Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Begging the Question

Most academic writing is boring, jargon-infested and not for the faint-hearted. This is in addition to the forbiddingly esoteric subject matter on which academics usually expound. One reason for the state of affairs could be that it's hard enough to infuse heavily technical writing with lean clarity, let alone an arresting style; and that writers who combine domain expertise with elegant writing are few among the academic population.

It's easy however to complain too much. After all, not everyone is expected to understand a paper in mathematics or physics and in fact, it's hard to find even top professionals in a field who are able to follow cutting edge work in far away areas. For example, it's hard to find (or indeed to expect to find) a topologist who'll understand contemporary developments in logic; or those in fluid mechanics to know much about string theory. Hence even for the most astute and interested reader, there is an iron wall of incomprehensibility that is sometimes breachable only by great works of pop science.

The fields of economics and finance however, occupy a very interesting position in this respect. While their techniques and methodologies can be highly specialized, since the subject matter isn't so esoteric, there is a chance of meaningful communication with a much wider, disparately skilled audience. Moreover, given their massive influence on policy decisions—both government and corporate—perhaps there is an even more-than-usual reason to reach out to as many interested readers as one can and to ensure that as much as possible, no reader is left behind. 

One way to partially achieve this goal is to make the abstract and introduction of the paper as simple and clear as possible. A casual glance at the state of publishing in economics and finance shows that essays in the top journals are almost always more polished, better written and seem to strive for clarity much more than their merely-ordinary counterparts; and in particular, their abstracts and introductions shine with clarity and insight.

Style and elegance, however, are another world altogether.

Which brings NF to the 2013 working paper "Panhandling in Downtown Manhattan: A Preliminary Analysis", written by Gwendolyn Dordick (City College, CUNY) and Brendan O’Flaherty (Columbia). Their succinct abstract is full of questions and they don't forget to acknowledge "... the anonymous panhandlers of downtown Manhattan who have given us their time and told us about their lives". As expected, their paper is about the (equilibrium) behavior of Manhattan panhandlers (who essentially beg for money from tourists and passers-by) and demolishes the dreary-turgid-boring stereotype of academic writing. 

How's this for an opening sentence?
“If I’m going to panhandle, I’m going to do it on the richest street in the world.”
 ---[Eugene], who works on Wall Street.
Panhandling however, is in a way, a very unusual profession, which suffers, in particular from two paradoxes. The first is the use of space in the very tightly packed Manhattan:
Downtown Manhattan panhandlers use some of the most valuable land in the US, but they pay nothing for using it, and they have no legal right to exclude anyone else from using it... But how panhandlers solve the land allocation problem is an open question...
Panhandlers also suffer from credibility problems:
The paradox is that while panhandlers in general have low credibility, their livelihoods depend on having high credibility, since donors have no obvious way of learning, even ex post, whether their donations accomplished the intended purpose. Panhandlers are like used car salesmen whose customers never get to take possession of the cars they buy; they just get reports from the salesmen about how well the cars are supposed to be running. It’s amazing that panhandlers can make any money at all.
As any serious study demands, one first needs to define terms:
Our working definition of panhandling is asking passersby for money for oneself in a public place without offering anything of ostensible value In return. We therefore exclude musicians (however awful), trinket vendors, mendicant nuns and friars, solicitors for recognized charities, and the costumed characters like the Naked Cowboy and Weedman who pose with tourists for a fee. 
While the blood-and-guts of the paper are understandably harder-to-follow for nonspecialists, the eminently readable introduction shines with many other terrific sentences, which NF heartily recommends for all to read.

Here is the link for the full working paper: Dordick and O'Flaherty (2013) Panhandling in Donwtown Manhattan, (Working Paper). Bravo you guys!


Arvind Krishna said...

The first sentence is a move straight from The Wire.

Nanga Fakir said...

Or Treme?

MaihoonDON said...

Have always been in awe of the volume of reading material you consume. This day onwards, let me extend that expression to the breadth of your reach :)

Nanga Fakir said...