Economics lessons from Dr Seuss
Language matters. Any poet can attest to that, as can any lawyer. (One recent court case in the US turned on an ambiguity created by a missing comma.) But it’s less clear that we economists have realised how important it is to write clearly.
One who has is Paul Romer, the Chief Economist of the World Bank. Mr Romer has provoked a staff rebellion by instructing his large team of research economists to sharpen up their language. He’s threatened to block publication of a flagship report if more than 2.6 per cent of the words in it are “and”. Such medicine seems to be too strong for the World Bank: Mr Romer keeps his job title but is to be stripped of his managerial responsibilities.
No doubt the amusing surface of this story hides tedious depths of office politics. But Mr Romer has a point: economists seem to be drawn to obfuscatory polysyllables like wasps to jam. This is true even when compared to other academics, and even in a medium that encourages brevity: Twitter.
Recently economist Marina Della Giusta and colleagues at the University of Reading conducted an as-yet-unpublished linguistic analysis of the tweets of the top 25 academic economists and the top 25 scientists on Twitter. (The top 3 economists: Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Erik Brynjolfsson; the top 3 scientists: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins.)
Della Giusta and her colleagues found that economists tweeted less, were less likely to mention other twitter users, and mentioned fewer people when they did. This implies that the economists were less likely than the scientists to have Twitter conversations, especially with people they didn’t know. I can’t say I blame them; I avoid using Twitter as a medium for conversation myself. Still, the scientists managed it and the economists did not.
The economists also used less accessible language with more complex words and more abbreviations. Both their language and their behaviour was less chatty than that of the scientists.
The Bank of England has been pondering this kind of thing, too. Last year on Bank Underground, a blog for Bank of England staff, analyst Jonathan Fullwood compared Bank of England reports to the writings of Dr Seuss.
Mr Fullwood’s analysis uses statistical measures of writing complexity: long words, long sentences and long paragraphs make for more difficult prose. The Cat In The Hat stands at one end of the scale; Bank of England reports stand at the other. Mr Fullwood suggests that this complexity is not a good thing – and his work has been praised this week by Minouche Shafik, who recently left the Bank of England to run the London School of Economics.
We economists should write simpler, clearer prose if we want anybody to pay attention to what we think. But at the World Bank, Paul Romer has another mission. He has long argued that economists need to write clearly to help them think clearly. He also believes that trust depends on clarity. If we economists write prose that sounds complicated but does not tie us down to meaning anything in particular, we cannot be surprised if nobody trusts us.
Mr Romer is much taken by a linguistic analysis from Stanford’s Literary Lab. The analysis, published in 2015, tracks the development of “Bankspeak” in World Bank annual reports since 1948.
These reports once described specific situations (“Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade”) and what the World Bank had done to improve them. Now they more likely to be clouds of feelgood bureaucratese, in which nothing specific ever happens. Projects “are emerging” while “players” are “partnering”. The result is somewhere on the Venn diagram between unobjectionable and incomprehensible.
When I worked at the World Bank, in the early 2000s, I first heard the phrase “Christmas Tree” used to bemoan work sagging under the pet ideas that had been loaded onto it. This explains Mr Romer’s irritation at excessive use of the word “and”. The Stanford analysis has a prime example of a Christmas tree from the 1999 annual report, which wants to “promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatize state-owned enterprises and labor market/social protection reform…”
Such sentences are written by committee. It is surprisingly easy to write like this when you don’t know what you think, or cannot agree, or dare not say.
Mr Romer knows what he thinks and has never been afraid to say it. His focus on clear language can do little harm. It may even do some good, although I fear that too many “ands” are the symptom but not the cause of the trouble.
We should all aspire to write a bit more like Dr Seuss. If we write more clearly we tend to think more clearly. Since what we say is easy to understand we must make sure that it is true.
But simplicity alone will not save us.
“We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,” has the same simple tone as Dr Seuss, although it lacks his compassion. Does it reflect clear, trustworthy thinking? I do not think so, Sam-I-Am.
My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – coming soon! If you want to get ahead of the curve you can pre-order in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.