Unclear Economic Thinking

Author: Waqas Younas
Publication Year : 2019

Pakistan’s troubled economy is like a bridge that keeps collapsing despite bold claims of soundness by its engineers. We keep hearing claims of a prospering economy by our economic planners. Until the economy crashes again.

If the thinking behind our economic plans were clear, the nation might not be in constant turmoil. Well-thought-out plans lead not to such turbulence, but rather to prosperity. It makes one wonder whether our economic policies are the result of clear thinking.

Ministry of Finance (MoF) publishes documents that outline important economic policies. These documents are available on the internet for everyone to read. Do these documents reflect clear economic thinking?

Well, thinking precedes writing. So, if we can determine the quality of writing, this determination can then give us a reasonable clue about the quality of thinking. If these documents are written in cogent yet simple language, keeping in view their audience, then, yes, one can infer that they are the result of clear economic thinking.

I analyzed two documents by MoF. One document is the Pakistan Economic Survey 2018-2019 (PES), while the other is “Roadmap for Stability and Growth,” both published in 2019. The analysis shows that economic writing published by MoF is difficult to understand. It also shows that it is not well-researched and attractively presented. So it is not likely the result of deep and clear thought.

In the first part of my analysis, I tried to determine whether these documents are written with their audience in mind. The answer is no. These are public documents. But our general public is not educated enough to understand complex economic jargon published in English. These documents should have been published in Urdu first. They also should not contain complex jargon.

Aiming for a broader readership will have two benefits. First, it will strengthen Pakistan’s democracy. The more people understand economic policy, the better our economic discourse becomes. Second, it will strengthen the social fabric. When Ministries publish work that is understandable by most people in many regions across Pakistan, it signals inclusiveness.

Now onto the second part of my analysis. In it I used guidelines from work published by Steven Pinker , a linguist at Harvard University. I also followed guidance from work put out by the Literary Lab at Stanford University.

With this guidance in mind, I measured these texts for their reading ease. I also tracked vague words, as defined by Pinker and the Stanford study. Moreover, I counted the number of times the word “and” is used. Its excessive or careless use can enable the linking of unrelated ideas.

The results of this analysis indicated that both these documents are indeed difficult to understand. Both texts contain complex, vague words, as well as overuse of the word “and” and painfully long sentences and paragraphs.

Vague words were plentiful. Words such as “growth,” “framework” and “strategy” were commonly employed. These words are vague because they can express more than one coherent thought at a time. The word “and” was also used unnecessarily.

These texts were also full of complex sentences and paragraphs. A few sentences comprised more than seven dozen words, whereas any sentence of more than thirty words can be hard for those whose native language is not English. Similarly, some paragraphs are so long that by the time the reader reaches their end, he forgets the beginning.

If you showed these documents to a college graduate would they easily understand them, one may ask? Unfortunately, no. I showed them to a few recent graduates, and even they found them hard to understand.

Apart from the above analysis, I also observed that these documents are not well-researched and attractively presented.

Well-researched documents contain essential citations. Citations show that writers took pains to read a wide variety of research before reaching their conclusions. One must not forget that the hopes of millions hinge on our economic policies. Ergo, one assumes that thorough research would be conducted. But, sadly, the lack of citations in these two texts puts that assumption in question.

Attractive formatting of a document not only pleases the eye, but can also help engage the reader if the content is a bit dry. Meaningful visualizations and effective use of fonts and space were absent in both documents.

A cursory look at the Indian Economic Survey surprised me, and provided a salient comparison. Their economic survey is better formatted. It is available in Hindi. Their survey also talks about behavioural economics, data, and technology. Ours does not.

Overall, my analysis showed that our government’s writing on economic matters does not reflect clear thinking. Unclear thinking cannot move nations from poverty to opulence; only clear thinking can.

I am sure that the intentions of MoF personnel are good. But as a citizen, I look to our economic planners to uplift us from misery and toil. The poor who struggle to put food on their plates look up to them, too.

It is time government institutions think about our economic problems in a clear manner. Such thinking will yield the best opportunity possible to bring us out of our economic upheaval.

The writer is a consultant based in Lahore. He blogs at http://blog.wyounas.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/wyounas .