Friday, September 12, 2008

Readable economics

In several posts, I’ve discussed the importance of readability. Without high readability, you cannot achieve clear writing. In this post, I want to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to produce readable writing about difficult subjects – for example, economics.

First, an example of low readability: The American Empire is Another Bubble, by Don A. Rich, posted today. This article rates 22.1 in the Flesch Reading Ease test. That means it’s about as difficult to read as a tax form.

Mr. Rich is an instructor of economics, finance and political science at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Rich or the college. Almost all academic writers score in the 20s – or even lower.

Here’s a sample from the article:

“In response to that crisis and to concerns over Y2K, and with especially intense initiation at the time of the LTCM fiasco (an event itself of course made possible by the intrinsic moral hazard of Greenspan and the postwar regulatory mentality), the Fed lowered rates, thereby pushing the tech-stock bubble into a final frenzy.”

Now, from the same web site, an example of high readability: On Appeasing Envy, by Henry Hazlitt, posted on November 3, 2005 (previously published elsewhere in March 1972). The article rates 47.6 in the Flesch Reading Ease test. That means it’s about as easy to read as The Wall Street Journal and almost as easy to read as Time magazine.

But that is not surprising: Mr. Hazlitt wrote for the Journal and for Newsweek magazine. He was a libertarian philosopher and economist as well as a journalist. H. L. Mencken referred to him as “one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”

Here’s a sample from the article:

“We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people’s envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to ‘maldistributed’ plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labour Party leaders after World War II was that ‘Nobody should have what everybody can’t have.’ ”

The Takeaway: It is indeed possible to write readable copy on any subject. Henry Hazlitt’s most famous book, Economics in One Lesson, is a masterly example. If you are serious about improving the clarity of your writing, I strongly recommend that you spend ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who exemplify clear writing. The topic you select doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content.

If you would like a list of suggested writers and works, please type a comment below and ask for my “List of Writers.” I will respond via email.

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