Writing economically, not all it’s cracked up to be

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Apparently, economists can’t write. Alert the media, many of whose members, by the way, also can’t write.

Perhaps, that’s not an entirely fair observation of either profession. I know plenty of journalists who can churn out truly spiffy prose. Thanks to handy Google, I even know of a few economists who possess mean turns of phrase.

There’s John Maynard Keynes: “In the long run we are all dead.”

There’s Robert Solow: “Everything reminds Milton Friedman of the money supply. Everything reminds me of sex, but I try to keep it out of my papers.”

And there’s Karl Marx: “I am not a Marxist.”

But, these are exceptions to the rule. And as a rule, economics does not specifically require of its practitioners an excellent standard of scribbling.

In fact, according to The Canadian Press the other day, “auditors examined an elite group of bank economists, most of them with graduate degrees, who regularly dissect the current state of the Canadian and international economies.”

This chore was important because the group’s advice and analysis has been crucial to the Bank of Canada, which makes the country’s monetary policy, ever since world markets lurched sideways in 2008.

The problem, or so says the audit, is that these highly educated servants of the state experience “difficulties being succinct, grammatically correct, and prioritizing the data into useful information” in the reports they write.

Consequently, “ad-hoc demands by the governor and others for quick analysis, which now absorb up to half the time of these economists, also appear to have created a paper jam as managers must then edit the below-standard English or French,” CP reported. Quoting from the audit, the news service continued: “The cause for lengthy review was in part attributed to writing skills, both in terms of basic communication, as well as how to convey an appropriate level of detail in telling ‘the story.’”

This may be a lousy turn of events for central bankers, but it’s a potential bonanza for people like me, who has spent many profitable hours, over the years, rescuing the Queen’s English from various experts on various subjects, both commonplace and arcane.

A few years ago, I had a chance to edit a thick document on a rather complex issue of social policy. A highly regarded PhD had prepared the work for a well-known Canadian think tank (no names, please).

My assignment from the board of directors was to “action item” (their words, not mine) the organization’s new plain-language policy, which gamely embraced the virtues of clear, uncluttered prose.

All of which looked good on paper.

Some days later, I emerged with a draft that, all agreed, met their expectations and fulfilled their new literacy standards. Then, the great unravelling commenced: the second-guessing; the hand-wringing over missing jargon with which they had, unbeknownst to them, grown accustomed; the startled reaction to the unfamiliar muscularity of the active grammatical voice.

It was all just too much. They quietly returned the document to its original shape and away they went, not the sorrier.

This is, of course the curse of clear writing: It doesn’t hide flawed thinking at all well. It’s aggressive, discomfiting and entirely scrutable.

“In the 20th century, economics consolidated as a profession; economists could afford to write exclusively for one another,” writes Ronald Coase in the December 2012 Harvard Business Review, “At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economization and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. Today, production is marginalized in economics, and the paradigmatic question is a rather static one of resource allocation. The tools used by economists to analyze business firms are too abstract and speculative to offer any guidance to entrepreneurs and managers in their constant struggle to bring novel products to consumers at low cost.”

Or, they could be driven by the irresistible urge to commit “bafflegab”, as defined by its inventor, Milton A Smith, assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce, in 1952: “The multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

Now, that’s what I call writing.

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