Paul Romer and the Parataxis of the World Bank


Via Tyler Cowen I learn that “Bankspeak,” the jargon of the World Bank, is a big issue. Who knew? Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 report of the Stanford Literary Lab:

The biggest surprise came with the most frequent collocate of all: “and”. “And”? The most frequent word in English is “the”: everybody knows that. So, what is “and” doing at the top of the list? Two passages from the 1999 Report may help to explain:

  • promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatize state-owned enterprises and labor market/social protection reform
  • There is greater emphasis on quality, responsiveness, and partnerships; on knowledge-sharing and client orientation; and on poverty reduction

The first passage—a grammatico-political monstrosity—is a small present to our patient readers; the second, more guarded, is also more indicative of the rhetoric in question. Knowledge-sharing has really nothing to do with client orientation; poverty reduction, nothing to do with either. There is no reason they should appear together. But those “ands” connect them just the same, despite the total absence of logic, and their paratactical crudity becomes almost a justification: we have so many important things to do, we can’t afford to be elegant; we must take care of our clients, yes (we are, remember, a bank); but we also care about knowledge! and partnership! and sharing! and poverty!

Paratactical? The Stanford folks might want to think about their dedication to clear language too.1 That aside, here’s a lovely scatterplot showing the skyrocketing use of the word and in World Bank reports:

Hmmm. “Frequency per million words (thousands)”? I’m just spitballing here, but maybe this could be “frequency per thousand words” instead? Once again, the Stanford folks have some work of their own to do on the plain-speaking front.

Anyway, this brings us to the meat of our story. Apparently Paul Romer, highly-respected macroeconomist and scourge of lazy thinking, decided to start a campaign to improve World Bank writing. He was well placed to do this since he is, these days, the chief economist of the World Bank. Here is the Financial Times:

Circulating a draft of the upcoming World Development Report, Mr Romer warned against bank staff trying to pile their own pet projects and messages into the report. The tendency, he argued, had diluted the impact of past reports and led to a proliferation of “ands”.

….“A WDR, like a knife, has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” he added. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6%.”…The use of the word “and” over the years had doubled to almost 7 per cent in World Bank reports, Mr Romer pointed out in a January memo to his staff.

And Bloomberg:

Romer expressed to those around him that the department should communicate more clearly, dive right into public debates, and align its work with the institution’s goals of ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality….Romer asked for shorter emails and insisted presentations get straight to the point, cutting staff off if they talked too long, said another person familiar with the matter. He canceled a regular publication that didn’t have a clear purpose, one of the people said.

….Romer said the limit on “and” was a “gimmick” he used to show he’s serious about good writing. “They’ve worked it down to 3.4 percent. They said, ‘We’re getting there’.”

It seems to me that Romer is cheating. If you take the lowest and highest numbers from the Stanford report, use of and has gone from about 2.9 percent to 5.5 percent. But using outliers isn’t kosher. An eyeball regression suggests that the real increase has been from 3.1 percent to 4.5 percent. That’s not great, but not quite so horrible, either. But then again, maybe the report Romer commissioned came up with different numbers. Who knows?

In any case, my guess is that the proliferation of and has less to do with “pet projects” and more to do with bureaucratic dynamics. If you leave out knowledge-sharing, the communications staff get upset. If you leave out client orientation, the field workers get upset. If you leave out poverty reduction, the poverty folks get upset. So it’s easier just to cut and paste them all in to keep everyone from getting upset. Who needs the grief?

The ending of this story is a sad one: the World Bank staff rebelled and Romer no longer manages the research group. “They felt under-appreciated,” he said. “It reflected a kind of siege mentality that I can’t quite understand.” It’s possible, of course, that they were on high alert already. After all, shortly before he took over at the World Bank Romer gave a speech in which he called modern macroeconomics a “pseudoscience” that was now “post-real.” This probably gave him a rough start managing a group of macroeconomists.

As for better writing at the World Bank, I wouldn’t count on it. The key imperative for anyone in a big bureaucracy is to make sure that (a) you don’t offend anyone, and (b) no one can blame you for anything. In a big international bureaucracy, this imperative is even stronger since God only knows who you might accidentally offend if you choose the wrong words. Mushspeak is a natural reaction to this.

1From parataxis, “the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words.”