You know, if I didn’t care so much about The Economist, I wouldn’t be giving it grief here. If the word “journalism” means anything, it should mean quality; I expect that my (expensive) subscription buys me a magazine that I often expect to disagree with but which is thoughtful, well-researched, well-written, and well-edited. I don’t want to abandon journalism, but these guys are dropping their end of the bargain.

A recent Survey on Executive Pay (that’s a subscriber-only link), dives at length, and with details, into the perceived abuse of shareholders by executives, points out the keenest abuses and (this being The Economist) offers some arguments as to why this might not be as bad as it looks.

Some of them are sort of coherent, but then you get this: “The role of pay is not to get executives to work harder (most are workaholics already, toiling towards an appointment with the heart surgeon), but to recruit good managers and get them to take difficult decisions. Shutting a subsidiary, sacrificing a pet project or forgoing a tempting acquisition is not much fun. Without the spur of high pay, managers tend to avoid such things.” Uh, evidence, please? Even anecdotal evidence? This is kind of the center of the whole argument, and there’s no there there.

Next, for your amusement, is the following advertisement taken from the current issue’s right-up-front “Executive Focus” section, which is mostly recruiting for high-level jobs (it shares a page with ads from the UN and Save the Children).

Microsoft ad from the Economist

To start with, it’s in the wrong place in the magazine. And this Microsoft “People Ready” campaign is pathetically awful, into brain-damage territory. Ah, but editorial and advertising are different parts of the shop, right? That might be true, except for the ad clearly suggests that The Economist has bought into this “people-ready” vapidity and is writing articles about it. Not so, fortunately; if you follow the link, the page you end up at is regurgitated Economist articles from the last few years, not particularly interesting, in a dense frame of Microsoft ads. And finally, they can’t spell “its”.

Really, really, offensive.

Dear Economist: I don’t buy your beautifully-typeset dead trees and steal whatever time it takes to read most of each issue, and put up with your knee-jerk right-wing thought filters, to be presented with this kind of crap. If I want unsupported assertions, lame-ass Microsoft marketing, and lousy spelling, I have the whole Internet to choose from. You need to be better.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Nitin (Feb 22 2007, at 01:18)

Well done!

Exactly my feelings when I saw the Microsoft ad in the Appointments section. You should write to them (they've got a blog for letters to the editor now).

Btw, I'm amazed how you managed to catch the "its" vs "it's" boo-boo? Ironically, I always go back to the Economist style guide when I'm confused on this one.


From: Vamsee (Feb 22 2007, at 01:52)

Oh, I love The Economist too. But I guess I need to "put the filters on" for some of those zany right-wing ideas. Nice ciritque. Thank you.


From: economouse IT (Feb 22 2007, at 02:23)

The Quarterly Technology reviews are quite useful though - as a self-qulification: if you knew it before you read about it then you are some sort of tech-polymath and ready perhaps to speak at the dinner table.


From: Martin (Feb 22 2007, at 02:52)

First of all, I think the assertion sound quite reasonable, but I'll offer some anecdotal evidence:

Most ex-executives that I've worked with (being 25, I'm not very far in my career yet), talk about how the most money they ever made, was from that year when they were hired to downsize something or fire alot of people.

I guess it makes perfect sense: You want somebody very talented to do something they know up front they won't like: you better pay up.

These people I've know has then gone off to start their own businesses or work in a very small one, anyway, but to extrapolate this anecdotal evidence to the everyday-life of an executive: You need to trust that the executive doesn't let things happen that might be nice to him or employees, but is bad for the company. Basically, you pay the executive to accept the risk that he might have to do something very unenjoyable, if that's what the company needs.


From: David Carlisle (Feb 22 2007, at 04:25)

The link you give is subscriber-only, but a bit of wandering around the site leads to

and then follow the "in the money" link

you get to a page which says the normally premium article is visible as that part of the site is sponsored by Microsoft....

(I assume you need cookies enabled or some such as if you go directly to the article page, it doesn't work, I didn't check

what it's really doing.)


From: Dalibor Topic (Feb 22 2007, at 04:39)

The Economist ... is a thinking person's tabloid.


From: Pierre Phaneuf (Feb 22 2007, at 05:38)

Nobody quite says it like Bob the Angry Flower:


From: John Cowan (Feb 22 2007, at 07:13)

You can't expect the Economist to reject an ad just because Microsoft's agency can't spell (or worse yet, thinks ads go over better if misspelled).

But of course your main point is correct: the true role of pay in executive compensation is to provide executives with a lot of rent. "The widow is gathering nettles for her children's dinner; a perfumed seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil de Boeuf, hath an alchemy whereby he will extract from her the third nettle and call it rent." (Carlyle)


From: Bob McCabe (Feb 22 2007, at 07:16)

What bothered me most about the current issue of The Economist is that the obituary was of Anna Nicole Smith! It is an insult to those people who made a more significant contribution to the world and who had passed away in the past weeks.


From: Dilip (Feb 22 2007, at 07:29)

Are you arguing against the placement of the ad or the fact its from Microsoft? If the former it shouldn't matter whether its pathetic or otherwise. If the latter, why are you dissing The Economist for it?

Either way your posts have started to look like a regurgitated albeit slightly subdued version of Hani's BileBlog.



From: walter (Feb 22 2007, at 08:20)

@Macrae: I couldn't agree more.More ink/tvtime/media circus has been wasted on this person. BASTA!!!


From: MTS (Feb 22 2007, at 08:40)

At first blush, I agreed with Dilip's comments but when you think about it, a magazine ad like this is really a business partnership between the company AND the magazine. The Economist should have taken an editorial role in the ad and the tie-in between Microsoft and the Economist.

In general, I think this type of advertising is in bad form and usually has the potential to backfire on the company and/or the media. The Economist needs to keep a certain level of neutrality from the companies that advertise through it. Otherwise, they face a potential loss of confidence from its readership. ("its" spelled correctly, I hope ;-)

Putting aside the advertisement, I still say The Economist is the most thoughtful, well-researched, well-written, and thought provoking magazine available today. Maybe it is slipping but it has a long way to go before I cancel my subscription.


From: Michael (Feb 22 2007, at 08:42)

Rather than dissing them in the blogosphere, why not sit down with a paper and a pen, and write them? I find their letters to the editor section to be one of the best parts of the magazine, for the very reason that they aren't afraid to post excellent retorts to arguments central to their articles.

I completely missed that microsoft ad though, owing to the fact that I skip the executive focus section. It doesn't really seem applicable 'till I at least graduate from undergrad...


From: Robin Wilton (Feb 22 2007, at 12:43)

Part of me would love to think that there was a conversation around the sub-editors' table about whether to

(a) leave the ad as it is, grocer's apostrophe and all;

(b) correct it for them;

(c) insert [sic] after the offending item.

Personally I think a large chunk of their argument is self-defeating. If these high-flyers are so obsessively self-motivated that they're 'not doing it for the dosh', why would offering them more money attract the right ones?

If you really want someone who will axe a whole department just because they get a kick out of 'fixing' the most unpalatable problems, try offering *less* money and see if they were really just in it for the cash.


From: Mark (Feb 22 2007, at 13:25)

Tim, I think your complaints about The Economist's opinions would have more validity if you included your feelings about your employer's executive compensation.

For years, Scott McNealy had a base salary of about $100K/year, with most of his compensation coming from bonuses and stock options. For stock options to positively compensate the employee, the intended future growth and profitability must be met. In other words, the theory behind stock options are they compensate the individual in the future after the results are known, and directly correlate to shareholder wealth.

I do believe Ed Zander, when he was COO, had a similar compensation package.

Jonathan Schwartz gets a base salary of over $800K/year. His primary stock related compensation is in the form of direct stock grants rather than stock options (thanks, SarbOx!), which are not future compensation after the fact. He does get bonuses.

As a SUNW stockholder, I'm not saying Sun is totally in the wrong on this, as I blame SarbOx and the idiotic accounting rules around stock options. But I do not understand why Sun needed to increase executive pay eight-fold with the ascension of Jonathan. I would also note other bay area tech companies still grant stock options to all employees.

What are your opinions of Sun's executive compensation, Tim?


From: robert (Feb 22 2007, at 17:22)

The Economist has been a known right-wing apology generator since the time I was an undergraduate. Before Kent State. Back then, it was viewed as high brow and intellectual, stateside anyway. The only reason I could see was that Adam Smith was thought to be English (wrong about that too, they were), and all things English and class system philic (OK, a made up half-word) were jolly good.


From: william newman (Feb 22 2007, at 18:32)

I agree with Martin that the assertion sounds basically plausible, but I also agree with Tim, rather more strongly, that given the way _The Economist_ seems to be using the assertion, they should be backing it up. And I suspect that the truth is complicated enough that the assertion would benefit from being stated more carefully.

(I have had a similar reaction to facile claims that of course you're not going to get civil servants honestly carrying out the responsibilities they're officially committed to for low pay. That's basically plausible too, but people and game theory are both tricky...)


From: MikeP (Feb 23 2007, at 05:43)

william, I would state it something like this: Great pay is not a necessary condition for hiring great people, but it sure helps. I work as a techie at a university in a techie town (one Tim knows quite well, in fact ;) ) and I'm surrounded by people who mostly could be making more dosh elsewhere, but choose the university instead. We all have our own reasons for this choice though. That being said, pay rises are nice too.


From: Max Hadley (Feb 23 2007, at 07:53)


Surely that should be grocers' apostrophe?


From: Kris (Feb 23 2007, at 12:10)

try the economist-ad-removing greasemonkey script:


From: Al Lang (Feb 23 2007, at 14:22)

I can't help quoting the current issue (from an article on the UK newspaper industry) -- it makes me think The Economist has heard it all before and thinks at least as deeply about all these things as the rest of us:

"Middle-class readers like their newpapers filled with analysis and opinion (especially if they agree with it)"

Meanwhile, do you think when they said "it's" they might just have been punning on "IT's"?


From: David Smith (Feb 23 2007, at 15:24)

"knee-jerk right-wing thought filters"...

Funny, in recent years I've thought that the Economist has drifted more toward EU Technocratic thought filters.

But I'm weird, I know.


From: Eric Meyer (Feb 24 2007, at 12:42)

I've been enjoying their (totally free, at least as of now) blog "Democracy in America": -- you might as well.


From: Chris Stiles (Feb 26 2007, at 12:45)

It would be unlikely that they had drifted towards a more 'EU Technocratic' view, given their subscription figures and their largest market.


From: Jeremiah Foster (Feb 27 2007, at 04:05)

Heh. Unfortunately this is mostly an accurate rant - though if the Economist does not produce evidence you so desire it does not mean that the evidence does not exist. They are generally right on the money when it comes to thumbnail portraits of execs.

In general you will have to admit that the Economist is one of the better general news magazines out there, though your premise that journalism is having its lunch eaten by the blogosphere seems correct. (Look, I even spelled 'its' correctly!)


From: Paul (Feb 27 2007, at 05:36)

One of the guiding principles of journalism in magazines that accept advertising is that the editors and journalists shall not be influenced by the advertisers that choose to advertise in the magazine.

This is usually achieved by splitting the creation of the magazine into two departments, editorial and advertising, which do not communicate and may not see the final results until the magazine is printed and available for sale.

To suggest that Microsoft buying advertising space in the Economist and branding a list of articles from previous issues is offensive is an odd assertion.


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