The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of management control of the organisation’s research arm just months after assuming the post after his staff revolted against his attack on the bank’s turgid writing.
Despite the uproar, Paul Romer, a University of Chicago-trained economist who has been mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate, has not given up the fight.
In an email sent to staff this week, Mr Romer vowed to block publication of the latest World Development Report if it contained an “and” surplus, which he determined as being anything above 2.6 per cent of the text.
That ruling followed demands for shorter emails and reports. Officials complained Mr Romer cut off staff he thought were droning on in meetings and cancelled the bank’s Global Monitoring Report after he could not determine its purpose, according to someone close to the bank.
“Some say that I didn’t convey the criticism in the right way,” Mr Romer told the Financial Times. But “when it is a message that people do not want to hear, there is no right way”.
In an internal announcement, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president, said he had handed management of the influential Development Economics Group to another senior official to create a stronger link between the World Bank’s research and operational arms.
Others at the bank said the change was the result of an external review and would allow Mr Romer to focus more on his research.
But some said Mr Romer’s management style, particularly over what some saw as a dogmatic approach to clear writing, was key to the move, citing the recent spat over “and” as evidence.
Circulating a draft of the upcoming World Development Report, Mr Romer warned against bank staff trying to pile their own pet projects and messages into the report. The tendency, he argued, had diluted the impact of past reports and led to a proliferation of “ands”.
“Because of this type of pressure to say that our message is ‘this, and this, and this too, and that …’ the word ‘and’ has become the most frequently used word in Bank prose,” he complained in an email.
“A WDR, like a knife, has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” he added. “To drive home the importance of focus, I’ve told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeds 2.6%.”
The 2.6 per cent bar, Mr Romer told the FT, marked the current frequency of “and” in scholarly writing. It also, according to an analysis of bank reports going back decades that he commissioned, was roughly where World Bank report authors landed in the institution’s early years.
But the use of the word “and” over the years had doubled to almost 7 per cent in World Bank reports, Mr Romer pointed out in a January memo to his staff.
In that same memo, titled simply “Writing”, he declared clear writing “a commitment to integrity”.
“It is without exaggeration the foundation for trust in science,” he wrote.
In another internal memo titled “About”, Mr Romer called himself a bad writer who had overcome his own dyslexia by reassuring himself that “if Neil Young can make a living as a singer, I can make a living as a writer”.