Bryan Caplan  

Eschew Sesquipedalian Obsfucation

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I'm a fan of Rick Harbaugh's work (with Nick Feltovich and Ted To) on counter-signaling. The motivating paragraph of "Too Cool for School" still blows me away:

Contrary to this standard implication, high types sometimes avoid the signals that should separate them from lower types, while intermediate types often appear the most anxious to send the “right” signals. The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays... Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response.

Today another example struck me: The best writers - like George Orwell - usually stick to short and simple words. In fact, in his legendary "Politics and the English Language", the second rule of good writing is "Never use a long word where a short one will do." The third-stringers, in contrast, hide behind their thesauruses. (Lit crit, anyone?)

Why doesn't everyone follow Orwell's rule? Harbaugh has a clean answer: If you're a writer of moderate ability, you can't make yourself look good using ordinary words. So you hide behind pompous language, demonstrating at least that you know more words than the average slob. In contrast, a great writer can sound brilliant in monosyllables - and those who can, do.

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The author at Asymmetrical Information in a related article titled Crossed signals writes:
    I very much dislike David Foster Wallace. His writing has always struck me as the literary equivalent of that guy who damaged his liver trying to hold his breath for nine minutes--a difficult feat, to be sure, but one where the results are vastly less ... [Tracked on May 10, 2006 11:25 PM]
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Bruce Cleaver writes:

I agree! In another example, I had a professor who was one of the leading authorities in radiation shielding. He developed a highly mathematical treatment of the subject, but explained it so clearly, so logically, without mystery-mongering, that it seemed obvious and easy; you actually thought *you* could do it. Of course, you couldn't.

aaron writes:

Cheers to that!

That's a type W argument, and it probably doesn't solve the retitlement problem.


eric writes:

As applied to economists, isn't that the superfluous mathematics emphasized in grad school? Are we that much clearer, or in agreement, because of Kakutani's fixed point theorem, or measure theory, or real analysis, continuous time?

Pelkabo writes:

William Faulkner is an exception to this rule.

AJ writes:

This also applies to critics. Critics in all arts are the middle level trying to associate themselves with the upper level. This is why obfuscated works are preferred by critics. Read Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word" a short book. It is the best thing writtenon the economic role of critics in art economics - he has this very point down. Obfuscation enhances the importance of critics...


liberty writes:

That partially explains Galbraith's unintelligable hogwash. I think he also thought the more convoluted he sounded the less that people woud question his logic.

Richard Phillips writes:

This is true for non-fiction writing only, where things should always be kept clear and simple. In fiction, I'll just cite one author: James Joyce.

Another good example of counter-signaling may be found in certain genres of music when average talented musicians hide behind their instrument technique.

mvpy writes:


Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

Thomas B writes:

This holds for fiction too: I'd rather read Palahniuk over Joyce any day.

Most literary critics are failed writers, so of course they champion needless complexity.

Richard Phillips writes:

My point is that fiction authors may have artistic reasons for using complex vocabulary and/or writing in an elusive style; there is no point imposing what is "needed" or not.

Barkley Rosser writes:

A subtle issue is to know what is the shortest word that is needed, and a really good writer may know words most do not that indeed are the most appropriate. This may frustrate more ignorant readers forced to run to a dictionary, but...

An example I would give is the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. He is not guilty of the too-long sentences charge, but he definitely uses plenty of esoteric and unusual words, however with an exquisite precision that is exceptional. His books are great reads that are hard to put down, in spite of the occasional need to riff a dictionary. (A strictly random oddity is that he shares with the late Galbraith having been born of Scottish ancestry in rural Ontario in 1908). Read the Deptford Trilogy. Great stuff.

BTW, I think this worship of short and simple is overdone. It comes from all those Freshman English courses and reading Strunk and White, who in turn ultimately are inspired by Hemingway. Keep it short and simple, or you'll sound like a Frenchie or a Kraut!!!

In the end I think Harbaugh's argument turns back on itself. Yes, there are poseurs who distract with meaningless, pseudo-esoteric verbiage, just as there are economists who seek to turn the trivial into the important by unnecessary mathematization. And, yes, for non-fictional writing, clarity and brevity are always preferred. But the really best writers will know when they need to be a bit more complex or esoteric. The very best will know how to do just the right amount of it, with Robertson Davies the model rather than Hemingway.

Dezakin writes:

This topic dumb. You dorks know smart talk fun when talk to smart dorks.

When talk to all dorks we need easy dork speak cause high talk have too many words. So only care about easy speak when talk to retards?

Bill Stepp writes:

liberty hit the nail on the head above re: Galbraith. Lawyers are also major offenders ("pursuant to," etc.).

AJ writes:

It applies to James Joyce also -- most overrated writer in English Language

Todd writes:

"Robertson Davies the model rather than Hemingway"

Robertson Davis is famous for contending that literature, as opposed to mere "writing", should be written in an other language. That way, only the smart set will be free to read.

Some model.

Is Orwell a 'great' writer? Shakespeare was indisputably great, probably the greatest, and he didn't follow the rule. In fact, he coined thousands of words.

Nathan writes:

I enjoyed the spirit of the article. On the finance side, I find it easier to follow a writing when I don't have to hunt for a dictionary/thesaurus every time I turn a page.

And, isn't it obfuscation?

Barkley Rosser writes:


Seems like we are doing a lot of debating.

Anyway, I think your complaint about Galbraith is not that he was a bad writer, but that he was too good of a writer. If he was such a bad writer, how was it that he "conned" all those readers of his bestsellers into although those terribly wrong ideas? It was the big words that impressed them?

One can certainly criticize Galbraith for many of his ideas. Many of his ideas also remain open to debate, although most on this list would be more likely to believe that they have all been proven to be garbage by somebody or other in Chicago. I would note, whatever one thinks, that the usual jibe has been that he was not mathematical or theoretical enough, just waving his erudition and wit around to impress people. Is that what you meant? One cannot call that "bad writing."

I would note that the one idea that he strongly pushed that pretty much nobody agreed with, he was not able to sell many books on. This was his support for general price controls, which he oversaw in WW II. He published a book advocating this in peacetime in 1952. It was a total flop, not remotely a bestseller. I have never read it, but I suspect that people did not buy it because the idea was basically so obviously unsuited to a peacetime US economy, however well or poorly or fancily or wittily it might be written.

Some of his other ideas that now are widely viewed as wrong could not necessarily be known at the time they were published to be so as they involved predictions. Thus his New Industrial State with its influential discussion of the technostructure involved forecasts of the US and USSR economies converging on some middle form, with the planning of the oligopolistic bureaucracies and the central planning bureaucracies coming to resemble each other. This did not come to pass, needless to say, and can now be ridiculed. But it was at least a decade before that outcome could be clearly seen, if not longer.

One idea that few mentioned in the obits where Galbraith looks pretty on the money, even if he did not say 20 years ago, is on the matter of the degree of irrational speculation and instability we see in asset markets. He described this eloquently (very good writing indeed) in The Great Crash (1954). In the 1970s and 1980s, this was supposed "disproven" by the ratex crowd in Chicago. Speculative bubbles were "proven" to be "impossible" because we all know that investors have rational expectations. How de we know that? Because it is an axiom! Needless to say, that particular intellectual bubble began to burst on Oct. 19, 1987, and has been losing air pretty much ever since. Although few mention Galbraith by name today (the later writings of Kindleberger are more frequently cited), the idea that financial markets contain heterogeneous agents, some rational, some irrational, some god knows what, is now the standard view in financial economics. Friedman's argument that speculation is always stabilizing is out the window. Nobody buys that one anymore.

Some of his other views are more controversial and remain up in the air. I saw obits that claimed that Becker and Murphy "disproved" his views about advertising, and Freakonomics has made the same claim. That some model can be put together that disagrees with his argument does not impress me, nor does some study showing that people get a buzz when they buy something that they got a buzz from watching an ad for. This disagrees with Galbraith? The whole point of manipulative advertising is to appeal to people to get a buzz to buy something. The question then arises, are they satisfied a day or two later? I know Arnold does not like the happiness studies, but consumpition here is far higher than anywhere else and rising, but measured happiness by pretty much every study and measure says it is going down. Are "buyer's regret" and "hedonic treadmill" illusions? I would say that the question remains open on this one.

In any case, if Galbraith is to be criticized, it should be for pushing wrong ideas, and he certainly did push some. But he should not be criticized for being a "bad writer." That is simply ridiculous.

Verso Sinister writes:

"If [Gailbraith] was such a bad writer, how was it that he "conned" all those readers of his bestsellers into although those terribly wrong ideas?"

The same way that McDonald's sells heart attacks?

aaron writes:

I guess it's a matter of opinion. But I feel justified in being frustrated by longwinded writers passing off a lot of crap. That doesn't mean all long writing is crap, it just happens that most of it is crap.

It also depends on what you're reading (or writing) for. Sometimes long winded writers use false logic just to be cute. Sometimes people just want to be entertained by style, it doesn't matter if the ideas have any validity.

Robert Speirs writes:

Long words exist to express complicated concepts. When used properly, they express these concepts more economically and accurately than short words. Because the concepts they express are so complex, however, they only need to be used very rarely, and only when writing for an audience which will understand them.

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