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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

'John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity'

From Tim Taylor:

John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity: John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was trained as an economist, but in books like The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), his found his metier as a social critic. In these books and voluminous other writings, Galbraith didn't propose well-articulated economic theories, and carry out systematic empirical tests, but instead offered big-picture perspectives of the economy and society of his time. His policy advice was grindingly predictable: big and bigger doses of progressive liberalism, what he sometimes called "new socialism." 

For a sense of how mainstream and Democratic-leaning economists of the time dismissed Galbraith's work, classic example is this scathing-and-smiling review of The New Industrial State by Robert Solow in the Fall 1967 issue of The Public Interest. Galbreath's response appears in the same issue. Connoisseurs of academic blood sports will enjoy the exchange.

Here, I come not to quarrel with Galbraith's economics, but to praise him as one of the finest writers on economics and social science topics it has ever been my pleasure to read. I take as my text his essay on "Writing, Typing, and Economics," which appeared in the March 1978 issue of The Atlantic and which I recently rediscovered. Here are some highlights:

"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand — are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same. ..."
"My advice to those eager students in California would be, "Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse." I would also warn against the flocking tendency of writers and its use as a cover for idleness. It helps greatly in the avoidance of work to be in the company of others who are also waiting for the golden moment. The best place to write is by yourself, because writing becomes an escape from the terrible boredom of your own personality. It's the reason that for years I've favored Switzerland, where I look at the telephone and yearn to hear it ring. ..."
"There may be inspired writers for whom the first draft is just right. But anyone who is not certifiably a Milton had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: Writing is difficult work. Ralph Paine, who managed Fortune in my time, used to say that anyone who said writing was easy was either a bad writer or an unregenerate liar. Thinking, as Voltaire avowed, is also a very tedious thing which men—or women—will do anything to avoid. So all first drafts are deeply flawed by the need to combine composition with thought. Each later draft is less demanding in this regard. Hence the writing can be better. There does come a time when revision is for the sake of change—when one has become so bored with the words that anything that is different looks better. But even then it may be better. ..." 
"Next, I would want to tell my students of a point strongly pressed, if my memory serves, by Shaw. He once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. ..." 
"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult. Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.
"Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger." 

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 26, 2015 at 12:24 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (28)


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