A report on wage stagnation in the United States, that I quickly perused, prompted the following question on style: Why do so many prominent economists think that nobody cares what they write as long as they understand the general thrust of the writing?
For example, I know pretty much what this sentence from Ch. 3 of the report means:
Where these countries’ fiscal positions allow and where demand is weak, governments should consider making investments in their people, stimulating demand and addressing the challenge of stagnant wages.
Yet, as I think about the sentence… maybe the sentence does not actually mean anything. The sentence is a “pointer” to “see last U.S. budget when I was Secretary of Treasury” or “see last wishlist Pres. Obama articulated before a policy group in Washington.” By not discriminating (which “investments” exactly? which “stimulating” exactly? and which “addressing” exactly?) the sentence really is vacuous. The report is filled with similar sentences.
Indeed, no society has ever succeeded without a large, prospering middle class that embraced the idea of progress.
(You want to ask the authors: Is there really some society out there that embraces the idea of “not-progress”? That proclaims, “We would like to be increasingly worse off, please!”)
Does bad writing like this matter? There are a number of possibilities:
- Reports are opportunities to be on television, where discourses matter, so writing does not matter.
- Writing does not matter because finer writing means can only appeal to a narrower constituency, and goal is to let everyone broadly aligned with the authors “read into” the report what they want.
- Writing does not matter because the quality of writing does not substantially change people’s “reading” of report, so may as well economize on a scarce resource (good writing).
- Bad writing is a virtue, because the authors do not actually know with precision what they want to say. For public intellectuals, it is bad to state, with precision, that one has no position on an issue.
PS. Anyone want to disagree with this tautology (p. 69)?
As our societies become increasingly diverse, ensuring
that people of every race, ethnicity, gender, background, and faith participate and share in economic gains is not only a matter of fairness but also one of the most fundamental approaches to ensuring inclusive growth in our economies.
Ensuring that people participate and share in economic gains is one of the most fundamental approaches to ensuring inclusive growth.
(1) The major crime here is not bad writing, but bad (no) ideas. Or at least no ideas that anyone could disagree with.
(2) The claim that “Indeed, no society has ever succeeded without a large, prospering middle class that embraced the idea of progress” is demonstrably untrue. A “large, prospering middle class” simply did not exist in historical societies until sometime in the 19th Century. So unless all of the previous societies were by definition unsuccessful, S&B are just talkin’ out their ass. Which is the real problem here…
Oops, obviously there was at least one idea I could disagree with!
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