29 April 2015

They are the two most memorable words for texts that are best forgotten: Gibberish and Gobbledygook.

“Gibberish or gobbledygook refer to speech or other use of language that is nonsense, or that appears to be nonsense. It may include speech sounds that are not actual words, or forms such as language games or highly specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.” (Wikipedia)

As Glenn Seaborg explained one theory in 1980 in “Our heritage of the elements”:

“… gibberish comes from the name of the famous 8th-century Islamic alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān, whose name was Latinized as “Geber”, thus the term “gibberish” arose as a reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon often used by Jabir and other alchemists who followed.”

Jabir ibn Hayyan alias Geber
Jabir ibn Hayyan alias Geber

There is no particular reason why texts about economic development should be either gibberish or gobbledygook. And yet, quite a lot of what was written by the European Commission on the economic development in the Balkans in recent years might qualify.

Take a look at the “EU Candidate & Potential Candidate Countries’ Economic Quarterly” published regularly by the Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs (ECFIN) of the European Commission.

The report in late 2014 described trends in the “real sector” of Bosnia and Herzegovina as follows:

“The economic upturn throughout 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 came abruptly to a halt in the second quarter of 2014 mainly as a result of the heavy spring floods. Accordingly, GDP growth slipped into a negative territory by 0.5% y-o-y after expanding by 3.2% in the previous quarter. Going further, preliminary data for the third quarter released by the statistical agency indicate GDP growth to have marginally turned positive (0.6% y-o-y). Similarly, high-frequency indicators for July-October 2014 point towards a modest revival of economic activity with the country-wide industrial production up by 1% yo-y, before turning negative again in November. In particular, the mining and quarrying sector as well as the utility sector registered the largest output contraction y-o-y, -1% and 10.7%, respectively, while the manufacturing sector posted the largest output increase (4.4%). The slump of domestic demand in the second quarter of 2014 started to reverse in July September with the growth of retail sales speeding up by 2.1% y-o-y and even accelerate in October-November to 7.8% y-o-y, well above the expansion of 4.6% in 2013.”

Already at first glance this breaks the basic rule of writing well: the writer is making the reader work too hard.

At second glance, once one begins to analyse this paragraph, it turns out that its meaning is elusive … or, in plain language, this makes little sense. Read this once, twice, three times, and then ask yourself: what has been happening in the Bosnian real sector in 2014, compared to 2013? There was a flood, and the economy suffered: but what do all these quarterly variations add up to? (Note that this paragraph is all the quarterly report tells the reader about the Bosnian real sector in late 2014.)


Or take this analysis of “monetary developments in Kosovo” in early 2015:

“Consumer prices started declining in December 2014 (-0.5% y/y) and continued on a downward trajectory by February (-0.2% y/y). The decline in the price index was almost completely influenced by decreasing prices of transport and education. On the other hand, 65.7% of the CPI components have actually been increasing; most notably food 2.1% y/y, energy 7.4% y/y etc.”

The reader understands that 65.7 percent of the prices of the components of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) have increased (one assumes in February), and (one assumes) 34.3 percent of the prices have not. One learns that there have been (monthly) decreases in the “prices of education” in January and February 2015, though what that means is elusive. There is no explanation which costs of education are included in the Consumer Price Index. Or why any of this matters and to whom. And what the etc. at the end refers to.

The economic sections of progress reports, which the European Commission publishes every autumn to evaluate accession countries, have also been written by ECFIN. The following paragraph is from the 2013 annual report on Macedonia. It invites readers to meditate on the meaning of words and numbers:

“Fiscal discipline was relaxed in 2012, and the quality of public spending deteriorated further. The general government budget deficit reached 3.8%, thus overshooting even the revised deficit target, which the authorities had raised by 1 percentage point to 3.5% in autumn. Another budget rebalancing reduced mainly investment spending, due to severe revenue shortfalls. Total expenditure as share of GDP rose from 31% in 2011 to 34% in 2012, and is estimated to reach 35% in 2013. The primary government budget deficit rose to 3.1% of GDP in 2012, compared to 1.7% in 2011. Capital spending was almost unchanged in 2012 compared to 2011, at 12% of total expenditure, or just over 4% of GDP, projected to decline to 11.3% of total expenditure in 2013, or 3.9% of GDP. The share of social transfers in total expenditure declined slightly in 2012, to 44.7% from 45.2% a year earlier, and is projected to stay largely unchanged in 2013. As a share of GDP, social transfers increased somewhat, to 15% of GDP, up by 0.4 percentage points.”

This creates an illusion of meaning. The reader is offered fourteen facts:

General government deficit target (2012)
Revised general government deficit target (2012)
Actual general government deficit (2012)   
2.5 per cent
3.5 percent
3.8 percent
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2011)
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2012)
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2013 expected)  
31 percent
34 percent
35 percent
Primary government budget deficit (2011)
Primary government budget deficit (2012)   
1.7 percent
3.1 percent
Capital spending as share of total spending (2011)
Capital spending as share of total spending (2012)
Capital spending as share of total spending (2013)
12 percent
12 percent (4 percent of GDP)
11.3 percent (3.9 percent of GDP)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2011)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2012)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2013 projected)
45.2 percent (14.6 percent GDP)
44.7 percent (15 percent GDP)
44.7 percent

What does all of this mean? The reader learns that

  • Fiscal discipline was relaxed and that “the general government deficit grew more than expected”; (two ways to say the same thing)
  • The reason for this: a severe revenue shortfall.
  • In response to this shortfall the government REDUCED investment spending but “capital spending was unchanged.”
  • Meanwhile total government expenditure ROSE.
  • And the share of social transfers in expenditure DECLINED.

So what actually happened in Macedonia?

The government did not collect as many revenues as it had planned. It then reduced investment spending. Social transfers declined as a share of expenditure. Total government expenditure rose. What type of spending increase explains the remarkable increase (by 3 per cent of total GDP!) in government spending? On this, there is nothing. We learn that the “quality of public spending deteriorated further,” a point that is never explained.


The truth about markets Money
Lucid writing on economics

During such meetings I also quoted positive examples of good writing. Oxford professor and FT columnist John Kay on markets. My friend Felix Martin on money. The Dutch Central Bank, describing the “faltering Dutch economy” in its 2012 annual report (page 15). You do not need a PhD in economics to understand the annual reports by the European Central Bank either:

“The economic and financial crisis has reduced euro area potential output via two main channels: lower investment and higher structural unemployment.

First, during the most severe phase of the crisis, investment rates declined considerably, with financing conditions, such as terms and availability of credit, worsening in particular. Increased economic and political uncertainty and an unfavourable economic outlook made it more difficult to assess investment projects and lowered the expected rate of return on investments. High indebtedness of non-financial corporations in some euro area countries also made deleveraging necessary, further reducing credit demand.

Second, the crisis has also led to an increase in short to medium-term structural unemployment rates, indicated by the rise in long-term unemployment and an increase in skill mismatches. The unemployment rate of low-skilled workers has increased more than that of high-skilled workers, largely because the crisis triggered a sectoral relocation in many euro area economies, in particular a shift away from the construction sector. As it may be difficult for low-skilled workers dismissed from one sector to find jobs in other sectors, and as their human capital progressively erodes with the duration of unemployment, structural unemployment rates may remain elevated for an extended period.”

(ECB, 2014 Annual Report, page 23).

Fortunately, during 2014 awareness of the problem posed by unclear writing on economic trends has increased in many EU policy circles. There is good reason to expect that future writing by the European Commission (and ECFIN) on the economies of accession countries will be less impenetrable. (It may also be worth considering a thorough reform – or even a discontinuation – of these quarterly reports: http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/db_indicators/cpaceq/index_en.htm)

PS: To add one useful example when it comes to writing about economic trends in the Balkans – certainly for the economic section in the next Kosovo progress report of the European Commission – look here: 2015 Kosovo NERP.

Filed under: Balkans,Books,Bosnia,Economics,Macedonia,Stickiness,Writing well — Gerald @ 8:29 pm

Every organisation that is around for long enough develops its own jargon. One question that we in ESI ask ourselves often is whether a given draft “can be understood by a perceptive fourteen-year-old.” Does it meet the fourteen-year-old test?

The logic behind this is simple: whether we write about the Bosnian constitution, rural poverty, election monitoring, the furniture business in Turkey or the European statistical system, we try to communicate with people from many countries with different backgrounds. We imagine a group of readers consisting of a Bosnian minister, a Turkish journalist, an Italian diplomat and an American NGO activist. We assume that our readers are experts in their fields, experienced and pressed for time. We do, however, assume that they are as impatient with bad writing as we are.

A literate and curious fourteen-year-old already knows a lot about the world and is eager to learn more every day. What she is not yet familiar with is the jargon in any field. She is also likely to ask what a certain concept actually means when it is first encountered, whether “human capital”, “free and fair elections”, a “functioning market economy” or “annual GDP growth.” Or what the purpose of any text or discipline is.

Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch – great writer

In his book The Historian’s Craft Marc Bloch, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, put himself in the position of a father asked by his child: “What is the use of history?” And then he sets out to answer this simple but certainly not childish question in a book written while he was already part of the French resistance in 1942. (He was later arrested and shot by the Gestapo).

When the stakes are real, there is no time for any but important questions to be addressed. And to always aim, even if one falls short, for the elegance and simplicity of masters like Bloch.

To write in “Fourteenish” is thus to write for a broad audience of concerned readers; eager to learn but impatient; for readers interested in a wide variety of issues on which they cannot always be experts; for readers who always ask: “What is the point?”

As William Zinsser put it in his classic On Writing Well – required reading for anybody drafting policy papers – “writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say?” And writers must remember:

“In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article, because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours.”

One of the ambitions of this blog is to begin to “translate” policy papers on different issues, in particular texts on economic development and EU policy, into Fourteenish.

We begin this series of with Reflections on (not) writing well on economies; followed by a look at a thought-provoking and lucid policy paper, the 2015 Kosovo NERP (National Economic Reform Programme).

PS: If you come across any text – a policy paper or an academic report – which you believe deserves to be held up as an example of a particularly badly or well written text, please send it to g.knaus@esiweb.org.

Filed under: Books,Economics,How ESI works,Stickiness,Think Tanks,Writing well — Gerald @ 8:12 pm
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