Please Don’t Write Well, Write Clearly

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

Chris Blattman just published a piece about the 10 things he’d tell college kids. I think they’re all generally great pieces of advice, but I want to expand on one point in particular.

His #3 piece of advice is “Learn to write well”. As a general concept, I’m all for that. Chris says,

You’ll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you’ll write in life. Even if you’re not in that line of work, until they put microchips in our brains (which, admittedly, might not be so far off) writing emails will probably be the main way you connect with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and customers.

This is absolutely right. For many, many jobs, the majority of time is probably spent writing in some form or another.

But I’d make a clear distinction between being a “good writer” and a “clear writer”. For the writing that Chris is talking about – proposals, reports, letters, e-mails – what you are after is clarity, not quality. You want your reader to get your point quickly and find the supporting evidence easily. Quality writing is about the subtle use of language, playing words off one another, and evoking emotion. All these things are the enemy of clear writing. The goal of your e-mail is not to generate a late-night drunken discussion about the perceptions of good and evil manifested in the portrayal of Boo Radley. It’s an e-mail.

Chris suggests “You might also consider a course in creative, non-fiction, journalism, or business writing.” For the love of God, please don’t. Take courses that demand you write, not courses that are about writing. Writing courses are generally taught by people who want you to “write well”, not “write clearly”. They are either good writers themselves, or are aspiring to be good writers. In pursuit of “good writing” they will tell you to do things that inhibit the clarity of your writing. Your goal is not to be Harper Lee, it is to be understood quickly and unambiguously. (If you *do* want to be Harper Lee, then you probably aren’t reading this blog).

As part of being a clear writer, please don’t ever use the “persuasive essay” format. This idea is pushed in writing classes, and should die painfully in a fire. Don’t tell the reader that you are going to tell them the information they need. Don’t tell the reader later on that you just told them the information they need. Just tell them the information they need. The “persuasive essay” format is suitable for speeches or presentations, but not for 99% of the writing that you will need to do.

The following tips for clear writing exist in some form all over the place, but keep them in mind:

  1. Your paper/report/email has too many paragraphs.
  2. Your paragraphs have too many sentences.
  3. Your sentences have too many words.

For pieces that are expected to be long (e.g. papers) the first point about paragraphs is crucial. I can almost guarantee you that if you lopped off the very first paragraph of you paper and dropped it down a deep well, no one would ever notice.

How do you get better at writing clearly?

  1. Write something.
  2. Shorten it.
  3. Show it to someone else and get their feedback.
  4. Goto #1.

You cannot skip the third step. Nothing clarifies your writing mind like the thought that someone else is going to read your work. You have to continually ask people what they think. This is the value of taking writing-intensive classes in college. You have a captive audience who actually *wants* (ok, feels obligated, but take what you can get) to read your writing. The professor in a subject-matter class is after clarity, not quality. Take their comments seriously.

I say all this as someone who spent a good fifteen years scratching and clawing his way from “vomiting word salad” to “making occasional sense”. The biggest step I took was in striving to write clearly, not well. I’ll let you know when I finally get there.

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Job Quality is about Policies, not Technology

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

Nouriel Roubini posted an article titled “Where Will All the Workers Go?”. A few pulls:

“The risk is that robotics and automation will displace workers in blue-collar manufacturing jobs before the dust of the Third Industrial Revolution settles.”

“But, unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place, it remains uncertain whether demand for labor will continue to grow as technology marches forward.”

“Even that may not be sufficient, in which case it will become necessary to provide permanent income support to those whose jobs are displaced by software and machines.”

The worry here is that technology will replace certain jobs (particularly goods-producing jobs) and that there will literally be nothing for those people to do. They will presumably exit the labor market completely and possibly need permanent income support.

Let’s quickly deal with the “lump of labor” fallacy sitting behind this. Technology reduces the demand for labor in some industries, so fewer workers are employed there. Which raises the supply of labor in all the other industries. For that supply shock to generate no other employment you have to assume that the $15 trillion dollar a year U.S. economy is so rigidly inflexible that it has a definitely fixed set of jobs that can be filled. That’s ridiculous.

To a rough approximation, just about the exact same number of people work in goods-producing industries in 2013 (19 million) as did in 1950 (17 million). And yet somehow the rest of us have figured out what to do with ourselves in the interim. Between 1950 and 2013 the U.S. economy expanded from 28 million service jobs to 117 million service jobs (All stats from the BLS). You think that somehow it won’t be able to figure out what to do with more workers that are displaced by technology? We’ve been creating new kinds of jobs for two hundred years.

So let’s ignore the phantom worry that tens of millions workers suddenly find themselves completely at a loss to find work. The economy is going to find something for these people to do. The question is what kind of jobs these will be.

Will they be “bad jobs”? McJobs at retail outlets, wearing a nametag? These aren’t “good jobs”, real jobs. Making “stuff” is a real job, not some made-up bullshit service job.

We can worry about the quality of jobs, but the mistake here is to confound “good jobs” with manufacturing or goods-producing jobs. Manufacturing jobs are not inherently “good jobs”. There is nothing magic about repetitively assembling parts together. You think the people at Foxconn have good jobs? There is no greater dignity to manufacturing than to providing a service. Cops produce no goods. Nurses produce no goods. Teachers produce no goods.

Manufacturing jobs were historically “good jobs” because they came with benefits that were not found in other industries. Those benefits – job security, health care, regular raises – have nothing to do with the dignity of “real work” and lots to do with manufacturing being an industry that is conducive to unionization. The same scale economies that make gigantic factories productive also make them relatively easy places to organize. They have lots of workers collected in a single place, with definitive safety issues to address, and an ownership that can be hurt deeply by shutting down the cash flow they need to pay off debt. To beat home the point, consider that what we consider “good” service jobs – teacher, cop – are also heavily unionized. Public employees, no less.

If you want people to get “good jobs” – particularly those displaced by technology – then work to reverse the loss of labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership. Raise minimum wages. Alleviate the difficulty in unionizing service workers.

You want to smooth the transition for people who are displaced, and help them move into new industries? Great. Let’s have a discussion about our optimal level of social insurance and support for training and education. But the sectors people leave or eventually enter are irrelevant to that.

You want to worry about downward wage pressure as the demand for labor falls? Great. Worry about that. See the above point about raising labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership.

Hoping or trying to recreate the employment structure of 1950 is stupid. We don’t need that many people to assemble stuff together any more because we are so freaking good at it now. The expansion of service employment isn’t some kind of historical mistake we need to reverse.

Any job can be a “good job” if the worker and employer can coordinate on a good equilibrium. Costco coordinates on a high-wage, high-benefit, high-effort, low-turnover equilibrium. Sam’s Club coordinates on a low-wage, low-benefit, low-effort, high-turnover equilibrium. Both companies make money, but one provides better jobs than the other. So as technology continues to displace workers, think about how to get *all* companies to coordinate on the “good” equilibrium rather than pining for lost days of manly steelworkers or making the silly presumption that we will literally run out of things to do.

Populations, not Nations, Dictate Development

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

One of the more intriguing empirical regularities in recent growth research involves population origins. Rather than thinking about rich and poor countries, work by Louis Putterman and David Weil tells us to think about rich and poor population groups (Europeans and Native Americans, for example). Countries are rich if their population is made up of rich population groups, and vice versa. The U.S. is rich because it has lots of European descendants, and relatively few Native American descendants. Mexico, in contrast, is relatively poor because it has a few European descendants but lots of Native American descendants.

The interesting aspect of these findings is that they suggest we are looking at the wrong units of observation, so to speak, in studying economic growth and development. We should be studying the characteristics of population groups, not countries, and looking at the characteristics that make those groups prosperous relative to others.

I pulled two sets of results out of the survey by Spolaore and Wacziarg (2013), which is a great introduction to this material if you want more depth. The first are regressions of output per worker in 2005 on either years since agriculture first began or years of “state history” (i.e. how long organized political regimes have existed) for each country. Columns (1) and (3) show that the country-level measures of agriculture or state history are not relevant. But if you weight the years since agriculture began or state history by population composition, you get a different story. As an example, the weighted state history for the U.S. is a weighted average of the state history of England, Germany, Italy, etc.. (quite long) as opposed to the state history of North America (quite short).

Spolaore Wacziarg 2013 Fig 5

The length of time that populations have had settled agriculture and organized states is highly correlated with output per worker today. Countries that have more history with economic organization are richer today.

Spolaore and Wacziarg’s next table shows that even holding those features constant, the share of Europeans in the population of a country is highly correlated with output per worker today. The upshot is that Europeans and their descendants are rich (as a group), wherever they are in the world, but not so for other population groups. See Easterly and Levine (2012) for more robustness checks on this result.

Spolaore Wacziarg 2013 Fig 6

This idea that some population groups are the source of economic success leads to reactions that run from raised eyebrows to accusations of racism. But let’s be very clear that this finding regarding population groups implies nothing about any kind of inherent superiority to Europeans as a group.

We need only a few things to hold for these patterns to arise:

  • First, economic organization has to be subject to some kind of cumulative process. Whether you want to call it tacit knowledge, acculturation, or learning-by-doing, successful economic organization must be something that cannot just be snatched out of the ether. Each generation builds upon the prior’s organization to become a little more advanced.
  • Second, that cumulative knowledge is passed on more easily the more closely related – culturally, linguistically, genetically – are two groups. The English and French can benefit from each others accumulating knowledge more easily than the English and Chinese for example.
  • Finally, you need Europe to “get started” earlier than other regions.

With those three elements, you get Europeans with an advantage today in economic organization. They simply got rolling earlier than other areas with figuring things out, and because it is much easier for Europeans to learn from Europeans, they maintain this early advantage over long periods of time.

Further, because economic organization is something accumulated within a cultural group, it moves with them. Hence the United States gains the benefits of the long European history with economic organization, while Mexico does not to the same extent.

Does that mean European-descended places are permanently entrenched as the richest places in the world? It might. The outcome depends on whether other population groups can improve their economic organization faster than Europeans. And this in turn depends on how fast the organization ideas of Europeans spill over or get transmitted to other groups. If other population groups are both learning on their own *and* are acquiring new ideas from Europeans, then they should be catching up. Maybe slowly, but they should catch up.

On the other hand, there could be some kind of increasing returns to scale here, with Europeans getting even better and better at economic organization as they get richer. Combine that with slow spillovers, and the European population lead could not only persist, but widen as time goes on.

If you want to avoid this spiral of divergence, then this literature implies three possible actions. (1) import Europeans, (2) export your people to European places, or (3) assimilate European culture.

Not sure of many places that are actively trying to recruit European settlers (although Paul Romer’s whole charter city thing sort of falls in this arena). Lots of developing country citizens do actively try to export themselves to European countries every year.

The last one is probably the most controversial. We can’t really tell people in poor countries to “act European”? The whole point is that European culture is this accumulated body of tacit knowledge that is not readily translatable. So how would you actually “assimilate European culture” even if you wanted to? It can obviously happen over time – there are 736 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in South Africa – but is this something you can actively manage?

Finally, this means the really interesting question is: how did Europeans get a head start in the first place? The research that Spolaore and Wacziarg review suggests that the advantages go back deep in time. It could be the nature of their agricultural endowments (as in Jared Diamond), or their optimal mix of diversity across groups (Ashraf and Galor), or pure un-adultered luck.

Regardless, studying development in light of this research implies studying population groups or cultures as the units of analysis, rather than confining ourselves to borders that may not have any information content about the economic organization of the populations inside of them.