Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Snippets - on the awfulness of academic writing, governance, Métin, pragmatism & the rise of the Australian underclass

This Sunday Snippets provides another somewhat eclectic round-up of things discussed or at least noticed in my electronic travels.

Written by Thomas B. Pepinsky, Indolaysia is a Cornell blog that describes its focus this way: "Indonesia, Malaysia, Politics, Food, Music–and now research too." The blog began in September 2004, so its been going for a while. I came across it via the Lowy Institute blog.  This time, my attention was caught by a post that had nothing to do with South East Asia, On Academic Writing.

The post addresses an issue that has concerned many of us who either write in an academic context or at least have to plough through such writing. A lot of it is dreadful. Professor Pepinsky makes two main points. First, most social scientists don't consider themselves writers; prose is just a rather inefficient and cumbersome technology that serves the purpose of transmitting their thoughts to other people. Secondly, the only way to learn to write is to write. I would add reading, reading of all types.

I know that this sounds simple, but its true. Writing as a craft requires constant practice. This can be hard to do in our busy lives. One difficulties are compounded by the changes that have taken place in what we might loosely call professional writing, the writing we do in a work context. In a world of spread sheets, emails, power points and bullet points, the work space actually occupied by writing has shrunk. A skill not practiced is a skill lost. You can see this in many of the documents produced.

One strength of the blogging world is the presence of some very good writers who can write with clarity and force. I admire them. 

Another blog that I have just come across, again via the Lowy blog, is The GOVERNANCE blog. Personally, I have problems with the increasing obsession with governance because it lacks clarity. It's one of those trend words that conceals and confuses. Still, the blog itself looks to have some interesting material.  

In his latest post, Is the regulatory problem in banking similar to that in the nuclear power industry?, Winton Bates refers in a postscript to a discussion between us on the concept of market failure. Market failure is an important concept in economics, one that spread to public policy discussions many years ago.

The discussion reflected my own confusion with the term. I realised that Winton and I were using the term in different ways. When I checked the Wikipedia definition, I found that it was closer to Winton's. I should explain the discussion in more detail at some point because it's quite important. Like governance, the word market failure now carries a lot of baggage, enough to make it very dangerous. In essence, the difficulty lies in deciding just where to place the boundaries in defining what market failure means.

In a post on Club Troppo, Mark Latham and the return of the underclass, Don Arthur discusses Mr Latham's recent essay in The Quarterly. I haven't read the full essay, only the edited version Mr Latham published in the Australian Financial Review. I read Mr Latham's remarks in a different context to Don, something that I will come to in a minute.

So far as Don's piece is concerned, while I accept that the class of poor people includes those who were not poor when they were born and think that it's a useful point, it also ignores what I see to be an undeniable fact that the current Australian system has entrenched intergenerational poverty in a way not seen before in this country. I don't accept Mr Latham's arguments, but I don't accept Don's either.

I have written on some of these interconnected issues because I consider them to be important. Sometimes I write in code, generalising. I do so because some of my contract work in recent years has actually been in the social housing arena and I cannot write as frankly as I would like because that would breach professional confidence, so I have to generalise.

Bluntly, the approach adopted to social housing has been stupid, counter productive and has contributed to intergenerational poverty. This is not a criticism of either ministers or officials. It's just that the judgements made for the best reasons at the time were, in retrospect, silly. Now good people are trying to redress problems created, but continuing systemic problems make their task incredibly difficult.

I said that I didn't accept Mr Latham's arguments.

In 1901, French writer and socialist Albert Métin  published a book entitled (in English) Socialism with no doctrine. Written before the rise of the Labor Party, the book suggested that then political parties in Australia and New Zealand had created something of a workers' paradise in which the proletariat had become absorbed in the middle class. Many of Métin's arguments are mirrored in Mr Latham's writing; the current term aspirational voter directly reflects Métin's views. And yet, Mr Latham's solutions fly in the face of that earlier analysis.

Métin suggested that Australian political attitudes were fundamentally pragmatic. What was important was what worked. Oddly, Australian politics and public policy are far more ideological than they were in 1901. We cannot do things because they breach ideology. Still, perhaps that should be the subject of another post!


Legal Eagle said...

The thing about academic writing is that we're writing to each other a lot of the time. I say this as an academic. So if I want to be taken seriously by my academic colleagues, I have to use at least some of the jargon! I do try and minimise it. However, I should confess that no one in my family could get past the first page of my book because it used at least three technical terms which would be instantly understood by someone in the field, and which would not be understood by a lay person. What's the solution? I'm not sure...

Jim Belshaw said...

How interesting LE.

As your comment came through, I was listening to the Sunday Profile program on retired Hire Court judge Dyson Heydon - I really admired the clarity and incisiveness of his thinking.

It may not come as a surprise that you, Helen and marcellous were three of those I had in mind when I spoke of the clarity of writing. There is a simple test: when I disagree with you, I actually know why I am disagreeing!

Part of your point actually goes to a different issue, one that I wrestle with.

In your book, you are writing for a specialist audience. To what degree with that audience should you assume knowledge of core concepts? I don't know, it's horses for courses.

My personal preference is to assume zero knowledge, but that can make the book or other piece of work boring for the expert. But if you are going to go in a different route, where do you draw the line?

Evan said...

Hi Jim, how I do agree about social housing.

My analysis: the market is the problem (and the market is shaped by government legislation); so it's no use looking to the market to fix it.

So who is outside the market? Dead people. We are going through the largest transfer of wealth in history from the babyboomers to their grand-/children. Largely the family home. There are some of these who don't have children to leave the home to. Some of these, if asked, would probably be happy to will their home to a trust. This trust could rent the homes long-term for cost of maintenance plus a margin to buy more stock. Which results in a stock of housing somewhat distant from market pressures. This is the only way I know to deal with the problem of affordability in a sustainable way.

Governments subsidising landlords (rent assistance) is either at the mercy of the market or of little use (as it hasn't kept pace with prices it is increasingly useless).

Just btw, you probably know but other readers may not, rent assistance to a couple on pensions is less (yes, in total) than to single pensioner. I'm not making this up.

On academic writing, I couldn't agree more.

There was a push a while ago about 'plain writing' which did show that it was possible to be plain while addressing technical topics that need jargon. (I think it was pushed by Leonie Kramer and a colleague, whose politics diverged a good deal from mine, but with whose views on prose I was in hearty agreement)>

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. Don't over-estimate the baby boomer transfer thing. A very large number of boomers and especially those without the old defined benefits super are going to need to rely on that house for support and transition into expensive aged care.

If my memory serves me correctly, it's a little while since I was directly involved in the philanthropy area, the law already allows for what you propose in terms of the trust. So its an organisational, packaging issue.

Whether this would help in the way you want or at least at the scale you want is another question. The problem is that we just haven't been building enough houses because the development process is so long and so bloody complicated. We have the absurd situation at the moment in some country towns with lots of land yet land scarcity to the point that you can't build. You just can't recover the mandated development costs.

Interesting comment on plain writing. Sometimes the plain writing cure is actually worse than the disease!

Legal Eagle said...

Jim, with my specialist book which is likely to be only read by specialists, I went down the specialist route. Same if I were writing for a specialist journal. If I ever wanted to write a more "for the public" book or article, I'd write it quite differently, hopefully such that family members could understand it! So you're right, it's horses for courses. But it does make it a bit hard if an interested lay person wants to get a handle on the topic.

In one of the areas in which I write, there's an inordinate amount of jargon (it really irritates me). I believe it is in part an indicator of whether you're in the "in group" (all of whom are totally au fait with all this stuff). Even experienced legal academics have problems with it, which to my mind indicates that it's really gone too far.

That being said, sometimes I forget that some of the words I use are not in common parlance. A friend of mine wrote something in "plain English" the other day (for a lay audience). He tested it on me first, and I thought it looked very simple and good, but the lay audience member he then tested it on didn't know what "reading down" the statute was, which hadn't even occurred to he or I as something we'd have to explain! Heh, probably good for us both to get reminded of this. And it's a reason why I blogged - to practice writing more plainly.

P.S. I agree about Evan on subsidising rent. It's like subsidising childcare. It doesn't actually work so well when it doesn't keep up with real costs, and half the time the costs are just passed on immediately.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE. Interesting on the legal side. You capture it well.

On subsidised rent, it depends on the form of the subsidy. As a general rule, though, a direct subsidy does get passed on and may affect prices as a consequence. It can also become built in in complicated ways; rent assistance is an example.