The fear of clarity

To the long list of jobs I am not suited for, I must now add running the World Bank’s Development Economics Group.

This has to do less with my weak grasp of economics and more with my constant harping on the need to write clearly. Paul Romer, who has a very strong grasp of economics, also made a big deal about communicating clearly when he was running the Development Economics Group. And that’s why he no longer has that job.

The Bloomberg news service has a detailed accounting. The short version is that, among his many sins, Romer asked his staff to keep their emails shorter, get to the point quickly in presentations, and sharpen their writing.

“Romer was frustrated with what some see as the dense, convoluted style of many of the department’s reports. He pushed researchers to write more clearly, using the active voice to be more direct,” the Bloomberg story says.

OK, maybe there’s a little more to Romer losing his position. He also is characterized as being curt and abrasive. But he’s not the first to lament the mushy style that permeates World Bank reports and publications. Stanford University made a deep dive into the subject a couple of years ago and described the style as “becoming more abstract, more distant from concrete social life; a technical code detached from everyday communication” over the years. The study calls it “bankspeak.”

For instance, here’s a phrase plucked out of a World Bank report: “… promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatize state-owned enterprises and labor market/social protection reform…” The Stanford report labels that one “a grammatico-political monstrosity.”

I’ll acknowledge that there is a strong incentive for this kind of writing. If you have a point worth making, you are likely to piss off somebody. That pissed-off person may work inside your own organization, and have the power to make your life unpleasant. So it can be tempting to soften the focus, dull the sharp edges, and create a fog that will keep your points well hidden. You have discharged your duty of writing a report, and nobody is the wiser about what you really think.

It’s a sad way to live. But it’s safer than trying to get your organization to change, even when you are the boss.

Don’t cry for Romer. He still gets to hang around the Development Economics Group as a “thought leader,” a phrase that always conjures images of a kindergarten teacher leading a gaggle of thoughts around the playground, each thought holding hands with the next.

I guess I’m not a good candidate for the thought-leader job either.




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