Writing Economics

Donald McCloskey (1987:3), in The Writing of Economics, bemoans the standard syllabus that teaches things about economics rather than how to be an economist:

Students are taught minor details in statistics, when the hard business of quantitative thinking in economics is getting the data straight; they are taught minor details in mathematics, when the hard business of mathematical economics is getting economic ideas straight. In most schools they are taught nothing about writing, when the hard business of economic thinking is getting the words straight.

Writing matters, deeply. It matters even more perhaps in a field like economics, data-heavy and maths-rich, often deliberately obscure (or so it seems). As I try to shift gears into a more rigorously economic mindset in preparation for the honours year ahead – and pine for the familiar theories of the political science literature – I take refuge in words. If I can learn to write like an economist, perhaps I can learn to be one, as well.

The Writing of Economics, McCloskey

Writing would be better if more of us saw economics as a way of organizing thoughts and perceptions about economic life rather than as a poor imitation of physics. 

— Robert Solow (1984), cited in McCloskey (1987)

This little gem is a clear, concise read. A lot of the stylistic and research advice applies across disciplines:

  • Writing is thinking. Start writing before research is finished.
  • Be plain. Be clear. Above all, look at your words and make sure each is where it belongs and means what you think it means.
  • Speak to an audience of human beings.
  • Read it over out loud (this may be the most helpful writing advice I ever received. Follow it).

McCloskey’s love of language and communications shines through and in many ways his book reminds me of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Both focus on the mechanics of getting your point across and abhor adornment and flourish, without reducing language to mere function. He challenges conventional arrangement and calls for a more natural, conversational writing style. 

A Guide for the Young Economist, Thomson

Thomson’s Guide is much more detailed. He echoes many of McCloskey’s concerns – clarity, conciseness, precision – before looking much more deeply at the nuts and bolts of economic papers. The sections on presenting notation and mathematical proofs are rather dense and I suspect I will need to revisit them when I have actually written my thesis. Perhaps the most important take-away is to take the reader on a journey with you: to remember the errors and difficulties you encountered on the way and point them out to the reader; to tell a story; to define clearly and denote consistently; to be as transparent about process as possible.

Thomson also includes helpful advice on presenting papers at seminars and refereeing journal articles. 


McCloskey, D (1987). The Writing of Economics. New York: McMillan.

Strunk, W Jr. & White, E B (2000). The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Thomson, W (2001). A Guide for the Young Economist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Williams, J (2000). Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.


Marx on alienation

The laws of political economy express the estrangement of the worker in his object thus: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous becomes the worker; the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more ingenious labor becomes, the less ingenious becomes the worker and the more he becomes nature’s bondsman.

Karl Marx on alienation, in the Elgar Dictionary of Economic Quotations.

Links I Liked – 9 March 2014

Samuel Farber’s Trotsky in Cuba looks at art and dissent in authoritarian societies, through the lens of Cuban writer Leonardo Padura and his ‘The Man Who Loved Dogs’.


What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun by David Graeber is wonderful:

Once you reduce all living beings to the equivalent of market actors, rational calculating machines trying to propagate their genetic code, you accept that not only the cells that make up our bodies, but whatever beings are our immediate ancestors, lacked anything even remotely like self-consciousness, freedom, or moral life—which makes it hard to understand how or why consciousness (a mind, a soul) could ever have evolved in the first place.

Graeber celebrates freedom and play – the expenditure of energy for the sheer joy of it – and wonders about play at an elemental level.


Mary Beard’s The Public Voice of Women was brought to my attention at last week’s IWDA Half the Sky event. Beard takes a historical view of the denial of women’s voices from Homer through Ovid to Henry James and Twitter:

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (I may sound very relaxed about it now; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night). But a significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. 

LatAm Political Economy, Australian Democracy: What I’ve Been Reading

I’m about to start Honours-level Economics so everything I read is being torturously parsed for possible thesis topics. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here. Also lots of Latin America. Scroll down, non-latinophiles. There’s a depressing one for you at the bottom.


Jeffery R. Webber writes a sprawling but fascinating analysis of Bolivia’s economic policies and contesting ideologies for Jacobin magazine. Western commentators tend to ignore the fact that president Evo Morales’ team have pursued fairly orthodox policy despite the country’s close alignment with Venezuela and much of the government’s socialist rhetoric. Webber draws on a number of interviews and a great deal of theory to craft a really interesting analysis of the prevailing tensions. I’ll be reading it again.


Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla demolishes the myth of a century of Argentine decline, at least in terms of quantitative economic indicators. There’s probably an argument to be made for a century of political decline, and I’m not sure the causation is as cut-and-dried as he seems to suggest, but it’s a myth I’d kind of reflexively accepted as fairly compelling. I like being made to sit up and rethink things.


Four (at least tangentially) on Venezuela this week. Political Violence at a Glance link to some potentially interesting data on the outsourcing of government repression; Francisco Toro looks at the long-term development impacts of hurling petrodollars at the poor; Hector Schamis criticises Latin America’s forgetful left [sp], who ignore Venezuelan repression when many of them lived through state repression and human rights abuses themselves. Greg Weeks’ 15 Annoying Things About the Venezuelan Crisis is short, sweet, and pretty damn accurate.


If you care about Australian democracy Chloe Hooper’s Lives of the Magnates will make you very, very sad.


Francisco Toro at the Campaign for Boring Development takes issue with the Guardian’s Valentine’s Day Ethics: How Green is your Red Rose? which advocates for ethical consumption of cut flowers and chocolate based on murky working conditions and environmental standards in producing countries. Toro writes:

The notion that you can somehow improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links normal people in the west have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

Somehow “being ethical” has become a luxury good. Because let’s face it, normal people on normal salaries cannot afford to pay 50 pounds (fifty quid!!) for a dozen roses. What we’re left with is a mindset where “social responsibility” just another item to be conspicuously consumed…

I think it’s important to recognise that free trade has not always (or even mostly) had positive development outcomes for the poor – mostly because so-called “free” trade is heavily distorted by rich world subsidies for domestic agricultural goods. Nevertheless, I agree with Toro’s rejection of consumer activism and ethical consumption as the best response to labour market and environmental issues in the Global South. As I argue in my paper, from Gift to Right, the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility is inherently flawed. The idea that consumers and shareholders in the Global North can and should be the parties holding transnational capital accountable for business activities and development outcomes in the South does nothing to challenge existing power structures or to establish ongoing accountability relationships between big business and local communities.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t reflect upon the way our lifestyles impact upon the poor in other countries, but rather that we should step away from this idea that switching to fair trade chocolate means we’ve discharged our responsibilities to the world. Because it doesn’t.

Dear Minister Morrison

I’ve just emailed this to Scott Morrison’s office, having already called. I encourage other Australians to write, email or phone and register concern about the complete lack of accountability and transparency in Operation Sovereign Borders.

Email: minister@immi.gov.au
Phone:  (02) 6277 7860

Dear Minister,

I have been following the events on Manus Island with increasing alarm and have long been concerned about conditions at our offshore processing facilities. The arbitrary detention of asylum seekers is an egregious breach of international law and demonstrates a complete lack of compassion and understanding. It is even more heinous when you consider that 90% of asylum seekers are eventually found to be refugees, and have fled persecution, violence, and hunger in their homelands.

I do not ask you fling open the borders but I expect, as a citizen of this country, a reasoned political debate that doesn’t demonise or dehumanise asylum seekers, that is transparent, and that is honest with the Australian public about our responsibilities under international law and the true magnitude of the boat people “problem” (hint: the number of people arriving in this way is vanishingly small next to visa overstays).

Specifically and in the short term, I would ask that you initiate a transparent Australian-led investigation into the problems on Manus Island, as these people were in our care at the time of the incident, not that of the PNG government. Further, I would ask for a similarly transparent investigation into the report of burns to asylum seekers on boat that was turned back. Please note that to suggest one operation involving a small group of service people may have gone awry is not to indict the entire Australian Defence Force, whose work I respect.

Finally, I ask you to support Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, in her work and allow her to visit both Nauru and Manus Island. The people who are housed there are within our power, and thus under international human rights law are within our sovereignty, and the AHRC’s remit.

Australia has long been a well-respected middle power with a reputation for supporting international law and human rights around the world. Please don’t trample that reputation, and our values of mateship, compassion, and a fair go, into the dust.


Camden Luxford

What I’ve Been Reading

Aid on the Edge of Chaos take a look at Philip Tetlock’s research on expert judgement and draws some compelling lessons for the development field.


Anthony Faramelli examines the Duggan inquest in the UK and what it tells us about the politics of fear and security in the post-9/11 world:

the pre-​emptive doc­trine util­ized by state sponsored man­hunts works be­cause the non-​existence of what has not ac­tu­ally happened, but might one day happen be­comes more real than reality due to the af­fective nature of fear. The felt reality of threat le­git­im­ates pree­mptive ac­tion, once and for all.

It’s an interesting dissection of the construction of sovereignty and nationhood:

na­tional iden­tity is neg­at­ively con­struc­ted in terms of what it isn’t, or rather what it must be pro­tec­ted from. However this Other does not ne­ces­sarily have to reside out­side the na­tional bound­aries … The Manhunt Doctrine as elab­or­ated by Grégoire Chamayou ex­pli­citly ap­plies to all 21st cen­tury wars that are fought by gov­ern­ments against ex­ist­en­tial threats that do not have a na­tional al­le­gi­ance and, as such, may be loc­ated any­where and every­where around the world, in­cluding (and es­pe­cially) within the na­tional ter­ritory (the wars on drugs, crime, ter­rorism, etc.).


Seth Kaplan’s op-ed in the New York Times, What Makes Lagos a Model City, is another addition to the growing grey literature on successful cities – Bogotá is a frequently cited example – and argues for continued devolution to local government. As globalisation continues to erode accountability at a national level there’s something to be said for new experiments in devolved governance.


Spain’s judges have been very active in the prosecution of egregious violations of international human rights law, but it looks like their leash is going to be considerably shortened: David Bosco for Foreign Policy places the blame squarely on Chinese pressure. Kate at Wronging Rights puts it best:

With the latest change, the courts will now be limited to hearing cases in which both perpetrator and victim are Spanish nationals or residents. Which is pretty much what the Spanish courts would be doing anyway.


I’ve been tweeting a lot of Venezuela but haven’t read much commentary in English. A pair of interesting Spanish links: