article’s author argues is a meaningful increase in the “size” of government is an increase in regulatory policy-making, notably by the EPA, the Affordable Care Act, and the financial regulatory agencies. But the EPA is only more active by comparison to the George W. Bush years, when the agency was under pressure not to do anything; the Affordable Care Act, as mentioned above, is modeled on Romneycare (which we are pretty happy with here in Massachusetts); and who would argue with a straight face that the laissez-faire financial regulation of the pre-crisis years was a good thing?

It is a major problem that many people do not really understand what the federal government does, let alone whether it is growing or shrinking. (Chapter 4 of White House Burning attempts to clear up these questions.) A goofy Photoshop montage portraying President Obama as a booster of big government only reinforces people’s misconceptions.

This post originally appeared at The Baseline Scenario and is posted with permission.

5 Responses to "When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?"

  1. Michael H   August 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    The correct answer to the headline question is: 20 years ago.

  2. Matt Dubuque   August 2, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    They are trying to expand their circulation in the USA and so therefore have decided to dumb down the publication to make if more suitable for the illiterates across the pond.

  3. bobbi   August 3, 2012 at 9:27 am

    I don't know when it "got" stupid but it sure has been that way since I first started to try reading it in airports here and there. So, that would say since around 2006 at least. I was glad to see your remarks here as so many people seem to view it as a serious publication for those who are interested in the general subject. I can say that I gave it an honest try…reading several different issues before I decided that it just wasn't worth looking at, let alone subscribing to!

  4. Denis Kleinfeld   August 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    This comment appears to be not only illogical but also comically ignorant of economics.
    What is wrong with getting rid of the TSA altogether and putting security in private hands. The TSA has just become another public employees union.
    Even where government employment is less of a percentage of GDP (which we will take as true for now) it doesn't mean that government employment has not, in fact, grew.
    An insurance experiment in one state where it was voted in by the voters in a free and open referendum is a far cry then when a 2700 page 500,000 word experiment is foisted on the entire nation by a technical procedural move and where no one knows what is in it until it was passed as per Nancy Pelosi.
    Your article seems to me to be a cover-up. If you do not like Romney, you should just say so.
    The Economist may be "stupid" but certainly your observations are not smart as a result.

  5. Willam Zipperer   August 10, 2012 at 12:10 am

    "Pretty happy with (RomneyCare) in Massachusetts"? Strange that he likes having the highest healthcare costs in the USA. The cost has risen faster than the national average ever since its passage in 2006. And the state budget has gotten so bad they just passed a law authorizing price controls on all aspects of the medical system. Just wait till Pelosi & Reid get their hands on 17% of the nation's GDP. Yikes!
    And as to the final comment about the financial crisis: no one can argue with a straight face that our pre-crash financial system was laissez-faire. The meddling that Congress did for years in the mortgage industry, the Fed's monetary policy, and a SEC who couldn't catch a $10B ponzi scheme suggests that the government is part of the problem.
    A better set of British insights about the financial crisis will be found in the book "The Alchemists of Loss" .