STRANGE TIMES we live in: Investment bankers are culture heros, one's lunch is described in terms of its "power quotient" and The Economist, a 143-year-old British weekly with a great many bar graphs, is the hottest magazine around.
Take a trip on the Eastern shuttle, a walk on Wall Street, a peek at Henry Kissinger's reading rack, and there it is. Magazines, like dogs, have their day: In the '50s it was Partisan Review, in the '60s it was Ramparts, in the '70s it was Co-Evolution Quarterly. With the credentials of the left and the peculiar chutzpah of the right, The New Republic recently climbed high on this totemic pole.
Now it's The Economist.
The average subscriber is 42 years old, male, white; he almost surely has a university degree, makes $114,000 a year and has a net worth of $734,000. The numbers are stunningly high -- higher than those of Business Week, Forbes, Fortune and the Harvard Business Review. According to surveys, most American readers of The Economist are bunched up along the Eastern seaboard in the coves of finance, government and academe.
Demographics heaven! With the family buzzing lovingly around him our Economist reader arrives home in Potomac or Princeton or Rye from a hard day of ruling his corner of the world, dons his fabulously ratty cardigan and settles into his armchair, there to spend part or all of his average-weekly two hours reading The Economist.
Of course, there aren't very many of these people to sell magazines to, and it costs $85 a year (with no free binoculars or camera) compared with a list price of $58.24 for Time. The Economist has a worldwide subscription rate of 278,000 -- compared to 4.3 million for Time -- and only 78,000 of the subscribers live in the United Kingdom. There are 107,000 subscribers in the United States, 50,000 in Western Europe and a sprinkling elsewhere.
But advertising circulars invoke quality, not quantity with the names of power-broking subscribers such as Henry Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt, Ronald Reagan, Harold Macmillan. The Economist calls itself "an intelligence source for people who make important decisions on a daily basis." With this bit of mythology to play with, the advertising and circulation people at the Economist unashamedly feed their readers' fattened sense of self-importance.
A recent mailing pushes the magazine's 1986 date book. "Dear Decision-Maker," the circular intones. "For a truly impressive gift, nothing compares with the inimitable Economist Desk Diary. Found on desks in the White House and the Pentagon as well as in corporate headquarters around the world, it signifies quality of materials and workmanship, and a totally efficient system of executive time management . . . . It gives you the world at your fingertips."
It is like being invited to apply for an American Express Platinum Card.
The color ad pushing the diary is a collage of signifiers -- a gentleman's desk strewn with the desiderata of success: a cordovan briefcase, coins and bills from Europe and Asia, a first-class air ticket, a portable electronic typewriter, a datebook indicating lunch at "21" and meetings with the "bd of directors," a fountain pen, horn-rimmed glasses, parquet tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a framed snap of the youthful (second?) wife, hotel keys, a letter from Hong Kong, the Financial Times and . . . The Economist.
Founded by James Wilson in 1843 to urge repeal of England's "corn laws" and steer the country to freer trade laws, The Economist expanded its subject matter and grew up under Walter Bagehot, whose classic on the Bank of England, "Lombard Street," appeared in the magazine during the early 1870s. The magazine was never designed, as Time and Newsweek were, as a digest for mass audiences. When Bagehot was editing the paper it had a readership of a few thousand civil servants, bankers and financiers who were attracted to a political worldview that became known at The Economist as "the radical center."
The Brits who run the magazine now are well aware of a lingering Anglophilia among America's moneyed classes, a sense in this country that the British know best what constitutes class.
The funny thing is, the voice of The Economist is not strictly English -- as in the letters page of the old London Times or the dotty gardening essays in The Daily Telegraph. Instead it is a voice located somewhere between Britain and the East Coast. Using a staff of just 40 full-time journalists and a worldwide congeries of stringers, the magazine has its headquarters in London but, in its concerns and voice, it is less English than Time or Newsweek are American.
"The tone is what you might call 'mid-Atlantic,'" said former Washington bureau chief John Midgely over a Smith's Ale. "There's a little wit to it, but nothing an American would miss."
One reads of "the curvaceous Arthur Laffer." An article on Mikhail Gorbachev's stand on Soviet arts features a picture of the General Secretary with a surrealistic moustache penciled in and a headline reading "Comrade Dalichev." An article on China begins with this Kipling parody: "If you can keep your hands clean when all about you others are using theirs to grab a fast yuan . . . you'll be a man, my son, in China's 40-million-strong Communist Party."
Articles, even reviews, have always been printed anonymously, adding to the image of a sly and uniform voice of authority. Time, Newsweek and U.S. News speak to a much broader readership -- to a "mid-cult" audience as Dwight MacDonald called it -- and could never afford The Economist's depth or quirkiness. They could never contain such off-handed fell-swoopery as the book review that included the sentence: "Like France, Italy is a country where being an intellectual can be a lifetime career."
"The Economist stands behind every article," says Marjorie Scardino, president of the magazine's North American operations. "We're not a showcase for individuals. It's a corporate conscience and consciousness."
In Britain the major press organs do not push the issue of objectivity very hard. The Guardian is liberal, the Telegraph is known as "The Torygraph," etc. So too with the Economist. Under its last editor, Andrew Knight, the magazine took a swing to the right. Its support of the Thatcher and Reagan governments, of the "privatisation" of the economy, of the contras in Nicaragua, was muscular. It was once said that the only thing the magazine has supported blindly is Britain's place in the European Economic Community.
Knight recently left The Economist to run The Daily Telegraph, and the new editor, Rupert Pennant-Rea, is said to be more of a centrist. In any case one is not likely to find the sort of pussy-footing, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handing so common in other places. The articles manage to campaign (without embarrassment) and inform (without condescending) all at once.
While the design of both Time and Newsweek call for more and more compression as the years go by, The Economist thrives each week on extended analyses. The American Survey section often covers U.S. politics better than the domestic newsweeklies, and the international coverage is consistently a mile ahead. In recent months it has run cogent analyses of Gorbachev, the Chinese military and the possible disappearance of monetarism.
The covers, too, are witty but serious. "I don't think you'll see any ice cream cones on our cover," says Pennant-Rea. "Cats? I'm fond of them but not for the cover of The Economist."
The Economist assumes a certain level of knowledge in its readers. It usually eschews splashy graphics in favor of tiny black-and-white file photos and wonderfully complex and largely incomprehensible graphs in the extensive financial section.
While nearly all the once-venerated institutions of British journalism have taken a dive -- The Times most sharply -- The Economist is ascendant. "I don't know if we'll continue to grow," says Pennant-Rea. "We're read in the right places and have no plans to change our product to bring in new people."
For once, a valuable British snobbery.