Unclear thinking

Published September 2, 2019
The writer is a freelance contributor.
The writer is a freelance contributor.

OUR economy is not in a great condition. Talk to the poor on the street; they face economic brutality, every single day. As a country, we are forced to look for loans regularly. Exports are down. Inflation is up. Clearly, our economic plans are not working.

The severity of our problems requires that economic thinking by the government be clear. For clear thinking leads not to policies that make people endure constant difficulty but to those that foster happiness and prosperity. Genuine expertise, sincere intent and deep thinking about ideas engender clarity of thought, which one can then express in speech or writing.

To assess the clarity of thought of our economic experts at the Ministry of Finance, I analysed their writing which is available online. The hopes of millions hinge on these policy documents. My analysis showed that these documents are difficult to understand, and are not the result of deep and clear thinking.

My analysis was based on the work of Harvard linguist Steven Pinker and a study published by Stanford University in 2015. The nature of my analysis measures a text for its cogency, and looks at the difficulty of paragraphs and sentences, determined both manually and with algorithms. These algorithms input text and output a reading ease score; this score indicates the level of education required to understand the text. The analysis also tracks the number of ‘vague words’, ie those that a lay person cannot relate to, as defined by Pinker and the Stanford study. Further, it counts the number of times the word ‘and’ was used, since excess use can confusingly combine matters that are better kept apart.

So much hinges on documents that few can understand.

Specifically, I analysed two of the finance ministry’s public documents. The first was this year’s Pakistan Economic Survey (PES), a vital text that summarises the policies of the government in a given year. The second was the ‘Roadmap for Stability and Growth’, published in April 2019.

Now let’s talk about the results of the analysis.

Both these documents are hard to understand. Both use complex words, sentences and paragraphs. Per the reading ease score, the difficulty of the texts necessitates a college degree to understand them. Even some graduates, when shown the texts, found them hard to decipher. Instead of cogent, short paragraphs, many unclear, long paragraphs were found — some included more than two dozen hard sentences. By the time the reader reaches the end of these paragraphs, he forgets what they are about. Difficult, long sentences also make for torturous reading. For example, the length of some sentences exceeds 80 words. Such writing reflects unclear thinking.

Lack of care for the reader is apparent in the abundant grammatical errors as well as many vague words in these documents. Vague words like ‘growth’, ‘framework’, and ‘strategy’ were frequently used. The word ‘growth’ appears to be the favourite word of our economic czars; a vague word that can represent many ideas, it appears more than 100 times in the first chapter of PES. The word ‘and’ was also used excessively.

These documents discuss government plans that are marketed as a cure for misery and a catalyst for well-being. One assumes that research was conducted to prove their merit. The lack of citations in these documents indicates that no meaningful research was conducted. These documents also neglect to talk about modern economic ideas. India’s economic survey talks about behavioural economics, data, and technology. Ours does not.

Moreover, beautiful fonts, visualisations, and effective use of space can make a document easier for the lay reader to digest. All this was missing in both documents. Further, producing these important policy documents only in English, a foreign language that few in the country understand, prohibits inc­1lu­­­sive­ness. These policy documents must also be available in Urdu at least.

Overall, the analysis shows that our government’s economic writing is not for average citizens, nor is it an outcome of clear thinking. We should remember that decisions that uplift nations are characterised not by clouded judgements that serve the few, but by clear thinking that benefits all.

The poor struggle to put food on their plates, their children in schools, and their sick bodies in hospitals. Will these unclear policies not, if left unmodified, lead to more poverty, thievery and tragedy?

The government must think clearly about our economic problems. For the loyalty of people and prosperity can be gained, not by tackling our grave problems in an unconcerned manner, but by clear thought about common good and order. Our economic policies must have substance, yet be communicated clearly and plainly. This, then, can be a vital sign that those at the top are not only prudent, but also tirelessly committed and steadfastly devoted.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

wyounas@lumsalumni.pk

Twitter: @wyounas

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2019

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