This 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.