On Writing – Gibberish and Economics

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.

On Writing – The fourteen-year-old test

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.

The 10,000 hour rule, the Ahtisaari test and other sticky concepts

The Charles Hotel, Boston

I assume most everybody who finds his or her way to this website will have read one of my favourite books: The Tipping Point by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. If you have not, do. If you have, and liked it, consider getting the latest book by the same author: Outliers – the Story of Success. I just finished reading it and it is fabulously inspiring.

Of course, there is something ironic about recommending an author such as Gladwell: it is as if, for a moment, one steps into the world of his books and performs one of the roles that he explains there: to contribute to another “social epidemic”. And since many people do this, the outcome is, indeed, epidemic (see a recent article in the Guardian, In Praise of Malcom Gladwell). But this is not hype: any praise for Gladwell’s work is fully deserved.

In his first book Gladwell sets out what he calls the rules of social epidemics. The basic idea: ideas, products and messages spread like viruses. Any epidemic has a tipping point, when it spreads exponentially. So do ideas. Certain individuals – connectors, mavens and salesmen – play a key role in this. Mavens are people who collect information, who read newspapers and magazines obsessively, who share news: information brokers, data banks, people who provide messages. Connectors spread messages. Connectors are those who have a very large and diverse circle of acquaintances: people who know lots of people, who have a foot in many different worlds and can thus bring these worlds together. Salesmen persuade people who remain unconvinced of what they are hearing. As Gladwell describes a salesman: “it’s energy, it’s enthusiasm, it’s charm, it’s likability.”

One of my favourite passages from Gladwell’s first book – which I have used many times during ESI capacity building seminars, trying to explain how we at ESI think about our own writing – is taken from the US TV series Sesame Street. It seeks to explain a concept dear to anyone engaged in the business of producing stories for a (hopefully) large audience: “stickiness”.

The makers of Sesame Street succeeded in making their TV series for children ‘sticky”: their insight was that if you can hold the attention of children, they can be educated. They went about this systematically: devising tests such as running shows on TV screens while giving young children toys to play with. Children were quite sophisticated when to turn away from their toys to watch the screen and when to ignore the show: “they looked at what were for them the most informative parts of the program.”

The head of research for Sesame street then developed what he called a distractor: playing one episode of the show on one TV and running a slide show on another. When would children turn from the TV and watch the slide show? What episodes would hold children’s attention? Often the difference between a message that is sticky – and thus likely to turn into a social epidemic through the efforts of mavens, connectors and salesmen – and one that is not sticky consists in small but critical adjustments. People did not like it when two or three people talked at the same time. Etc:

“The Distractor showed that no single segment of the Sesame street format should go beyond four minutes, and that three minutes was probably optimal. He forced the producers to simplify dialogue and abandon certain techniques they had taken from adult television.”

(This is also a central idea in ESI’s writing: whenever something can be explained in a more simple way, do it. If we can find a simple word instead of a complex one, use it. Cut out any superfluous sentences. Insert no table whose message cannot be grasped at one glance – a rule most international organisations seem to delight in breaking. Make a report sticky. We call this internally our “Ahtisaari test”: every report should be written in such a way that when we get it to Martti Ahtisaari – a very busy man who nonetheless appreciates our work and is interested in the issues we care about – he should never get bored. Thus, no report must be longer than 30 pages, no discussion paper longer than 10. The few times we broke this rule we paid a price, and even well-researched reports failed to have any impact).

Gladwell’s writing can be applied to many different situations. In fact, his own success is an almost perfect illustration of his theory: his messages are certainly sticky. People who read a lot – like myself – feel compelled to recommend him. And when he appears on television, he radiates optimism and enthusiasm and draws attention (a perfect salesman).

So this is what happened to me: I had set up my own distractor in my hotel room in Boston, working on my laptop to prepare a presentation on the Balkans for the Kennedy School, with the hotel TV on in the background. Occasionally I paid attention to the program (CNN). Until Gladwell appeared and talked about his new book to Anderson Cooper. Then I stopped working on my presentation.

Now, three days later, I can still recall what Gladwell and Cooper talked about. The 10,000 hour rule. The fact that it therefore takes ten years of practice to be very good at anything. That this was as much true for Mozart as it was for the Beatles. That when we think about success as individual achievement – admiring a genius and a self-made man/woman – we miss what is essential about the social opportunities that any outlier (exceptionally successful) person requires. As Gladwell puts it: “When outliers become outliers it is not only just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.”

So the inevitable happens: two days later, now back in NY, I buy the book. I start and read it almost in one go. And now I spread the news. Get the book! And then let me know what you think!

If you need one more push to be convinced, let me give you one more example from Gladwell’s book: a test undertaken by psychologist K. Naders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The school’s violinists were all divided into three groups: the stars, students with the potential to become world class; the merely good; and those unlikely ever to play professionally, preparing instead to become music teachers in public schools. Then all were asked how many hours they had practiced in their youth. The finding was striking:

“… by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours. … once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” (p. 39)

To reach ten thousand hours of practice, however, is almost impossible if you are all by yourself as a young adult. It requires support and encouragement. Families, or societies, where this support is widespread will produce many more people who can turn innate ability into top performance. Without support, even a high IQ or an inherited talent will not be sufficient.

I immediately think of the Kosovo villages we have researched in Cutting the Lifeline (and which appear in our Kosovo film): how many of the young there, in particular how many of the young women, get anything remotely resembling the support they need to develop their talents? How many young women do so in Eastern Turkey? Does the “Matthew effect” Gladwell refers to (“unto everyone that hath shall be given”) not also hold for 2nd generation Turkish migrants in Berlin? And the story of the NY garment industry and who it generated skills useful in financial markets within one generation: does it not fit perfectly into our analysis of textile towns in the Balkans? A good book leadsto countless further ideas …

However, there is one additional lesson from the Tipping point: remember, “no sequence of Sesame street” should be longer than 3 minutes. Perhaps this is a good lesson also for this blog? To read more … come back soon.

PS: And if you want to get more information about Gladwell go to www.gladwell.com.