Tag Archives: The Economist

Full Disclosure at The Economist (an open question for John Micklethwait)

The Economist is a pleasure to read for many reasons but what it gives with one hand, it sometimes withholds with the other.  

Who, we wonder, is the author of this wonderful laugh-out-loud bit of book reviewing:

“In quiet moments, Cochrane plays Bach on his lute and whips up pheasant casserole with shallots and Calvados.  But mostly he spends his time gunning down enemies in a taut and well-told tale that ricochets across Europe.”

And who is responsible for this:

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” follows the urban misadventures of Nate, an ambitious writer with a book deal, a full head of hair and an impressive capacity for self-forgiveness.”

Please could we have a open-secret website somewhere that reveals who’s written what?


Both reviews appear in the edition of The Economist pictured (Volume 408, Number 8846; July 27th – August 2nd, 2013), pages 70 and 69 respectively.    

Subscribe to the Economist here.  

I’d have to marry an *sshole like him (feminism in Japan)

Japan’s birthrate is falling.  It stands at 1.4 child per women.

This gives Japan the second lowest birthrate in the first world.

And it makes Japan a little like China.  Both have a one-child “policy.”

But of course it isn’t in the Japanese case a policy.  Because not having babies in Japan is self imposed.

In effect, Japanese wombs are on strike.

One of the factors here is that marriage rates are falling.  Fewer people get married and, according to The Economist, “women wait ever longer and increasingly do not bother at all.”

According to the NIPSSR [Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research] six out of ten women in their mid-to late 20s…are still unwed.  In 1970 the figure was two out of ten.

The Economist contemplates the several things that might cause this fall in the marriage rate and it’s corresponding “dearth of births.”  It may be a matter of wages that they will be paid as part time workers.  It may be a matter of finding a husband who makes enough or saves enough to support a family.  It quotes Masahiro Yamada, sociologist at Chuo University, who calls young women who refuse to marry “parasite singles.”  It quotes Florian Coulmas of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo who says there are “no easy explanations” for what is happening here.

This is really very sad.  The Economist, Professor Yamada and Mr. Coulmas are just not trying hard enough.  There is a simpler answer.  It is not the whole answer, but not to include it as a contributing factor is, well, as I say it is really very sad…and proof of another kind.

Several years ago, (I will be vague on timing to protect privacy), I was doing ethnographic research in Tokyo.  (Happily, I’ve done several trips so I think anonymity is relatively protected.)

Before one interview, I found my translator in a spirited conversation with the man I was supposed to interview.  As we were leaving this man’s home, I asked my translator what the conversation had been about and she explained that she actually knew this man and he was teasing her for not being married.  She was was thirty something, attractive, professional, and in this case unamused.  She finished her account of the conversation by saying, under her breath, just loudly enough for me to hear,

And the reason I’m not married is that I would have to live with an asshole like him.

To be sure, this is one data point.  But what a data point.  There was nothing exceptional about this women.  Nothing out of the ordinary, that is to say.  That she should harbor this feminist sentiment and deliver it, first to him and then to me, so matter of factly, told me that there are lots of women in Japan who have removed themselves from the marriage market and child bearing for a simple reason: they don’t like the men they would have to marry.

That this factor didn’t make it into The Economist article or into the learned observation of Yamada and Coulmas tells us, perhaps, just how deep the problem goes.  Women get it. Men, not so much.


Anonymous.  2010.  The dearth of births.  The Economist. November 20, pp. 14-15.

Handmade marketing

It’s turning out to be a long march.  Some 50 years ago, marketers made mass meanings…for mass markets…with mass media.  Nowadays, people are crafting brand meanings very much more particularly, making micro meanings…for micro markets…with micro media.  

At the extreme, this would mean making entirely custom meanings for very individual individuals with ever finer instruments of meaning manufacturer.  But we are some way off. And we may never reach that station.  

Still we get glimpses time to time of a world of absolute particularity.  Rob Walker and colleagues at Significant Objects give us objects to which meanings have been added in acts of handmade marketing.  It’s pretty astounding.  And of course, we know that some consumers are customizing like crazy.  

And look at this.  It’s a passage from a review of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. By Edmund de Waal. (Chatto & Windus in the UK, and as The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US.  Not till August.)

But Mr de Waal, a noted British potter and ceramicist, is intently concerned with “how objects get handled, used and handed on”. For him the netsuke, so small and captivating, were not enough as a mere signpost to a family history. He wanted “to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers—hard and tricky and Japanese—and where it has been… I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows.”

And, wonder of wonders, this is exactly what he achieves. We learn not only how the light fell from the windows, but how it reflected from the carpets and brocades that vied for attention with the netsuke nestled on green velvet in their black lacquer vitrine, and how it grew greyer when wartime privations in Vienna limited the cleaning of the glass. We learn about Viktor’s nervous tic of wiping his hand across his face as if rearranging it, and the way Emmy would spend 40 minutes having her curls pinned one by one to the brim of her hat for a day at the races, and at what times marching bands paraded past their windows and what epaulettes they wore, and how Charles carried his cane and arranged his paintings, and the mix of awe and sensuality that he must have felt as he picked up a netsuke and turned it over in his hands. From a hard and vast archival mass of journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and art-history books, Mr de Waal has fashioned, stroke by minuscule stroke, a book as fresh with detail as if it had been written from life, and as full of beauty and whimsy as a netsuke from the hands of a master carver. Buy two copies of his book; keep one and give the other to your closest bookish friend.

Fantastic.  This is a kind of retroactive meaning making.  It take it it’s mostly surmise.  But what surmise!  By constructing the life of the object, and it’s life in the lives of people and other objects, he gives us a feeling for the nuance with which objects take on and give off their meanings.  Not to mention inspiration for those who wished to make marketing by hand. 


Anonymous.  2010.  Review of the Hare With Amber Eyes.  The Economist.  May 22.  here.

Significant Objects here.


Christmas gift-giving: the economist vs. the anthropologist

This is the week in which we move from inklings of alarm to flat-out panic.  Have we done our shopping?  No, we haven’t done our shopping.

Economist to the rescue.  Joel Waldfogel has been arguing since 1993 that seasonal gift giving is dodgy and that we ought to rethink the exercise.

Quizzing students in his classroom, Waldfogel has determined that there’s a discrepancy of 20% between value given and value received.  This is another way of saying that our gift giving acuity is sufficiently impaired that people prize our gifts dramatically less that we think they will.  We give lamb, they get mutton.  Let’s call the whole thing off.

This really is looking the gift horse in the mouth.  In a normal American Christmas, according to The Economist, retailers make 25% of their yearly sales and 60% of their profits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What it ignores is the social point of the exercise.  We give gifts to acknowledge, shape, and celebrate our relationships.  How do gifts work to social effect?  We carry in our heads a set of understandings, cultural understandings, about how the recipient is and what gifts mean.  We use these understandings to fashion a match.  Good matches bring delight and confirmation.  Bad matches try the patience and challenge the relationship.  But so much social value is being created here that economic waste, when this occurs, is modest.

We don’t have good metrics for this social value.  But here’s a laboratory experiment you can try over the holiday season.  Try withholding gifts from someone, and see what difference it makes.  For want of a relatively small amounts of value, our social world can change beyond recognition.  Want to live in soulless social world that Dickens threatens in a Christmas Carol?  Just follow Waldfogel’s advice.

Gary Davies, Manchester Business School, understands this.  He says of Waldfogel’s perspective:

[It’s a] typical economist’s view of an issue where it isn’t the economics that are driving the issue. It’s the social side, the symbolism of the gift. [BBC news magazine, ref. below]

The Economist gets it too.

Gift-giving, some economists think, is a process that adds value to an item over and above what it would otherwise be worth to the recipient. Intuition backs this up, of course. A gift’s worth is not only a function of its price, but also of the giver and the circumstances in which it is given.

Somehow, one feels that if Waldfogel had quizzed his students a little more broadly about gift giving he might have glimpsed the larger significance, the true purpose, of all this “wasteful” spending.

But of course many economists are tone deaf when it comes to the social and the cultural.  What Adam Smith took out, they will not return to the field of study  Most of the time, this is a spectacularly success trade off.  Excising the social and the cultural from the field of study made certain understandings, and an entire discipline, both possible and productive.

The trick then is for the economist to know where the model works and where it can not.  (There may be a simple answer here.  Waldfogel was at Yale when this work first began, and as readers of this blog have heard before, Yalies are famously obtuse when it comes to certain real world problems.  They spring from the wrong kind of Protestants, I think, to be really world embracing.)

But this is something more at issue here that insisting on paradigmatic boundaries.  As just about anyone under 35 can tell us, the very of a marketplace is being challenged by a new set of ideas, the so called “gift economy.”  As this idea claims more people, it will claim more and larger parts of the economy.  Unless economists wants to watch the problem set disappear like a polar icecap, it’s time to do better than Waldfogel.


Anonymous, 2001.  Is Santa a Dead Weight?  The Economist.  December 21.  here.

Cowen, Tyler.  1998.  In praise of commercial culture.  Boston: Harvard University Press.  here.

Davies, Gary.  n.d., Gifts and Giving.  Forthcoming.

McCracken, Grant.  n.d., Christmas Trees.  This Blog.  here.  (for more on an anthropological approach to the season, specifically that spectacularly wasteful object, the Christmas tree)

Rohrer, Finlo.  2009.  Should We Stop Buying Christmas Gifts?  BBC news magazine.  December 3.  here.

Waldfogel, Joel.  1993.  The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”. American Economic Review, December, vol 83, no 5.

Waldfogel, Joel.  2009.  Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents For The Holidays.  On Amazon here.

Wikipedia entry on the gift economy here.

Note: This post was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence some 12 months ago.  It just resurfaced on the net and I am reposted this day Dec. 24, 2010.