March 5, 2014
JDN 2456722 PDT 15:29.
A review of Economical Writing by Deirdre McCloskey
There is a certain paradox inherent in the “style manual”: Legislating style is like legislating personality. If we all followed such manuals to the letter, we’d all sound alike, and the world would be a boring place indeed. There are on the other hand certain useful things one can say, just as there are certain personality types we can all agree are unhealthy (e.g. obsessive-compulsive, antisocial). There are certain ways of writing that clearly do not work, and it may be useful to discuss them.
Economical Writing walks this line fairly well on the whole. Some of the advice is general enough to be applicable for almost anyone. Three suggestions that seemed particularly good are “write not so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood”, “revise heavily”, and “visualize your target audience”. Then again, they are nothing new; I had read them many times before and I expect to read them again in the future.
The book is also very short, which for a style manual is especially important; the longer you spend pontificating about how other people should write, the more likely you are to collapse into the role of the curmudgeon, telling those damn kids to keep off his lawn. Languages change! Indeed, one change I’m noticing even in formal writing is that older generations are uncomfortable writing numbers as, well, numbers; they want us to use ludicrous circumlocutions like “twenty-seven point eight percent” instead of the much more readable “27.8%”. I’ve been graded down for this on occasion, and it always annoys me. (For the record, McCloskey also seems to think we should write out our numbers as words, and gives equally little justification.) Perhaps we millennials have become so accustomed to reading numerals in our text—even where it arguably doesn’t belong, like “inb4″ and “stop h8″—that it seems positively baffling to us to not use a number when a number is obviously what you mean. Obviously if I were to start writing “l8r” and “1337″ my writing would seem too informal; but what, exactly, is the problem with “27.8%”?
Speaking of ludicrous circumlocutions, McCloskey is adamantly opposed to all Latinate vocabulary; therefore I should have apparently written this sentence as follows: “Talking about silly ways of talking your words into knots, McCloskey really doesn’t like words that come from Latin, so I guess I should have written this sentence this way:” (The above is a translated Quine.) Who sounds informal now? To be fair, there are many abuses of jargon and sesquipedalian vocabulary (should I say “five-dollar words” as McCloskey does? Is that inflation-adjusted by the way?), but those words also exist for a reason. “Five-dollar word” doesn’t actually mean quite the same thing as “sesquipedalian”, and more importantly “frequency-dependent selection” isn’t at all the same thing as “choosing that depends on commonness”. Some jargon should probably be deprecated, like “heteroskedasticity” (isn’t “non-constant variance” much more straightforward?), but other jargon should not: I wouldn’t know how to describe non-constant variance if I couldn’t say “constant” or “variance”, and “deprecate” means something very specific that “eliminate” or “get rid of” simply doesn’t say. Exempli gratia doesn’t really add much that “for example” wouldn’t, but a priori is pretty hard to get around (the best I’ve seen is simply to use “prior”, which barely cloaks the Latin).
McCloskey also objects to two other constructions I use quite frequently, namely the parenthetical remark (like this—and this dash variant I’m sure you’ve also seen me use) and the emphatic italic. While I must admit I probably do overuse them, they are nonetheless tremendously useful. There is an HTML tag and corresponding LaTeX command just for the emphatic italic! Surely if it has a LaTeX command it cannot always be inappropriate for scientific papers. Personally I find that if I’m reading a long text and the writer never feels passionate enough to italicize something at least once every page or two, I begin to get the sense that they don’t really care about what they are saying, and if they were to lecture on the subject it would be in some kind of robotic monotone. I guess I don’t really get that impression from McCloskey, so perhaps there is a way around it… but what was so bad about italics in the first place?
Near the end of the book McCloskey really jumps off the rails, venturing into curmudgeon territory. She takes an eliminativist stance on folk economics, which is every bit as bizarre (and every bit as aggravating) as when cognitive scientists take an eliminativist stance on folk psychology. I shall quote her at length:
Everyone, economist or not, comes equipped with a vocabulary for the economy. It might be called Ersatz Economics. In Ersatz Economics, prices start by “skyrocketing.” When “sellers outnumber buyers” prices fall from “exorbitant” or “gouging” levels, down through “fair” and “just.” If this “vicious cycle” goes on too long, though, they fall to “unfair” and “cutthroat,” the result of “dumping.” Likewise, the woman in the street believes she knows that unions and corporations have more “bargaining power” than do their victims, and therefore can “exploit” them. A consumer can “afford” medical care, maybe only “barely afford” it, “needs” housing and views food as a “basic necessity”. Business people maintain their “profit margins”, probably “obscene” or “unwarranted,” by “passing along” a higher wage, which causes workers to demand still higher wages, in a “spiral.” The protection of the American worker’s “living wage” from “unfair competition” by “cheap foreign labor” should be high on the list of the nation’s “priorities,” as should be the “rebuilding” of our “collapsing” industrial “base.”
To write thoughtfully in economics you must clear your mind of such cant, as to understand astronomy you must stop talking about the sun “rising.”
Oh really, Dr. McCloskey? Is there something illegitimate about saying that housing prices “skyrocketed” in 2007, only to “plummet” in 2009? If so, what is it? And God forbid we talk about issues of fairness or justice or exploitation; economics has no place for such petty human concerns I suppose. And who really needs housing, right? Shelter is only one of the fundamental survival needs of the Maslow hierarchy. And speaking of those, what nonsense is this “basic necessity”? I mean, really, what’s the difference between taking away $10 worth of food from a child in Burkina Faso and taking $10 in taxes from Goldman Sachs? $10—excuse me, ten dollars—is obviously the proper unit of measure, and not the fact that, say, the child may starve to death and the Goldman executives may not even notice. (Shameless plug for my forthcoming paper “Markets fail to maximize utility in the presence of wealth disparity”.)
Business owners themselves talk about “profit margins” (usually mentioned in shareholder reports), and would probably be baffled that you have a problem with the term. The WTO formally characterizes certain low-price trade practices as “dumping”. I cannot fathom in the least what your objection to “priorities” would be; economics is in some sense entirely about the prioritization of goals given resources. And did you really mean to say that unions and corporations do not have bargaining power? The entire literature on bilateral monopoly begs to differ.
Yes, the folk knowledge does get some things wrong; the “cheap foreign labor” narrative is overly simplistic, and the “collapsing industrial base” is a wrongheaded way of looking at the transition from scarcity to post-scarcity manufacturing technology. But honestly, the way McCloskey sneers at words like fair and just makes me think that the folk understanding is on a more solid overall footing than hers.
Also, this entire paragraph is full of sneering scare quotes, despite the fact that McCloskey specifically makes a rule against using such scare quotes (and actually in general I agree). If you don’t have someone specific to cite for your quotations… maybe you shouldn’t be quoting?
In these paragraphs McCloskey exhibits the same error of the cognitive science eliminativists, albeit if anything more egregiously. The fact that many people believe something does not make it false—on the contrary, it is evidence that it is probably true. We evolved with a need to understand the behavior of other humans, and thus we must be able to do so, at least reasonably well; psychology and economics are actually exactly the cases in which you’d expect the folk knowledge to be accurate. Understanding the motions of the planets was not critical for our survival most of the time; understanding the distribution of scarce resources absolutely was. At least cognitive scientists have the excuse that our scientific understanding of the mind is very poor, and we are basically unable to bridge the gulf between low-level neural operations and high-level thoughts and behaviors. Of course, such a link must exist; the fact that you cannot understand it does not prevent it from being true—but it does at least explain why you’d have trouble believing it. Economists have no such excuse, for the level of abstraction required to understand the concept “supply curve” is on essentially the same level as that required to understand the concept “fairness”. Fairness is something we understand more intuitively, supply curves are something we understand more mathematically; but they are both about the interactions between human individuals or small groups; there is no deep causal gulf between them the way that there is between action potentials and beliefs.
By the way, NASA issues precise predictions of sunrises not only on Earth but also on Mars; I think they’d be a bit confused by the assertion that real astronomers do not say the sun “rises”. What they actually say is more like this: “A sunrise is when the part of the Earth where the observer is turns to face the Sun.” This is the proper scientific attitude; we explain human experience; we do not explain it away.