15 February 2012

Economical Writing

The main cause of bad writing in economics is that economists don't read good writing. If economists would read Jane Austen or George Orwell, or even Adam Smith or Thomas Schelling, in bulk, daily, habitually, they would improve. 
Deirdre McCloskey (HT: Abhijeet Singh)


Theo said...

Hear, hear.  Robert Solow's occasional book reviews are more cogent than half the things published in major journals, despite their editors' claims that 'good writing' remains a key criterion for publication. 

 Part of the story is that economics is now a more quantitative field (or at least perceives itself to be so); Tyler Cowen has made the interesting point that this 'mathematicalisation' of economics has happened in lock-step with the internationalisation of economists.  With more and more non-native speakers working in the field, maths has emerged as the common language.  

Of course, lower barriers to entry to non-native speakers is a good thing, and weighing this against the desire for clear writing is, I'd imagine, a tough balancing act for journal editors.   

rovingbandit said...

Good point.

Jason Kerwin said...

Am I reading the same *Wealth of Nations* as McCloskey? Adam Smith's writing is overly verbose, poorly organized, riddled with bad logic, and frankly often boring. The best-known sections of *Wealth* (say, the example of the pinmaker) are unsurprisingly in the first few pages, and the doesn't even make many of the most famous points attributed to it. The most famous Smithian concept, the "invisible hand", was in fact a claim that merchants would naturally promote the metcantilist interests of the state through their own efforts. He did made a claim closer to our modern interpretation in *Moral Sentiments* but, playing to form, did so fairly incoherently.

If Smith is the standard then I'm glad that economics has moved away from a focus on reading and writing, and toward quantitative work.

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