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…

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