Friday, January 13, 2006

The destruction of words, language and thought - 1

The language used in economic, financial, management and business writing seems to me to be getting more and more lax.

Take the following headline in an electronic newsletter from one of the most respected firms in the world: "Corporate governance in emerging economies: stronger boards boost performance".

In order to keep the discussion at a digestible lenght on this Blog, let us take for our purposes today only the use of the word "boost".

This indicates a strong sudden upward thrust, not merely gentle improvement. So, for what kind of improvement in performance should one use "boost performance" rather than "improve performance"? Clearly, when the improvement in performance becomes unusually strong.

Is any such improvement indicated in the article concerned? No.

So the word "boost" has been used in the headline simply because it seems the stronger word to use - not because the stronger word fits the facts of the case.

This tendency to use "strong" words even when a "weaker" word is more fitting, devalues the "strong" word and makes it unfit for any use at all. If every little improvement is to be described as a "boost", what words does one have left to describe genuinely above-average performance improvement? Clearly, only long and cumbersome words such as "outperformance".

Now that's a perfectly good word in itself, but it is not the sort of word that fits easily into a headline. Can you imagine a headline such as "Stronger boards outperform performance"? NO! So, what about "Stronger boards help outperformance"? Well, pretty inelegant, really.

The solution lies in trying to use the right word for the right occasion, not merely the strongest word that occurs to one.

Consider that a hammer is entirely appropriate if one wants to drive in a nail, but it is not the right instrument if the nail needs to be taken out. On the other hand, a hammer is nowhere near appropriate if one what has to put in or take out is a screw! And not every hammer is right for every nail: some hammers can be too big, others too small.

If one uses the wrong instrument, or an instrument of the wrong size, it is not only the nail or the screw that can get ruined but sometimes the wood itself can get damaged.

In the same way, the tendency to avoid thinking about the words one uses and, instead, to use the first word that comes to hand, distorts otherwise good words - and, in the end, damages language - which is the instrument with which we think. So the result is damaged thinking.

A point that we will explore further in my next Blog on the subject (whenever I have time to get around to it!)

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Japan's Population and National Budget are Shrinking – So how come Guptara argues that its Economy will Expand to Number One by 2020?

I have just finished writing an article on why Japan (and neither China nor India) will become the number one economy in the world by 2020. The editor tells me that he is making it the lead article in the edition of The Globalist in the week after next. So you might like to watch out for it.

In the meanwhile, the figures for the Japanese national budget for 2006 make interesting reading.

Inspite of an economy that has been in the doldrums for nearly a third of a century, Japan marked a fifth straight yearly increase in R&D expenditure, to a record 17 trillion yen. In percentage of gross domestic product, the R&D expenditure remained at an all-time high 3.35% and is among the world's highest. BTW, the number of researchers in Japan has also increased to a record 790,900.

That is particularly notable in view of the fact that, at the same time, Japan has set its LOWEST national budget in 8 years, down from 82.18 Trillion Yen in 2005 to 79.69 Trillion Yen in 2006. So what's being cut? Tax grants to local governments will go down to 14.56 trillion Yen (that's 1.53 trillion less than last year) and there will be a cut of 920 billion Yen in other areas of policy-related expenditure, so that comes down to 46.37 trillion Yen. General spending is going to include a 4.4% cut to public works projects. In brief, that's pain for general welfare, gain for science and technology.

I also see that, according to a survey by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan's population has started to shrink for the first time ever this year (2005). The number of births fell to a record low of 1,067,000 and the number of deaths increased by 48,000 to 1,077,000. The balance between births and deaths is therefore minus 10,000 – representing the first natural decline in Japan's population since records started being kept in 1899. Political and business circles are apparently taken aback at the drop in population. In 2002, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research had predicted that the country's population (including immigrants) would begin to decline only in 2007. The concern is that the decline in the birth rate will begin to lead to a decline in the working population and therefore a decline in GDP and consumption, and that the decline in the number of workers would make it difficult to maintain social security.

This is typical of bureaucratic nationalistic thinking which makes it impossible to see the effects of the robotic revolution that Japan is launching.

BTW even The Japan Robot Association (JARA) suffers from this kind of compartmentalised nationalism. The history of JARA, a voluntary organization, goes back to March 1971, and records its aims as furthering "the development of the robot manufacturing industry by encouraging research and development on robots and associated system products and promoting the use of robot technology. Through this, the Association strives to promote the use of advanced technology in industry and to enhance the welfare of the nation".

Note that there is apparently no understanding or concern for the impact of robots on the welfare of humanity as a whole. But that is not surprising, considering that robots will benefit Japan but create chaos in the rest of the world as Japanese robots displace most workers worldwide. That is what will happen very quickly if the current international arrangements in taxation, subsidy, retraining, education, finance, monetary policy and so on don't change rapidly - as I have been urging for some time now.

If you are not aware of my recommendations, read the article in The Globlalist, the week after next.

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