Month: November 2014

McCloskey on Piketty

UPDATED 01/07/15

The left loves Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century because it lends pseudo-scientific backing to some of the left’s favorite economic postulates; to wit:

  • Income inequality is bad, even if real incomes are rising across the board. Why is it bad? It just is, if you’re an envious Marxist. But also…
  • Income inequality is bad because wealth usually derives from income. The rich get richer, as the old song goes. And the rich — the super-rich, in today’s parlance — acquire inordinate political power because of their great wealth. (Leftists conveniently overlook the fact that the penchant for statist schemes — redistributionism among them — is positively correlated with income. This is a morally confused stance, based on guilt-feelings and indoctrination at the hands of leftist “educators,” “journalists,” and “entertainers.”)
  • Further, inequality yields slower economic growth because persons with high incomes consume a smaller fraction of their incomes than do persons with low incomes. The result, according to the Keynesian consumption-based model, is a reduction in GDP, other things being the same. And other things being the same, slower growth means that it is harder for low-income persons to rise from poverty or near-poverty. (This is a logically and empirically backward view of reality, which is that economic growth requires more investment and less consumption. And investment spending is stifled when redistribution takes money from high earners and gives it to low earners, that is, persons with a high propensity to consume. Investment is also stifled by progressive taxation, which penalizes success, and burdensome regulation, which deters entrepreneurship and job creation.)

Deirdre McCloskey‘s forthcoming review of Piketty’s book praises it and damns it. First the praise:

Piketty gives a fine example of how to do it [economic history]. He does not get entangled as so many economists do in the sole empirical tool they are taught, namely, regression analysis on someone else’s “data”…. Therefore he does not commit one of the two sins of modern economics, the use of meaningless “tests” of statistical significance…. Piketty constructs or uses statistics of aggregate capital and of inequality and then plots them out for inspection, which is what physicists, for example, also do in dealing with their experiments and observations. Nor does he commit the other sin, which is to waste scientific time on existence theorems. Physicists, again, don’t. If we economists are going to persist in physics envy let’s at least learn what physicists actually do. Piketty stays close to the facts, and does not, say, wander into the pointless worlds of non-cooperative game theory, long demolished by experimental economics. He also does not have recourse to non-computable general equilibrium, which never was of use for quantitative economic science, being a branch of philosophy, and a futile one at that. On both points, bravissimo.

His book furthermore is clearly and unpretentiously, if dourly, written….

That comes early in McCloskey’s long review (50 double-spaced pages in the .pdf version). But she ends with blistering damnation:

On the next to last page of his book Piketty writes, “It is possible, and even indispensable, to have an approach that is at once economic and political, social and cultural, and concerned with wages and wealth.” One can only agree. But he has not achieved it. His gestures to cultural matters consist chiefly of a few naively used references to novels he has read superficially—for which on the left he has been embarrassingly praised. His social theme is a narrow ethic of envy. His politics assumes that governments can do anything they propose to do. And his economics is flawed from start to finish.

It is a brave book. But it is mistaken.

There is much in between to justify McCloskey’s conclusion. Here she puts Piketty’s work in context:

[T]he left in its worrying routinely forgets this most important secular event since the invention of agriculture—the Great Enrichment of the last two centuries—and goes on worrying and worrying, like the little dog worrying about his bone in the Traveler’s insurance company advertisement on TV, in a new version every half generation or so.

Here is a partial list of the worrying pessimisms, which each has had its day of fashion since the time, as the historian of economic thought Anthony Waterman put it, “Malthus’ first [1798] Essay made land scarcity central. And so began a century-long mutation of ‘political economy,’ the optimistic science of wealth, to ‘economics,’ the pessimistic science of scarcity.” Malthus worried that workers would proliferate and Ricardo worried that the owners of land would engorge the national product. Marx worried, or celebrated, depending on how one views historical materialism, that owners of capital would at least make a brave attempt to engorge it…. Mill worried, or celebrated, depending on how one views the sick hurry of modern life, that the stationary state was around the corner. Then the economists, many on the left but some on the right, in quick succession 1880 to the present—at the same time that trade-tested betterment was driving real wages up and up and up—commenced worrying about, to name a few of the grounds for pessimisms they discerned concerning ”capitalism”: greed, alienation, racial impurity, workers’ lack of bargaining strength, women working, workers’ bad taste in consumption, immigration of lesser breeds, monopoly, unemployment, business cycles, increasing returns, externalities, under-consumption, monopolistic competition, separation of ownership from control, lack of planning, post-War stagnation, investment spillovers, unbalanced growth, dual labor markets, capital insufficiency … , peasant irrationality, capital-market imperfections, public choice, missing markets, informational asymmetry, third-world exploitation, advertising, regulatory capture, free riding, low-level traps, middle-level traps, path dependency, lack of competitiveness, consumerism, consumption externalities, irrationality, hyperbolic discounting, too big to fail, environmental degradation, underpaying of care, overpayment of CEOs, slower growth, and more.

One can line up the later items in the list, and some of the earlier ones revived à la Piketty or Krugman…. I will not name here the men … , but can reveal their formula: first, discover or rediscover a necessary condition for perfect competition or a perfect world (in Piketty’s case, for example, a more perfect equality of income). Then assert without evidence (here Piketty does a great deal better than the usual practice) but with suitable mathematical ornamentation (thus Jean Tirole, Nobel 2014) that the condition might be imperfectly realized or the world might not develop in a perfect way. Then conclude with a flourish (here however Piketty falls in with the usual low scientific standard) that “capitalism” is doomed unless experts intervene with a sweet use of the monopoly of violence in government to implement anti-trust against malefactors of great wealth or subsidies to diminishing-returns industries or foreign aid to perfectly honest governments or money for obviously infant industries or the nudging of sadly childlike consumers or, Piketty says, a tax on inequality-causing capital worldwide. A feature of this odd history of fault-finding and the proposed statist corrections, is that seldom does the economic thinker feel it necessary to offer evidence that his … proposed state intervention will work as it is supposed to, and almost never does he feel it necessary to offer evidence that the imperfectly attained necessary condition for perfection before intervention is large enough to have reduced much the performance of the economy in aggregate.

I heartily agree with McCloskey’s diagnosis of the causes of leftist worrying:

One begins to suspect that the typical leftist … starts with a root conviction that capitalism is seriously defective. The conviction is acquired at age 16 years when the proto-leftist discovers poverty but has no intellectual tools to understand its source. I followed this pattern, and therefore became for a time a Joan-Baez socialist. Then the lifelong “good social democrat,” as he describes himself (and as I for a while described myself), when he has become a professional economist, in order to support the now deep-rooted conviction, looks around for any qualitative indication that in some imagined world the conviction would be true, without bothering to ascertain numbers drawn from our own world…. It is the utopianism of good-hearted leftward folk who say, “Surely this wretched society, in which some people are richer and more powerful than others, can be greatly improved. We can do much, much better!”

Piketty’s typically leftist blend of pessimism and utopianism is hitched to bad economic reasoning, ignorance of economic history, and a misreading of his own statistics:

Piketty’s (and Aristotle’s) theory is that the yield on capital usually exceeds the growth rate of the economy, and so the share of capital’s returns in national income will steadily increase, simply because interest income—what the presumably rich capitalists get and supposedly manage to cling to and supposedly reinvest—is growing faster than the income the whole society is getting.

Aristotle and his followers, such as Aquinas and Marx and Piketty, were much concerned with such “unlimited” gain. The argument is, you see, very old, and very simple. Piketty ornaments it a bit with some portentous accounting about capital-output ratios and the like, producing his central inequality about inequality: so long as r > g, where r is the return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy, we are doomed to ever increasing rewards to rich capitalists while the rest of us poor suckers fall relatively behind. The merely verbal argument I just gave, however, is conclusive, so long as its factual assumptions are true: namely, only rich people have capital; human capital doesn’t exist; the rich reinvest their return; they never lose it to sloth or someone else’s creative destruction; inheritance is the main mechanism, not a creativity that raises g for the rest of us just when it results in an r shared by us all; and we care ethically only about the Gini coefficient, not the condition of the working class. Notice one aspect of that last: in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. Piketty’s vision of a “Ricardian Apocalypse,” as he calls it, leaves room for the rest of us to do very well indeed, most non-apocalyptically, as in fact since 1800 we have. What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer, too. His worry, in other words, is purely about difference, about the Gini coefficient, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition.

Another serious problem is that r will almost always exceed g, as anyone can tell you who knows about the rough level of interest rates on invested capital and about the rate at which most economies have grown (excepting only China recently, where contrary to Piketty’s prediction, inequality has increased). If his simple logic is true, then the Ricardian Apocalypse looms, always. Let us therefore bring in the sweet and blameless and omni-competent government—or, even less plausibly, a world government, or the Gallactic Empire—to implement “a progressive global tax on capital” (p. 27) to tax the rich. It is our only hope…. In other words, Piketty’s fears were not confirmed anywhere 1910 to 1980, nor anywhere in the long run at any time before 1800, nor anywhere in Continental Europe and Japan since World War II, and only recently, a little, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada (Canada, by the way, is never brought into his tests).

That is a very great puzzle if money tends to reproduce itself, always, evermore, as a general law governed by the Ricardo-plus-Marx inequality at the rates of r and g actually observed in world history. Yet inequality in fact goes up and down in great waves, for which we have evidence from many centuries ago down to the present, which also doesn’t figure in such a tale (Piketty barely mentions the work of the economic historians Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson documenting the inconvenient fact). According to his logic, once a Pikettywave starts—as it would at any time you care to mention if an economy satisfied the almostalways-satisfied condition of the interest rate exceeding the growth rate of income—it would never stop. Such an inexorable logic means we should have been overwhelmed by an inequality-tsunami in 1800 CE or in 1000 CE or for that matter in 2000 BCE. At one point Piketty says just that: “r > g will again become the norm in the twenty-first century, as it had been throughout history until the eve of World War I (… one wonders what he does with historically low interest rates right now, or the negative real interest rates in the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s). Why then did the share of the rich not rise anciently to 100 percent?

McCloskey gets it right:

With a bigger pie, someone has to get more. In the event what rose were wages on raw labor and especially a great accumulation of human capital, but capital owned by the laborers, not by the truly rich. The return to physical capital was higher than a riskless return on British or American government bonds, in order to compensate for the risk in holding capital (such as being made obsolete by betterment—think of your computer, obsolete in four years). But the return on physical capital, and on human capital, was anyway held down to its level of very roughly 5 to 10 percent by competition among the proliferating capitalists. Imagine our immiserization if the income of workers, because they did not accumulate human capital, and their societies had not adopted the accumulation of ingenuities since 1800, had experienced the history of stagnation since 1800 that the per-unit return to capital has. It is not hard to imagine, because such miserable income of workers exists even now in places like Somalia and North Korea. Instead, since 1800 in the average rich country the income of the workers per person increased by a factor of about 30 (2,900 percent, if you please) and in even in the world as a whole, including the still poor countries, by a factor of 10 (900 percent), while the rate of return to physical capital stagnated.

Piketty does not acknowledge that each wave of inventors, of entrepreneurs, and even of routine capitalists find their rewards taken from them by entry, which is an economic concept he does not appear to grasp. Look at the history of fortunes in department stores. The income from department stores in the late nineteenth century, in Le Bon Marché, Marshall Fields, and Selfridge’s, was entrepreneurial. The model was then copied all over the rich world, and was the basis for little fortunes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Benton Harbor, Michigan. Then in the late twentieth century the model was challenged by a wave of discounters, and they then in turn by the internet. The original accumulation slowly or quickly dissipates. In other words, the profit going to the profiteers is more or less quickly undermined by outward-shifting supply, if governmental monopolies and protectionisms of the sort Matt Ridley noted in recent British history do not intervene. The economist William Nordhaus has calculated that the inventors and entrepreneurs nowadays earn in profit only 2 percent of the social value of their inventions. If you are Sam Walton the 2 percent gives you personally a great deal of money from introducing bar codes into stocking of supermarket shelves. But 98 percent at the cost of 2 percent is nonetheless a pretty good deal for the rest of us. The gain from macadamized roads or vulcanized rubber, then modern universities, structural concrete, and the airplane, has enriched even the poorest among us.

But Piketty doesn’t see this because he’s a poor economist and a knee-jerk socialist:

Piketty, who does not believe in supply responses [as discussed below], focuses instead on the great evil of very rich people having seven Rolex watches by mere inheritance. Lillian Bettancourt, heiress to the L’Oréal fortune (p. 440), the third richest woman in the world, who “has never worked a day in her life, saw her fortune grow exactly as fast as that of [the admittedly bettering] Bill Gates.” Ugh, Piketty says, which is his ethical philosophy in full.

*     *     *

[T]he effect of inherited wealth on children is commonly to remove their ambition, as one can witness daily on Rodeo Drive. Laziness—or for that matter regression to the mean of ability—is a powerful equalizer. “There always comes a time,” Piketty writes against his own argument, “when a prodigal child squanders the family fortune” (p. 451), which was the point of the centuries-long struggle in English law for and against entailed estates.

*     *     *

Because Piketty is obsessed with inheritance, moreover, he wants to downplay entrepreneurial profit, the trade-tested betterment that has made the poor rich. It is again Aristotle’s claim that money is sterile and interest is therefore unnatural. Aristotle was on this matter mistaken. It is commonly the case, contrary to Piketty, and setting aside the cheapening of our goods produced by the investments of their wealth by the rich, that the people with more money got their more by being more ingeniously productive, for the benefit of us all—getting that Ph.D., for example, or being excellent makers of automobiles or excellent writers of horror novels or excellent throwers of touchdown passes or excellent providers of cell phones, such as Carlos Slim of Mexico, the richest man in the world (with a little boost, it may be, from corrupting the Mexican parliament). That Frank Sinatra became richer than most of his fans was not an ethical scandal. The “Wilt Chamberlain” example devised by the philosopher Robert Nozick (Piketty mentions John Rawls, but not Nozick, Rawls’ nemesis) says that if we pay voluntarily to get the benefit of clever CEOs or gifted athletes there is no further ethical issue. The unusually high rewards to the Frank Sinatras and Jamie Dimons and Wilt Chamberlains come from the much wider markets of the age of globalization and mechanical reproduction, not from theft. Wage inequality in the rich countries experiencing an enlarging gap of rich vs. poor, few though the countries are (Piketty’s finding, remember: Canada, U.S.A., U.K.)), is mainly, he reports, caused by “the emergence of extremely high remunerations at the summit of the wage hierarchy, particularly among top managers of large firms.” The emergence, note, has nothing to do with r > g.

How poor an economist? Consider:

Piketty’s definition of wealth does not include human capital, owned by the workers, which has grown in rich countries to be the main source of income, when it is combined with the immense accumulation since 1800 of capital in knowledge and social habits, owned by everyone with access to them. Therefore his laboriously assembled charts of the (merely physical and private) capital/output ratio are erroneous. They have excluded one of the main forms of capital in the modern world. More to the point, by insisting on defining capital as something owned nearly always by rich people, Piketty mistakes the source of income, which is chiefly embodied human ingenuity, not accumulated machines or appropriated land.

*    *     *

The fundamental technical problem in the book, however, is that Piketty the economist does not understand supply responses….

Startling evidence of Piketty’s miseducation occurs as early as page 6. He begins by seeming to concede to his neoclassical opponents…. “To be sure, there exists in principle a quite simple economic mechanism that should restore equilibrium to the process [in this case the process of rising prices of oil or urban land leading to a Ricardian Apocalypse]: the mechanism of supply and demand. If the supply of any good is insufficient, and its price is too high, then demand for that good should decrease, which would lead to a decline in its price.” [This] clearly mix[es] up movement along a demand curve with movement of the entire curve, a first-term error at university. The correct analysis (we tell our first-year, first-term students at about week four) is that if the price is “too high” it is not the whole demand curve that “restores equilibrium” … , but an eventually outward-moving supply curve. The supply curve moves out because entry is induced by the smell of super-normal profits, in the medium and long run (which is the Marshallian definition of the terms). New oil deposits are discovered, new refineries are built, new suburbs are settled, new high-rises saving urban land are constructed, as has in fact happened massively since, say, 1973, unless government has restricted oil exploitation (usually on environmental grounds) or the building of high-rises (usually on corrupt grounds). Piketty goes on—remember: it does not occur to him that high prices cause after a while the supply curve to move out; he thinks the high price will cause the demand curve to move in, leading to “a decline in price” (of the scarce item, oil’s or urban land)—“such adjustments might be unpleasant or complicated.” To show his contempt for the ordinary working of the price system he imagines comically that “people should . . . take to traveling about by bicycle.” The substitutions along a given demand curve, or one mysteriously moving in, without any supply response “might also take decades, during which landlords and oil well owners might well accumulate claims on the rest of the population” (now he has the demand curve moving out, for some reason faster than the supply curve moves out) “so extensive that they could they could easily [on grounds not argued] come to own everything that can be owned, including” in one more use of the comical alternative, “bicycles, once and for all.” Having butchered the elementary analysis of entry and of substitute supplies, which after all is the economic history of the world, he speaks of “the emir of Qatar” as a future owner of those bicycles, once and for all. The phrase must have been written before the recent and gigantic expansion of oil and gas exploitation in Canada and the United States….

Piketty, it would seem, has not read with understanding the theory of supply and demand that he disparages, such as Smith (one sneering remark on p. 9), Say (ditto, mentioned in a footnote with Smith as optimistic), Bastiat (no mention), Walras (no mention), Menger (no mention), Marshall (no mention), Mises (no mention), Hayek (one footnote citation on another matter), Friedman (pp. 548-549, but only on monetarism, not the price system). He is in short not qualified to sneer at self-regulated markets (for example on p. 572), because he has no idea how they work. It would be like someone attacking the theory of evolution (which is identical to the theory the economists use of entry and exit in self-regulating markets—the supply response, an early version of which inspired Darwin) without understanding natural selection or the the Galton-Watson process or modern genetics.

McCloskey continues:

Beyond technical matters in economics, the fundamental ethical problem in the book is that Piketty has not reflected on why inequality by itself would be bad…. The motive of the true Liberal … should not be equality but [says Joshua Monk, a character in Anthony Trollope’s novel, Phineas] “the wish of every honest [that is, honorable] man . . . to assist in lifting up those below him.” Such an ethical goal was to be achieved, says Monk the libertarian liberal (as Richard Cobden and John Bright and John Stuart Mill were, and Bastiat in France at the time, and in our times Hayek and Friedman, or for that matter M’Cluskie), not by direct programs of redistribution, nor by regulation, nor by trade unions, but by free trade and tax-supported compulsory education and property rights for women—and in the event by the Great Enrichment, which finally in the late nineteenth century started sending real wages sharply up, Europe-wide, and then world-wide.

The absolute condition of the poor has been raised overwhelmingly more by the Great Enrichment than by redistribution. The economic historians Ian Gazeley and Andrew Newell noted in 2010 “the reduction, almost to elimination, of absolute poverty among working households in Britain between 1904 and 1937.” “The elimination of grinding poverty among working families,” they show, “was almost complete by the late thirties, well before the Welfare State.” Their Chart 2 exhibits income distributions in 1886 prices at 1886, 1906, 1938, and 1960, showing the disappearance of the classic line of misery for British workers, “round about a pound a week.”

And it didn’t stop there:

In 2013 the economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry noted that “according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s ‘basics’—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53 percent of disposable income in 1950 to 44 percent in 1970 to 32 percent today.” It is a point which the economic historian Robert Fogel had made in 1999 for a longer span. The economist Steven Horwitz summarizes the facts on labor hours required to buy a color TV or an automobile, and notes that “these data do not capture . . . the change in quality . . . . The 1973 TV was at most 25 inches, with poor resolution, probably no remote control, weak sound, and generally nothing like its 2013 descendant. . . . Getting 100,000 miles out of a car in the 1970s was cause for celebration. Not getting 100,000 miles out of a car today is cause to think you bought a lemon.”

Nor in the United States are the poor getting poorer. Horwitz observes that “looking at various data on consumption, from Census Bureau surveys of what the poor have in their homes to the labor time required to purchase a variety of consumer goods, makes clear that poor Americans are living better now than ever before. In fact, poor Americans today live better, by these measures, than did their middle class counterparts in the 1970s.” In the summer of 1976 an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago had no air conditioning in his apartment. Nowadays many quite poor Chicagoans have it. The terrible heat wave in Chicago of July 1995 killed over 700 people, mainly low-income. Yet earlier heat waves in 1936 and 1948, before air-conditioning was at all common, had probably killed many more.

There is one point at which McCloskey almost veers off course, but she recovers nicely:

To be sure, it’s irritating that a super rich woman buys a $40,000 watch. The purchase is ethically objectionable. She really should be ashamed. She should be giving her income in excess of an ample level of comfort—two cars, say, not twenty, two houses, not seven, one yacht, not five—to effective charities…. But that many rich people act in a disgraceful fashion does not automatically imply that the government should intervene to stop it. People act disgracefully in all sorts of ways. If our rulers were assigned the task in a fallen world of keeping us all wholly ethical, the government would bring all our lives under its fatherly tutelage, a nightmare achieved approximately before 1989 in East Germany and now in North Korea.

And that is the key point, to my mind. Perfection always eludes the human race, even where its members have managed to rise from the primordial scramble for sustenance and above Hobbes’s “warre, as is of every man, against every man.” Economic progress without economic inequality is impossible, and efforts to reduce inequality by punishing economic success must inevitably hinder progress, which is built on the striving of entrepreneurs. Further, the methods used to punish economic success are anti-libertarian — whether they are the police-state methods of the Soviet Union or the “soft despotism” of the American regulatory-welfare state.

So what if an entrepreneur — an Edison, Rockefeller, Ford, Gates, or Jobs — produces something of great value to his fellow men, and thus becomes rich and adorns his spouse with a $40,000 watch, owns several homes, and so on? So what if that same entrepreneur is driven (in part, at least) by a desire to bestow great wealth upon his children? So what if that same entrepreneur chooses to live among and associate with other persons of great wealth? He has no obligation to “give back”; he has already given by providing his fellow men with something that they value enough to make him rich. (Similarly, the super-star athlete and actor.)

McCloskey gets the penultimate word:

Supposing our common purpose on the left and on the right, then, is to help the poor, … the advocacy by the learned cadres of the left for equalizing restrictions and redistributions and regulations can be viewed at best as thoughtless. Perhaps, considering what economic historians now know about the Great Enrichment, but which the left clerisy, and many of the right, stoutly refuse to learn, it can even be considered unethical. The left clerisy such as Tony Judt or Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty, who are quite sure that they themselves are taking the ethical high road against the wicked selfishness of Tories or Republicans or La Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, might on such evidence be considered dubiously ethical. They are obsessed with first-[order] changes that cannot much help the poor, and often can be shown to damage them, and are obsessed with angry envy at the consumption of the uncharitable rich, of whom they personally are often examples (what will you do with your royalties, Professor Piketty?), and the ending of which would do very little to improve the position of the poor. They are very willing to stifle through taxing the rich the trade-tested betterments which in the long run have gigantically helped the poor, who were the ancestors of most of the rest of us.

I added the emphasis to underscore what seems to me to be the left’s greatest ethical offense in the matter of inequality, as it is in the matter of race relations: hypocrisy. Hypocritical leftists like Judt, Krugman, and Pikkety (to name only a few of their ilk) aren’t merely wrong in their views about how to help the (relatively) poor, they make money (and a lot of it) by espousing their erroneous views. They obviously see nothing wrong with making a lot of money. So why is it all right for them to make a lot of money — more than 99.9 percent of the world’s population, say — but not all right for other persons to make even more money? The dividing line between deservingness and greed seems always to lie somewhere above their munificent earnings.

UPDATE:

As John Cochrane notes,

Most Piketty commentary … focuses on the theory, r>g, and so on. After all, that’s easy and you don’t have to read hundreds of pages.

Cochrane then points to a paper by Philip W. Magness and Robert P. Murphy (listed below in “Related reading”) that focuses on the statistics that Piketty compiled and relied on to advance his case for global redistribution of income and wealth. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has been widely debated on theoretical grounds, yet continues to attract acclaim for its historically-infused data analysis. In this study we conduct a closer scrutiny of Piketty’s empirics than has appeared thus far, focusing upon his treatment of the United States. We find evidence of pervasive errors of historical fact, opaque methodological choices, and the cherry-picking of sources to construct favorable patterns from ambiguous data. Additional evidence suggests that Piketty used a highly distortive data assumption from the Soviet Union to accentuate one of his main historical claims about global “capitalism” in the 20th century. Taken together, these problems suggest that Piketty’s highly praised and historically-driven empirical work may actually be the book’s greatest weakness.

I’ve quickly read Magness and Murphy’s paper. It seems to live up to the abstract. Piketty (and friends) may challenge Magness and Murphy, but Piketty bears the burden of showing that he hasn’t stacked the empirical deck in favor of his redistributionist message. Not that the empirical flaws should matter, given the theoretical flaws exposed by McCloskey and others, but Piketty’s trove of spurious statistics should be discredited before it becomes a standard reference.

*     *     *

Related reading:
David R. Henderson, “An Unintended Case for More Capitalism,” Regulation, Fall 2014
John Cochrane, “Why and How We Care about Inequality,” The Grumpy Economist, September 29, 2014
John Cochrane, “Envy and Excess,” The Grump Economist, October 1, 2014
Mark J. Perry, “New CBO Study Shows That ‘The Rich’ Don’t Just Pay Their ‘Fair Share,’ They Pay Almost Everybody’s Share,” Carpe Diem, November 15, 2014
Mark J. Perry, “IRS Data Show That the Vast Majority of Taxpayers in the ‘Fortunate 400’ Are Only There for One Year,” Carpe Diem, November 25, 2014
Robert Higgs, “income Inequality Is a Statistical Artifact,” The Beacon (Independent Institute), December 1, 2014
John Cochrane, “McCloskey on Piketty and Friends,” The Grumpy Economist, December 2, 2014
James Pethokoukis, “IMF Study, ‘No Evidence ‘High-End’ Income Inequality Hurts Economic Growth,” AEI.org, December 9, 2014
Philip W. Magness and Robert P. Murphy, “Challenging the Empirical Contribution of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,” Journal of Private Enterprise, forthcoming

Related posts:
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Economic Growth Since World War II
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
How High Should Taxes Be?
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economics: A Survey
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality
Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
Income Inequality and Inherited Wealth: So What?
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made

Signature

Getting “Equal Protection” Right

More than nine years ago, I wrote:

What “equal protection” really means is this:

Any law that is otherwise constitutional is a valid law, which must be applied equally to all persons.

As long as that law is applied equally to all persons, it is irrelevant if the application of the law happens to lead to unequal outcomes for various identifiable groups of persons….

Four years later, I added this about the decision of federal district judge Vaughn Walker in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger (later Hollingsworth v. Perry):

Judge Walker goes on to address equal protection:

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”…

Proposition 8 targets gays and lesbians in a manner specific to their sexual orientation and, because of their relationship to one another, Proposition 8 targets them specifically due to sex. Having considered the evidence, the relationship between sex and sexual orientation and the fact that Proposition 8 eliminates a right only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise, the court determines that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.

The circularity of Judge Walker’s reasoning with respect to equal protection begins much earlier in his decision, where he writes that

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

But the right to marry, historically, has been the right to choose a spouse of the opposite sex, not merely to choose a spouse. Judge Walker even acknowledges that fact, inadvertently, when he puts aside “relative gender composition,” as if it were a mere trifle and not central to a social tradition that dates back millennia and should not be swept aside casually by a judge because he finds it “irrational,” on the basis of spurious social science. Walker then says that “gender is not relevant,” thus circularly assuming that which is to be proved. As if in support of that assertion he asserts, laughably, that “gender restrictions … were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage.”

In sum, Judge Walker approaches the constitutional matter of equal protection by assuming that gays have the right to marry. Given that assumption, it is easy to assert that Proposition 8 amounts to a denial of equal protection for gays who seek to marry….

I have never doubted the correctness of my interpretation of “equal protection,” but I’m glad to see it supported by a constitutional scholar. This is from Andrew Hyman’s post, “A Comment in Response to Dale Carpenter Regarding Equal Protection,” at The Originalism Blog (November 23, 2014):

Mike Ramsey recently quoted Professor Dale Carpenter as follows: “The Equal Protection Clause is a self-conscious repudiation of exclusion and hierarchy supported by nothing more than ancient practice.”  Perhaps it would have been wise if the clause really said that, but I don’t think it was written that way…. As I understand it, this clause of the Constitution does not endorse unreasonable exclusion and hierarchy, but neither does it authorize the federal judiciary to make such reasonableness determinations all by itself….

[L]et us consider what a few legal luminaries have had to say about the original meaning of this clause of our Constitution….  Professor Laurence Tribe says that “the Constitution lacks a textual basis for much of what is commonly attributed to the very notion of ‘the equal protection of the laws’….[which] was taken to mean less than ‘the protection of equal laws.’”  As far as I am aware, Professor Steven Calabresi has not altered his view that, “the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about equality in the making or implementing of equal laws.” According to Professor Kermit Roosevelt, “the most natural reading of ‘equal protection of the laws’ probably takes it to be about application or enforcement, rather than content.”… Others could be added to the list, which should at least give pause to anyone who suggests, as Professor Carpenter does, that the U.S. Supreme Court was actually given power in 1868 to strike down whatever governmental classifications that it deems unreasonable and/or hierarchical….

So where did Professor Carpenter’s notion come from?  It is certainly not original to him, so where did it originate?  As best I can tell, the historical source most commonly cited for this idea is the speech of Senator Jacob Howard introducing the Fourteenth Amendment in the Senate, in 1866.  According to the Congressional Globe, he said: “This abolishes all class legislation in the states, and does away with the injustice of subjecting one caste of persons to a code not applicable to another.”  Don’t get me wrong, these are excellent sentiments to guide legislative action, but if Howard was correct then the Supreme Court could legitimately (though unwisely) characterize virtually any legislative classification as verboten, whether it be a law that imposes special burdens or disabilities upon kleptomaniacs, or children, or police officers, or what have you….

Exactly. By the “logic” of Dale Carpenter, Judge Vaughan Walker, and their legalistic ilk, it is unconstitutional to discriminate on any basis. Thus no one should be found unfit for a particular job (that saves Carpenter and Walker); no one should be found unfit for admission to a university; there should be no minimum age at which one is permitted to drink, drive, wed, or join the armed forces; there should be no prohibition of marriage between siblings; churches should be required to ordain atheists; and on and on.

Above all — by the same “logic” — the laws should not have any basis in morality. Because the imposition of morality results in “discrimination” against persons who cheat, beat, steal from, rape, and murder other persons.

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Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Murder Is Constitutional
Posner the Fatuous

Signature

Some Thoughts about Evolution

I came across this in a post about a psychological trait known as affective empathy*:

[I]f affective empathy helps people to survive and reproduce, there will be more and more of it in succeeding generations. If not, there will be less and less.

I’ve run across similar assertions about other traits in my occasional reading about evolution. But is it true that if X helps people to survive and reproduce, X will proliferate?

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent.

Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

In any event, it is my view that genetic fitness for survival has become almost irrelevant in places like the United States. The rise of technology and the “social safety net” (state-enforced pseudo-empathy) have enabled the survival and reproduction of traits that would have dwindled in times past.

I’m only making an observation. Eugenics is the province of the left.

__________
* Affective empathy is defined by the same writer as the

capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately.

*     *     *

Related Posts:
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Evolution and Race
Alienation
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Egoism and Altruism
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI) (first entry)

Signature

Crime Revisited

I last took a comprehensive look at crime seven years ago. That analysis drew on statistics for 1960-2004. The results reported in this post are based on statistics for 1960-2009. The newer analysis doesn’t contradict the older one, but it does add some explanatory power.

Cutting to the chase, the following equation explains the rate of violent and property crimes (VPC) as a function of:

BLK — the number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population

GRO — the change in the rate of growth of real GDP per capita in the previous year, where the rate is expressed as a decimal fraction

PSQ — the square of the decimal fraction representing the proportion of the population in federal and State prisons

ORA — the number of persons of other races (not black or white) as a decimal fraction of the population.

The equation is highly significant (F = 1.44179E-31), as are the intercept and the coefficients (p-values in parentheses):

VPC =

– 333768 (3.30579E-28)

+ 339535 BLK (1.06615E-29)

– 6133 GRO (0.00065)

-174136761 PSQ (1.00729E-15)

– 27614 ORA (0.0018)

(Values are rounded to the nearest whole number. The adjusted r-squared is 0.96, and the standard error of the estimate is 5.3 percent of the mean value of VPC.)

Here are the actual and estimated values of VPC:

Crime rates (actual vs estimated)_2014

I’m satisfied with the equation, including the negative sign on the coefficient of ORA, which mainly represents Hispanics and Asians. But I will reassess the equation if the difference between actual and estimated VPC continues to diverge after 2007, when they were almost identical.

*     *     *

Related reading: Greg Allmain, “Another Study Links Violence to the Presence of Specific Genes,” Theden, November 11, 2014

Related posts:
Lock ‘Em Up
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Hispanics and Crime
“Conversing” about Race
Evolution and Race
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government

Signature

On Writing: Part Four

Part One gives excerpts of W.Somerset Maugham’s candid insights about the craft of writing. Part Two gives my advice to writers of non-fiction works. Part Three recommends some writings about writing, some writers to emulate, and a short list of reference works. This part delivers some sermons about practices to follow if you wish to communicate effectively, be taken seriously, and not be thought of as a semi-literate, self-indulgent, faddish dilettante. (In Part Three, I promised sermonettes, but they grew into sermons as I wrote.)

The first section, “Stasis, Progress, Regress, and Language,” comes around to a defense of prescriptivism in language. The second section, “Illegitimi Non Carborundum Lingo” (mock-Latin for “Don’t Let the Bastards Wear Down the Language”), counsels steadfastness in the face of political correctness and various sloppy usages.

STASIS, PROGRESS, REGRESS, AND LANGUAGE

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven….

Ecclesiastes 3:1 (King James Bible)

Nothing man-made is permanent; consider, for example, the list of empires here. In spite of the history of empires — and other institutions and artifacts of human endeavor — most people seem to believe that the future will be much like the present. And if the present embodies progress of some kind, most people seem to expect that progress to continue.

Things do not simply go on as they have been without the expenditure of requisite effort. Take the Constitution’s broken promises of liberty, about which I have written so much. Take the resurgence of Russia as a rival for international influence. This has been in the works for about 20 years, but didn’t register on most Americans until the recent Crimean crisis and related events in Ukraine. What did Americans expect? That the U.S. could remain the unchallenged superpower while reducing its armed forces to the point that they were strained by relatively small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? That Vladimir Putin would be cowed by an American president who had so blatantly advertised his hopey-changey attitude toward Iran and Islam, while snubbing traditional allies like Poland and Israel?

Turning to naïveté about progress, I offer Steven Pinker’s fatuous The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker tries to show that human beings are becoming kinder and gentler. I have much to say in another post about Pinker’s thesis. One of my sources is Robert Epstein’s review of Pinker’s book. This passage is especially apt:

The biggest problem with the book … is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going. We live in a time when all the rules are being rewritten blindingly fast—when, for example, an increasingly smaller number of people can do increasingly greater damage. Yes, when you move from the Stone Age to modern times, some violence is left behind, but what happens when you put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of modern people who in many ways are still living primitively? What happens when the unprecedented occurs—when a country such as Iran, where women are still waiting for even the slightest glimpse of those better angels, obtains nuclear weapons? Pinker doesn’t say.

Less important in the grand scheme, but no less wrong-headed, is the idea of limitless progress in the arts. To quote myself:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

And most of the ticket-buying public knows it. Take opera, for example. A recent article purports to show that “Opera is dead, in one chart” (Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post, October 31, 2014). Here’s the chart and the writer’s interpretation of it:

The chart shows that opera ceased to exist as a contemporary art form roughly around 1970. It’s from a blog post by composer and programmer Suby Raman, who scraped the Met’s public database oF performances going back to the 19th century. As Raman notes, 50 years is an insanely low bar for measuring the “contemporary” – in pop music terms, it would be like considering The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand as cutting-edge.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of Met performances were of operas composed in some time in the 50 years prior. But since 1980, the share of contemporary performances has surpassed 10 percent only once.

Opera, as a genre, is essentially frozen in amber – Raman found that the median year of composition of pieces performed at the Met has always been right around 1870. In other words, the Met is essentially performing the exact same pieces now that it was 100 years ago….

Contrary to Ingraham, opera isn’t dead; for example, there are more than 220 active opera companies in the U.S. It’s just that there’s little demand for operatic works written after the late 1800s. Why? Because most opera-lovers don’t want to hear the strident, discordant, unmelodic trash that came later. Giacomo Puccini, who wrote melodic crowd-pleasers until his death in 1924, is an exception that proves the rule.

It occurred to me recently that language is in the same parlous state as the arts. Written and spoken English improved steadily as Americans became more educated — and as long as that education included courses which prescribed rules of grammar and usage. By “improved” I mean that communication became easier and more effective; specifically:

  • A larger fraction of Americans followed the same rules in formal communications (e.g., speeches, business documents, newspapers, magazines, and books,).
  • Movies and radio and TV shows also tended to follow those rules, thereby reaching vast numbers of Americans who did little or no serious reading.
  • There was a “trickle down” effect on Americans’ written and spoken discourse, especially where it involved mere acquaintances or strangers. Standard American English became a kind of lingua franca, which enabled the speaker or writer to be understood and taken seriously.

I call that progress.

There is, however, an (unfortunately) influential attitude toward language known as descriptivism. It is distinct from (and often opposed to) rule-setting (prescriptivism). Consider this passage from the first chapter of an online text:

Prescriptive grammar is based on the idea that there is a single right way to do things. When there is more than one way of saying something, prescriptive grammar is generally concerned with declaring one (and only one) of the variants to be correct. The favored variant is usually justified as being better (whether more logical, more euphonious, or more desirable on some other grounds) than the deprecated variant. In the same situation of linguistic variability, descriptive grammar is content simply to document the variants – without passing judgment on them.

This misrepresents the role of prescriptive grammar. It’s widely understood that there’s  more than one way of saying something, and more than one way that’s understandable to others. The rules of prescriptive grammar, when followed, improve understanding, in two ways. First, by avoiding utterances that would be incomprehensible or, at least, very hard to understand. Second, by ensuring that utterances aren’t simply ignored or rejected out of hand because their form indicates that the writer or speaker is either ill-educated or stupid.

What, then, is the role of descriptive grammar? The authors offer this:

[R]ules of descriptive grammar have the status of scientific observations, and they are intended as insightful generalizations about the way that speakers use language in fact, rather than about the way that they ought to use it. Descriptive rules are more general and more fundamental than prescriptive rules in the sense that all sentences of a language are formed in accordance with them, not just a more or less arbitrary subset of shibboleth sentences. A useful way to think about the descriptive rules of a language … is that they produce, or generate, all the sentences of a language. The prescriptive rules can then be thought of as filtering out some (relatively minute) portion of the entire output of the descriptive rules as socially unacceptable.

Let’s consider the assertion that descriptive rules produce all the sentences of a language. What does that mean? It seems to mean the actual rules of a language can be inferred by examining sentences uttered or written by users of the language. But which users? Native users? Adults? Adults who have graduated from high-school? Users with IQs of at least 85?

Pushing on, let’s take a closer look at descriptive rules and their utility. The authors say that

we adopt a resolutely descriptive perspective concerning language. In particular, when linguists say that a sentence is grammatical, we don’t mean that it is correct from a prescriptive point of view, but rather that it conforms to descriptive rules….

The descriptive rules amount to this: They conform to practices that a speakers and writers actually use in an attempt to convey ideas, whether or not the practices state the ideas clearly and concisely. Thus the authors approve of these sentences because they’re of a type that might well occur in colloquial speech:

Over there is the guy who I went to the party with.

Over there is the guy with whom I went to the party.

(Both are clumsy ways of saying “I went to the party with that person.”)

Bill and me went to the store.

(“Bill and I went to the store.” or “Bill went to the store with me.” or “I went to the store with Bill.” Aha! Three ways to say it correctly, not just one way.)

But the authors label the following sentences as ungrammatical because they don’t comport with the colloquial speech:

Over there is guy the who I went to party the with.

Over there is the who I went to the party with guy.

Bill and me the store to went.

In other words, the authors accept as grammatical anything that a speaker or writer is likely to say, according to the “rules” that can be inferred from colloquial speech and writing. It follows that whatever is is right, even “Bill and me to the store went” or “Went to the store Bill and me,” which aren’t far-fetched variations on “Bill and me went to the store.” (Yoda-isms they read like.) They’re understandable, but only with effort. And further evolution would obliterate their meaning.

The fact is that the authors of the online text — like descriptivists generally — don’t follow their own anarchistic prescription. Wilson Follett puts it this way in Modern American Usage: A Guide:

It is … one of the striking features of the libertarian position [with respect to language] that it preaches an unbuttoned grammar in a prose style that is fashioned with the utmost grammatical rigor. H.L. Mencken’s two thousand pages on the vagaries of the American language are written in the fastidious syntax of a precisian. If we go by what these men do instead of by what they say, we conclude that they all believe in conventional grammar, practice it against their own preaching, and continue to cultivate the elegance they despise in theory….

[T]he artist and the user of language for practical ends share an obligation to preserve against confusion and dissipation the powers that over the centuries the mother tongue has acquired. It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in language … whatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best (pp. 30-1).

Follett also states the true purpose of prescriptivism, which isn’t to prescribe rules for their own sake:

[This book] accept[s] the long-established conventions of prescriptive grammar … on the theory that freedom from confusion is more desirable than freedom from rule…. (op. cit., p. 243).

E.B. White puts  it more colorfully in his introduction to The Elements of Style. Writing about William Strunk Jr., author of the original version of the book, White says:

All through The Elements of Style one finds evidence of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope. In revising the text, I have tried to hold steadily in mind this belief of his, this concern for the bewildered reader (p. xvi, Third Edition).

Descriptivists would let readers founder in the swamp of incomprehensibility. If descriptivists had their way — or what they claim to be their way — American English would, like the arts, recede into formless primitivism.

Eternal vigilance about language is the price of comprehensibility.

ILLEGITIMI NON CARBORUNDUM LINGO

The vigilant are sorely tried these days. What follows are several restrained rants about some practices that should be resisted and repudiated.

Eliminate Filler Words

When I was a child, most parents and all teachers promptly ordered children to desist from saying “uh” between words. “Uh” was then the filler word favored by children, adolescents, and even adults. The resort to “uh” meant that the speaker was stalling because he had opened his mouth without having given enough thought to what he meant to say.

Next came “you know.” It has been displaced, in the main, by “like,” where it hasn’t been joined to “like” in the formation “like, you know.”

The need of a filler word (or phrase) seems ineradicable. Too many people insist on opening their mouths before thinking about what they’re about to say. Given that, I urge Americans in need of a filler word to use “uh” and eschew “like” and “like, you know.” “Uh” is far less distracting and irritating than the rat-a-tat of “like-like-like-like.”

Of course, it may be impossible to return to “uh.” Its brevity may not give the users of “like” enough time to organize their TV-smart-phone-video-game-addled brains and deliver coherent speech.

In any event, speech influences writing. Sloppy speech begets sloppy writing, as I know too well. I have spent the past 50 years of my life trying to undo habits of speech acquired in my childhood and adolescence — habits that still creep into my writing if I drop my guard.

Don’t Abuse Words

How am I supposed to know what you mean if you abuse perfectly good words? Here I discuss four prominent examples of abuse.

Anniversary

Too many times in recent years I’ve heard or read something like this: “Sally and me are celebrating our one-year anniversary.” The “me” is bad enough; “one-year anniversary” (or any variation of it) is truly egregious.

The word “anniversary” means “the annually recurring date of a past event.” To write or say “x-year anniversary” is redundant as well as graceless. Just write or say “first anniversary,” “two-hundred fiftieth anniversary,” etc., as befits the occasion.

To write or say “x-month anniversary” is nonsensical. Something that happened less than a year ago can’t have an anniversary. What is meant is that such-and-such happened “x” months ago. Just say it.

Data

A person who writes or says “data is” is at best an ignoramus and at worst a Philistine.

Language, above all else, should be used to make one’s thoughts clear to others. The pairing of a plural noun and a singular verb form is distracting, if not confusing. Even though datum is seldom used by Americans, it remains the singular foundation of data, which is the plural form. Data, therefore, never “is”; data always “are.”

H.W. Fowler says:

Latin plurals sometimes become singular English words (e.g., agenda, stamina) and data is often so treated in U.S.; in Britain this is still considered a solecism… (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition, p.119).

But Wilson Follett is better on the subject:

Those who treat data as a singular doubtless think of it as a generic noun, comparable to knowledge or information… [TEA: a generous interpretation]. The rationale of agenda as a singular is its use to mean a collective program of action, rather than separate items to be acted on. But there is as yet no obligation to change the number of data under the influence of error mixed with innovation (op. cit., pp. 130-1).

Hopefully and Its Brethren

Mark Liberman of Language Log discusses

the AP Style Guide’s decision to allow the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, announced on Twitter at 6:22 a.m. on 17 April 2012:

Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update, announced at ‪#aces2012‬. We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.

Liberman, who is a descriptivist, defends AP’s egregious decision. His defense consists mainly of citing noted writers who have used “hopefully” where they meant “it is to be hoped.” I suppose that if those same noted writers had chosen to endanger others by driving on the wrong side of the road, Liberman would praise them for their “enlightened” approach to driving.

Geoff Nunberg also defends “hopefully“ in “The Word ‘Hopefully’ Is Here to Stay, Hopefully,” which appears at npr.org. Numberg (or the headline writer) may be right in saying that “hopefully” is here to stay. But that does not excuse the widespread use of the word in ways that are imprecise and meaningless.

The crux of Nunberg’s defense is that “hopefully” conveys a nuance that “language snobs” (like me) are unable to grasp:

Some critics object that [“hopefully” is] a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick called it) that isn’t attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker’s attitude. But floating modifiers are mother’s milk to English grammar — nobody objects to using “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” or “frankly” in exactly the same way.

Or people complain that “hopefully” doesn’t specifically indicate who’s doing the hoping. But neither does “It is to be hoped that,” which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a “natural” substitute. That’s what usage fetishism can drive you to — you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you’ve improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can’t hear what it’s really saying. The fact is that “I hope that” doesn’t mean the same thing that “hopefully” does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction. I’m comfortable saying, “I hope I survive to 105″ — it isn’t likely, but hey, you never know. But it would be pushing my luck to say, “Hopefully, I’ll survive to 105,” since that suggests it might actually be in the cards.

Floating modifiers may be common in English, but that does not excuse them. Given Numberg’s evident attachment to them, I am unsurprised by his assertion that “nobody objects to using ‘sadly,’ ‘mercifully,’ ‘thankfully’ or ‘frankly’ in exactly the same way.”

Nobody, Mr. Nunberg? Hardly. Anyone who cares about clarity and precision in the expression of ideas will object to such usages. A good editor would rewrite any sentence that begins with a free-floating modifier — no matter which one of them it is.

Nunberg’s defense against such rewriting is that Wilson Follett offers “It is to be hoped that” as a cumbersome, wordy substitute for “hopefully.” I assume that Nunberg refers to Follett’s discussion of “hopefully” in Modern American Usage. If so, Nunberg once again proves himself an adherent of imprecision, for this is what Follett actually says about “hopefully”:

The German language is blessed with an adverb, hoffentlich, that affirms the desirability of an occurrence that may or may not come to pass. It is generally to be translated by some such periphrasis as it is to be hoped that; but hack translators and persons more at home in German than in English persistently render it as hopefully. Now, hopefully and hopeful can indeed apply to either persons or affairs. A man in difficulty is hopeful of the outcome, or a situation looks hopeful; we face the future hopefully, or events develop hopefully. What hopefully refuses to convey in idiomatic English is the desirability of the hoped-for event. College, we read, is a place for the development of habits of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and, hopefully, the establishment of foundations of wisdom. Such a hopefully is un-English and eccentric; it is to be hoped is the natural way to express what is meant. The underlying mentality is the same—and, hopefully, the prescription for cure is the same (let us hope) / With its enlarged circulation–and hopefully also increased readership–[a periodical] will seek to … (we hope) / Party leaders had looked confidently to Senator L. to win . . . by a wide margin and thus, hopefully, to lead the way to victory for. . . the Presidential ticket (they hoped) / Unfortunately–or hopefully, as you prefer it–it is none too soon to formulate the problems as swiftly as we can foresee them. In the last example, hopefully needs replacing by one of the true antonyms of unfortunately–e.g. providentially.

The special badness of hopefully is not alone that it strains the sense of -ly to the breaking point, but that appeals to speakers and writers who do not think about what they are saying and pick up VOGUE WORDS [another entry in Modern American Usage] by reflex action. This peculiar charm of hopefully accounts for its tiresome frequency. How readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel is seen in the similar use of transferred meaning in other adverbs denoting an attitude of mind. For example: Sorrowfully (regrettably), the officials charged with wording such propositions for ballot presentation don’t say it that way / the “suicide needle” which–thankfully–he didn’t see fit to use (we are thankful to say). Adverbs so used lack point of view; they fail to tell us who does the hoping, the sorrowing, or the being thankful. Writers who feel the insistent need of an English equivalent for hoffentlich might try to popularize hopingly, but must attach it to a subject capable of hoping (op. cit., pp. 178-9).

Follett, contrary to Nunberg’s assertion, does not offer “It is to be hoped that” as a substitute for “hopefully,” which would “cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction.” Follett gives “it is to be hoped for” as the sense of “hopefully.” But, as the preceding quotation attests, Follett is able to replace “hopefully” (where it is misused) with a few short words that take no longer to write or say than “hopefully,” and which convey the writer’s or speaker’s intended meaning more clearly. And if it does take a few extra words to say something clearly, why begrudge those words?

What about the other floating modifiers — such as “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” and “frankly” — which Nunberg defends with much passion and no logic? Follett addresses those others in the third paragraph quoted above, but he does not dispose of them properly. For example, I would not simply substitute “regrettably” for “sorrowfully”; neither is adequate. What is wanted is something like this: “The officials who write propositions for ballots should not have said … , which is misleading (vague/ambiguous).” More words? Yes, but so what? (See above.)

In any event, a writer or speaker who is serious about expressing himself clearly to an audience will never say things like “Sadly (regrettably), the old man died,” when he means either “I am (we are/they are/everyone who knew him) is saddened by (regrets) the old man’s dying,” or (less probably) “The old man grew sad as he died” or “The old man regretted dying.” I leave “mercifully,” “thankfully,” “frankly” and the rest of the overused “-ly” words as an exercise for the reader.

The aims of a writer or speaker ought to be clarity and precision, not a stubborn, pseudo-logical insistence on using a word or phrase merely because it is in vogue or (more likely) because it irritates so-called language snobs. I doubt that even the pseudo-logical “language slobs” of Nunberg’s ilk condone “like” and “you know” as interjections. But, by Nunberg’s “logic,” those interjections should be condoned — nay, encouraged — because “everyone” knows what someone who uses them is “really saying,” namely, “I am too stupid or lazy to express myself clearly and precisely.”

Literally

This is from Dana Coleman’s article “According to the Dictionary, ‘Literally’ Also Now Means ‘Figuratively’,” (Salon, August 22, 2013):

Literally, of course, means something that is actually true: “Literally every pair of shoes I own was ruined when my apartment flooded.”

When we use words not in their normal literal meaning but in a way that makes a description more impressive or interesting, the correct word, of course, is “figuratively.”

But people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

Indeed, Ragan’s PR Daily reported last week that Webster, Macmillan Dictionary and Google have added this latter informal use of “literally” as part of the word’s official definition. The Cambridge Dictionary has also jumped on board….

Webster’s first definition of literally is, “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” Its second definition is, “in effect; virtually.” In addressing this seeming contradiction, its authors comment:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”…

The problem is that a lot of people use “literally” when they mean “figuratively” because they don’t know better. It’s literally* incomprehensible to me that the editors of dictionaries would suborn linguistic anarchy. Hopefully,** they’ll rethink their rashness.
_________
* “Literally” is used correctly, though it’s superfluous here.
** “Hopefully” is used incorrectly, but in the spirit of the times.

Punctuate Properly

I can’t compete with Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (discussed in Part Three), so I won’t try. Just read it and heed it.

But I must address the use of the hyphen in compound adjectives, and the serial comma.

Regarding the hyphen, David Bernstein of The Volokh Conspiracy writes:

I frequently have disputes with law reviewer editors over the use of dashes. Unlike co-conspirator Eugene, I’m not a grammatical expert, or even someone who has much of an interest in the subject.

But I do feel strongly that I shouldn’t use a dash between words that constitute a phrase, as in “hired gun problem”, “forensic science system”, or “toxic tort litigation.” Law review editors seem to want to generally want to change these to “hired-gun problem”, “forensic-science system”, and “toxic-tort litigation.” My view is that “hired” doesn’t modify “gun”; rather “hired gun” is a self-contained phrase. The same with “forensic science” and “toxic tort.”

Most of the commenters are right to advise Bernstein that the “dashes” — he means hyphens — are necessary. Why? To avoid confusion as to what is modifying the noun “problem.”

In “hired gun,” for example, “hired” (adjective) modifies “gun” (noun, meaning “gunslinger” or the like). But in “hired-gun problem,” “hired-gun” is a compound adjective which requires both of its parts to modify “problem.” It’s not a “hired problem” or a “gun problem,” it’s a “hired-gun problem.” The function of the hyphen is to indicate that “hired” and “gun,” taken separately, are meaningless as modifiers of “problem,” that is, to ensure that the meaning of the adjective-noun phrase is not misread.

A hyphen isn’t always necessary in such instances. But the consistent use of the hyphen in such instances avoids confusion and the possibility of misinterpretation.

The consistent use of the hyphen to form a compound adjective has a counterpart in the consistent use of the serial comma, which is the comma that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items (e.g., the red, white, and blue). Newspapers (among other sinners) eschew the serial comma for reasons too arcane to pursue here. Thoughtful counselors advise its use. (See, for example, Follett at pp. 422-3.) Why? Because the serial comma, like the hyphen in a compound adjective, averts ambiguity. It isn’t always necessary, but if it is used consistently, ambiguity can be avoided. (Here’s a great example, from the Wikipedia article linked to in the first sentence of this paragraph: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” The writer means, of course, “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.”)

A little punctuation goes a long way.

Stand Fast against Political Correctness

As a result of political correctness, some words and phrases have gone out of favor. needlessly. Others are cluttering the language, needlessly. Political correctness manifests itself in euphemisms, verboten words, and what I call gender preciousness.

Euphemisms

These are much-favored by persons of the left, who seem unable to have an aversion to reality. Thus, for example:

  • “Crippled” became “handicapped,” which became “disabled” and then “differently abled” or “something-challenged.”
  • “Stupid” became “learning disabled,” which became “special needs” (a euphemistic category that houses more than the stupid).
  • “Poor” became “underprivileged,” which became “economically disadvantaged,” which became “entitled” (to other people’s money), in fact if not in word.
  • Colored persons became Negroes, who became blacks, then African-Americans, and now (often) persons of color.

How these linguistic contortions have helped the crippled, stupid, poor, and colored is a mystery to me. Tact is admirable, but euphemisms aren’t tactful. They’re insulting because they’re condescending.

Verboten Words

The list is long; see this and this, for example. Words become verboten for the same reason that euphemisms arise: to avoid giving offense, even where offense wouldn’t or shouldn’t be taken.

David Bernstein, writing at TCS Daily several ago, recounted some tales about political correctness. This one struck close to home:

One especially merit-less [hostile work environment] claim that led to a six-figure verdict involved Allen Fruge, a white Department of Energy employee based in Texas. Fruge unwittingly spawned a harassment suit when he followed up a southeast Texas training session with a bit of self-deprecating humor. He sent several of his colleagues who had attended the session with him gag certificates anointing each of them as an honorary Coon Ass — usually spelled coonass — a mildly derogatory slang term for a Cajun. The certificate stated that [y]ou are to sing, dance, and tell jokes and eat boudin, cracklins, gumbo, crawfish etouffe and just about anything else. The joke stemmed from the fact that southeast Texas, the training session location, has a large Cajun population, including Fruge himself.

An African American recipient of the certificate, Sherry Reid, chief of the Nuclear and Fossil Branch of the DOE in Washington, D.C., apparently missed the joke and complained to her supervisors that Fruge had called her a coon. Fruge sent Reid a formal (and humble) letter of apology for the inadvertent offense, and explained what Coon Ass actually meant. Reid nevertheless remained convinced that Coon Ass was a racial pejorative, and demanded that Fruge be fired. DOE supervisors declined to fire Fruge, but they did send him to diversity training. They also reminded Reid that the certificate had been meant as a joke, that Fruge had meant no offense, that Coon Ass was slang for Cajun, and that Fruge sent the certificates to people of various races and ethnicities, so he clearly was not targeting African Americans. Reid nevertheless sued the DOE, claiming that she had been subjected to a racial epithet that had created a hostile environment, a situation made worse by the DOEs failure to fire Fruge.

Reid’s case was seemingly frivolous. The linguistics expert her attorney hired was unable to present evidence that Coon Ass meant anything but Cajun, or that the phrase had racist origins, and Reid presented no evidence that Fruge had any discriminatory intent when he sent the certificate to her. Moreover, even if Coon Ass had been a racial epithet, a single instance of being given a joke certificate, even one containing a racial epithet, by a non-supervisory colleague who works 1,200 miles away does not seem to remotely satisfy the legal requirement that harassment must be severe and pervasive for it to create hostile environment liability. Nevertheless, a federal district court allowed the case to go to trial, and the jury awarded Reid $120,000, plus another $100,000 in attorneys fees. The DOE settled the case before its appeal could be heard for a sum very close to the jury award.

I had a similar though less costly experience some years ago, when I was chief financial and administrative officer of a defense think-tank. In the course of discussing the company’s budget during meeting with employees from across the company, I uttered “niggardly” (meaning stingy or penny-pinching). The next day a fellow vice president informed me that some of the black employees from her division had been offended by “niggardly.” I suggested that she give her employees remedial training in English vocabulary. That should have been the verdict in the Reid case.

Gender Preciousness

It has become fashionable for academicians and pseudo-serious writers to use “she” where “he” long served as the generic (and sexless) reference to a singular third person. Here is an especially grating passage from an by Oliver Cussen:

What is a historian of ideas to do? A pessimist would say she is faced with two options. She could continue to research the Enlightenment on its own terms, and wait for those who fight over its legacy—who are somehow confident in their definitions of what “it” was—to take notice. Or, as [Jonathan] Israel has done, she could pick a side, and mobilise an immense archive for the cause of liberal modernity or for the cause of its enemies. In other words, she could join Moses Herzog, with his letters that never get read and his questions that never get answered, or she could join Sandor Himmelstein and the loud, ignorant bastards (“The Trouble with the Enlightenment,” Prospect, May 5, 2013).

I don’t know about you, but I’m distracted by the use of the generic “she,” especially by a male. First, it’s not the norm (or wasn’t the norm until the thought police made it so). Thus my first reaction to reading it in place of “he” is to wonder who this “she” is; whereas,  the function of “he” as a stand-in for anyone (regardless of gender) was always well understood. Second, the usage is so obviously meant to mark the writer as “sensitive” and “right thinking” that it calls into question his sincerity and objectivity.

I could go on about the use of “he or she” in place of “he” or “she.” But it should be enough to call it what it is: verbal clutter.

Then there is “man,” which for ages was well understood (in the proper context) as referring to persons in general, not to male persons in particular. (“Mankind” merely adds a superfluous syllable.)

The short, serviceable “man” has been replaced, for the most part, by “humankind.” I am baffled by the need to replaced one syllable with three. I am baffled further by the persistence of “man” — a sexist term — in the three-syllable substitute. But it gets worse when writers strain to avoid the solo use of “man” by resorting to “human beings” and the “human species.” These are longer than “humankind,” and both retain the accursed “man.”

Don’t Split Infinitives

Just don’t do it, regardless of the pleadings of descriptivists. Even Follett counsels the splitting of infinitives, when the occasion demands it. I part ways with Follett in this matter, and stand ready to be rebuked for it.

Consider the case of Eugene Volokh, a known grammatical relativist, who scoffs at “to increase dramatically” — as if “to dramatically increase” would be better. The meaning of “to increase dramatically” is clear. The only reason to write “to dramatically increase” would be to avoid the appearance of stuffiness; that is, to pander to the least cultivated of one’s readers.

Seeming unstuffy (i.e., without standards) is neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to split an infinitive. The rule about not splitting infinitives, like most other grammatical rules, serves the valid and useful purpose of preventing English from sliding yet further down the slippery slope of incomprehensibility than it has slid.

If an unsplit infinitive makes a clause or sentence seem awkward, the clause or sentence should be recast to avoid the awkwardness. Better that than make an exception that leads to further exceptions — and thence to Babel.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (a.k.a. Fowler’s Modern English Usage) counsels splitting an infinitive where recasting doesn’t seem to work:

We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’…. We maintain, however, that a real [split infinitive], though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any [split infinitive] without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission … has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’… What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept… (p. 581, Second Edition).

Good try, but not good enough. This would do: “In these circumstances, the Commission … has been considering modifications that would better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time meet reasonable Indian demands.”

Enough said? I think so.

*     *     *

Some readers may conclude that I prefer stodginess to liveliness. That’s not true, as any discerning reader of this blog will know. I love new words and new ways of using words, and I try to engage readers while informing and persuading them. But I do those things within the expansive boundaries of prescriptive grammar and usage. Those boundaries will change with time, as they have in the past. But they should change only when change serves understanding, not when it serves the whims of illiterates and language anarchists.

Signature

Election 2014: The Outlook on E-Day

UPDATED BELOW

Here it is, the day that anti-leftists have been waiting for. The portents remain favorable for GOP control of Congress.

As of this moment, the “poll of polls” at RealClearPolitics.com has the GOP gaining 7 Senate seats, for a 52-48 majority (assuming that 3 independents caucus with Democrats), and winning at least 226 House seats (241 if the tossups divide evenly). Henry Olsen also predicts that the GOP will pick up 7 Senate seats. And he sees the GOP taking 245 House seats.

The projected outcome in the House is close to my own estimate, which doesn’t rely on polls. In any event, the GOP is certain to retain its House majority, and almost certain to increase it — perhaps winning more seats than in any election since World War II. But don’t expect to wake up tomorrow morning with a GOP Senate majority in the bag. It may not be secured until December 6, with a runoff between Mary Landrieu (D) and Bill Cassidy (R), or until January 6, with a runoff between Michelle Nunn (D) and David Perdue (R).

The GOP’s resurgence has a lot (perhaps everything) to do with the continuing unpopularity of Obama and Obamacare. Both are less popular now than they were four years ago, when the GOP gained 6 Senate seats and won 242 House seats:

Election indicators - 2014 vs 2010

The indicators are drawn from the Obama Approval Index History published at Rasmussen Reports, and Rasmussen’s sporadic polling of likely voters about Obamacare (latest report here).

The first indicator (blue lines) measures Obama’s overall rating with likely voters. This indicator is a measure of superficial support for Obama. On that score, he’s just as unpopular now as he was four years ago. A plus for the GOP.

The second indicator (black lines) measures Obama’s rating with likely voters who express strong approval or disapproval of him. Obama’s strong-approval rating remains well below the pace of four years ago. A big plus for the GOP.

The third indicator (red lines) represents Obama’s strong-approval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly approve/fraction of likely voters who approve) divided by his strong-disapproval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly disapprove/fraction of likely voters who disapprove). I call this the “enthusiasm” indicator. Higher values represent greater enthusiasm for Obama; lower values, less enthusiasm. This is perhaps the best measure of support for Obama — and it looks a lot worse (for Democrats) than it did in 2010. Another big plus for the GOP.

The green points (connected by lines) are plots of Obamacare’s standing, as measured by the ratio of strong approval to strong disapproval among likely voters. Obamacare is faring much worse in 2014 than it did in 2010. Yet another big plus for the GOP.

UPDATE (11/06/14)

The indicators were on target.

With 52 Senate seats in the bag, the Republican candidate leading the Democrat incumbent in Alaska, and a pending runoff in Louisiana that’s almost certain to result in another GOP gain, it looks like the Reppublicans will end up with 54 seats. That would be a gain of 9 seats, as against 6 in 2010.

The GOP has already won 243 House seats, and it looks like another 5 will go Republican. A total of 248 would give the GOP its largest House majority since World War II.

UPDATE (12/17/14)

The final results are in. The GOP gained 9 Senate seats, for a 54-46 majority, and 14 House seats, for a 247-188 majority. That’s a benchmark that I’ll use in future projections of congressional elections.

Signature

On Writing: Part Three

Part One gives excerpts of W.Somerset Maugham’s candid insights about the craft of writing. Part Two gives my advice to writers of non-fiction works. This part recommends some writings about writing, some writers to emulate, and a short list of reference works. Part Four will deliver some sermonettes about practices to follow if you wish to be taken seriously and not thought of as a semi-literate, self-indulgent, faddish dilettante.

WRITINGS ABOUT WRITING

See Part One for excerpts of Maugham‘s memoir, The Summing Up. Follow the link to order a copy of the book. It’s personal, candid, and insightful. And it bears re-reading at intervals because it’s so densely packed with wisdom.

Read Steven Pinker‘s essay, “Why Academic Writing Stinks” (The Chronicle Review, September 26, 2014). You may not be an academic, but I’ll bet that you sometimes lapse into academese. (I know that I sometimes do.) Pinker’s essay will help you to recognize academese, and to understand why it’s to be avoided.

Pinker’s essay also appears in a booklet, “Why Academics Stink at Writing–and How to Fix It,” which is available here in exchange for your name, your job title, the name of your organization, and your e-mail address. (Whether you wish to give true information is up to you.) Of the four essays that follow Pinker’s, I prefer the one by Michael Munger.

Beyond that, pick and chose by searching on “writers on writing.” Google gave me 193,000 hits. Hidden among the dross, I found this, which led me to this gem: “George Orwell on Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself.” (“Herself”? I’ll deliver a sermonette about gender in Part Four.)

Those of you who know (or know of) The Elements of Style, you may wonder why I haven’t mentioned E.B. White. I’m saving him for the next two sections.

WRITERS TO EMULATE

Study Maugham’s The Summing Up for its straightforward style. Consider these opening sentences of a paragraph, for example:

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought.

This is a classic example of good writing. The first sentence states the topic of the paragraph. The following sentences elaborate it. Each sentence is just long enough to convey a single, complete thought. Because of that, even the rather long second sentence should be readily understood by a high-school graduate (a graduate of a small-city high school in the 1950s, at least).

I offer the great mathematician, G.H. Hardy, as a second exemplar. In particular, I recommend Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. (It’s an apology n the sense of “a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly,” where the something is the pursuit of pure mathematics.) The introduction by C.P Snow is better than Hardy’s long essay, but Snow was a published novelist as well as a trained scientist. Hardy’s publications, other than the essay, are mathematical. The essay is notable for its accessibility, even to non-mathematicians. Of its 90 pages, only 23 (clustered near the middle) require a reader to cope with mathematics, but it’s mathematics that shouldn’t daunt a person who has taken and passed high-school algebra.

Hardy’s prose is flawed, to be sure. He overuses shudder quotes, and occasionally gets tangled in a too-long sentence. But I’m taken by his exposition of the art of doing higher mathematics, and the beauty of doing it well. Hardy, in other words, sets an example to be followed by writers who wish to capture the essence of a technical subject and convey that essence to intelligent laymen.

Here are some samples:

There are many highly respectable motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desire to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think any better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.

*     *     *

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patters with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an ‘idea’, but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated…

…A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

A third exemplar is E.B. White, a successful writer of fiction who is probably best known for The Elements of Style. (It’s usually called “Strunk & White” or “the little book.”) It’s an outgrowth of a slimmer volume of the same name by William Strunk Jr. (Strunk had been dead for 13 years when White produced the first edition of Strunk & White.)

I’ll address the little book’s authoritativeness in the next section. Here, I’ll highlight White’s style of writing. This is from the introduction to the third edition (the last one edited by White):

 The Elements of Style, when I re-examined it in 1957, seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold. It was Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. Will himself had hung the tag “little” on the book; he referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as “the little book,” always giving the word “little” a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball. In its original form, it was  forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.

Vivid, direct, and engaging. And the whole book reads like that.

REFERENCE WORKS

If you could have only one book to help you write better, it would be The Elements of Style. (There’s now a fourth edition, for which I can’t vouch, but which seems to cover the same ground as my trusty third edition.) Admittedly, Strunk & White has a vociferous critic, one Geoffrey K. Pullum. But Pullum documents only one substantive flaw: an apparent mischaracterization of what constitutes the passive voice. What Pullum doesn’t say is that the book correctly flays the kind of writing that it calls passive (correctly or not). Further, Pullum derides the book’s many banal headings, while ignoring what follows them: sound advice, backed by concrete examples. (There’s a nice rebuttal of Pullum here.) It’s evident that the book’s real sin — in Pullum’s view — is “bossiness” (prescriptivism), which is no sin at all, as I’ll explain in Part Four.

There are so many good writing tips in Strunk & White that it was hard for me to choose a sample. I randomly chose “Omit Needless Words” (one of the headings derided by Pullum), which opens with a statement of principles:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine to unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

That would be empty rhetoric, were it not followed by further discussion and 17 specific examples. Here are a few:

the question as to whether should be replaced by whether or the question whether

the reason why is that should be replaced by because

I was unaware of the fact that should be replace by I was unaware that or I did not know that

His brother, who is a member of the same firm should be replaced by His brother, a member of the same firm

There’s much more than that to Strunk & White, of course, (Go here to see table of contents.) You’ll become a better writer — perhaps an excellent one — if you carefully read Strunk & White, re-read it occasionally, and apply the principles that it espouses and illustrates.

After Strunk & White, my favorite instructional work is Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I vouch for the accuracy of this description of the book (Publishers Weekly via Amazon.com):

Who would have thought a book about punctuation could cause such a sensation? Certainly not its modest if indignant author, who began her surprise hit motivated by “horror” and “despair” at the current state of British usage: ungrammatical signs (“BOB,S PETS”), headlines (“DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED”) and band names (“Hear’Say”) drove journalist and novelist Truss absolutely batty. But this spirited and wittily instructional little volume, which was a U.K. #1 bestseller, is not a grammar book, Truss insists; like a self-help volume, it “gives you permission to love punctuation.” Her approach falls between the descriptive and prescriptive schools of grammar study, but is closer, perhaps, to the latter. (A self-professed “stickler,” Truss recommends that anyone putting an apostrophe in a possessive “its”-as in “the dog chewed it’s bone”-should be struck by lightning and chopped to bits.) Employing a chatty tone that ranges from pleasant rant to gentle lecture to bemused dismay, Truss dissects common errors that grammar mavens have long deplored (often, as she readily points out, in isolation) and makes elegant arguments for increased attention to punctuation correctness: “without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.” Interspersing her lessons with bits of history (the apostrophe dates from the 16th century; the first semicolon appeared in 1494) and plenty of wit, Truss serves up delightful, unabashedly strict and sometimes snobby little book, with cheery Britishisms (“Lawks-a-mussy!”) dotting pages that express a more international righteous indignation.

Next up is Wilson Follet’s Modern American Usage. The link points to a newer edition than the one that I’ve relied on for more than 40 years. Reviews of the newer edition, edited by one Erik Wensberg, are mixed but generally favorable. However, the newer edition seems to lack Follett’s “Introductory,” which is divided into “Usage, Purism, and Pedantry” and “The Need of an Orderly Mind.” If that is so, the newer edition is likely to be less uncompromising toward language relativists like Geoffrey Pullum. The following quotations from Follett’s “Introductory” (one from each section), will give you an idea of Follett’s stand on relativism:

[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care abut language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition does something, and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty or both does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.

*     *     *

A great deal of our language is so automatic that even the thoughtful never think about it, and this mere not-thinking is the gate through which solecisms or inferior locutions slip in. Some part, greater or smaller, of every thousand words is inevitably parroted, even by the least parrotlike.

(A reprint of the original edition is available here.)

I have one more book to recommend: The Chicago Manual of Style. Though the book is a must-have for editors, serious writers should also own a copy and consult it often. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, you can get an idea of its vast range and depth of coverage by following the preceding link, clicking on “Look inside,” and perusing the table of contents, first pages, and index.

Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand. I use The Free Dictionary, and am seldom disappointed by it. There also look promising: Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. I suggest, you decide (or offer alternatives).

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