Jared Bernstein’s Terrible Sentence

Jared BernsteinThis is the first post that I’m going to write about Jared Bernstein’s article, A Graphical Assault on Supply-Side Tax Cuts. Tomorrow, I will discuss the economics of it, because it’s great and important. But today, I want to talk about writing. In particular, I want to look at a single sentence that he wrote. It really is terrible.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to beat up on Bernstein. All of us who write a lot write a lot that is bad. And generally, people don’t have editors to improve their work. And when they do, the editors don’t have enough time. And that’s on top of the writer not having enough time. This is the age of content creation — it’s all about quantity. Quality matters only so much as it needs to be good enough. But I didn’t create this age; I’m just living through it. And if you want to look at things from a positive standpoint, given the lack of resources (time most especially), the level of writing is amazingly good.

But this sentence made my stomach clench:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential theory, but let’s begin by noting that reasonable people make the reasonable argument that, under certain conditions, a tax cut that raises the after-tax wage or lowers the after-tax cost of capital could boost the supply of these critical variables, increase growth, and spin off some revenues.

This is a paragraph badly disguised as a sentence.

I run into this kind of sentence from otherwise good writers all the time. I run into this kind of sentence in my own writing. Generally, first drafts of writing are like speech. And so you often find a first draft riddled with these highly circuitous sentences. It’s because the writer is trying to find what they want to say. After several tries, I figured out that all Bernstein is trying to say is, “I fully admit: sometimes tax cuts partially pay for themselves.” But he gets lost with phrases and clauses so complex that people are confused before he gets to his main point.

Note that this isn’t just confusing because he’s talking about an arcane subject. Let’s rework the sentence with my favorite non-technical subject:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential preference, but let’s begin by noting that reasonable people make the reasonable argument that, under certain conditions, mint ice cream that cleanses the palate or refreshes the senses could supply these wanted attributes, taste good, and be worth buying.

It’s still a mess, even though it’s easy to figure out that the writer is arguing that while mint ice cream isn’t very good, it might be all right under certain circumstances.

I was quite accurate when I wrote above that it was a paragraph disguised as a sentence. And this is a critical issue in writing. You can get as complicated as you want, but people need to be fed one idea after another. This is why sentences need to be relatively short. And this is why they need to be linked.

Here’s my rewrite of Bernstein’s monstrosity:

I and many others have spent years debunking this unfortunate yet highly influential theory. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to it. So let’s begin by noting that under certain conditions, a tax cut that raises the after-tax wage or lowers the after-tax cost of capital could boost productivity. And that increased productivity could result in more tax revenue.

Note that I couldn’t save “reasonable people make the reasonable argument.” Unless you are being poetic or funny, you have no business writing a clause like that. Note also that I had to do a lot of rewriting at the end. The sentence falls apart — appearing to be a list of three things but really being just two things that Bernstein thinks are “critical variables.” I’m sure he will be embarrassed if he ever rereads that article. Because I like him, I hope he never does.

As I’ll discuss tomorrow, the disclaimer really isn’t even necessary.

Anniversary Post: New Coke

New CokeOn this day in 1985, Coca-Cola introduced what became known as New Coke. But before I get to that, it is also the 11th anniversary of YouTube. I find that hard to believe. Even though 11 years is a long time, and I was on the internet for almost two decades before it appeared, it seems like YouTube was always with us. It’s hard for me to imagine life without it.

What I most remember about New Coke were the Bill Cosby ads. He had been the main spokesman for Coca-Cola. So I figured that when New Coke came out, they wouldn’t use him — at least at first. But no! They came right out with commercials of him saying, “Now you know me: I always loved Coke for years and years. I like this Coke better!”

Well, the New Coke was just a sweeter Coke. It tasted more like Pepsi. And at that point in my life, I liked the sweet taste of Pepsi. As I recall, I liked New Coke more than Pepsi. Now, I can’t drink Pepsi — it’s ghastly. What was soon to be called Classic Coke and now is just Coke, really is far more drinkable. But I don’t much drink any of it. I’m more a tea and beer man now.

The story of New Coke is that the original soda was losing market share to Pepsi. In blind taste tests, people did prefer Pepsi. So Coca-Cola decided to change the taste of the drink. This is a great example of how supposedly smart people often don’t know what they are doing. They should have know that people’s preference in soda (and pretty much everything else) is not rational. People didn’t make a rational choice between Coke and Pepsi.

So Bill Cosby lost that gig. But on the upside, he had more time to drug and rape women.