World Bank’s Star Economist Is Sidelined in War Over Words

The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of “and.”

Paul Romer is relinquishing oversight of the Development Economics Group, the research hub of the Washington-based development lender, according to an internal staff announcement seen by Bloomberg. Kristalina Georgieva, the chief executive for the bank’s biggest fund, will take over management of the unit July 1.

Photographer: Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

Romer will remain chief economist, providing management with “timely thought leadership on trends directly affecting our client countries, including the ‘future of work,’” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in the note to staff dated May 9.

Romer wasn’t immediately available for comment. The World Bank declined further comment.

It’s unusual for the World Bank’s chief economist, a role once occupied by heavyweights such as Stanley Fischer and Lawrence Summers, not to run the Development Economics Group, known as DEC, which publishes original research, develops the bank’s forecasts and oversees its data. The move raises questions about how much freedom the bank’s economists will have to do outside-the-box research on policies to help the world’s poorest.

“The chief economist is essentially parachuted into the bank and put in this very exalted position,” said Peter Lanjouw, former head of research into poverty and inequality within DEC.

“It takes some effort to become familiar with the individual researchers in the group and the things that are being done. There was a lot of grumbling that Paul didn’t seem interested,” said Lanjouw, now a professor at VU University in Amsterdam and editor of the World Bank Research Observer. Lanjouw, who consults for the bank, said he’s spoken to DEC researchers about the matter.

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Development Wane

Romer, 61, assumed the role in October after taking leave from his position as a professor at New York University. His appointment was hailed as a coup for the World Bank, which is trying to maintain its status as a leading development voice at a time when governments in some rich nations are increasingly reluctant to finance the development of poor nations.

Romer pioneered research into “endogenous growth,” examining how the diffusion of knowledge boosts output. His name often comes up in short lists for the Nobel Prize in economics.

But in recent years, his attacks on the credibility of macroeconomic models irritated many of his peers. His combativeness didn’t endear him to some of the more than 600 economists who work in DEC, according to people familiar with the matter.

Romer wanted DEC to set the intellectual agenda among those who think deeply about how to help the world’s poorest countries, said one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The World Bank is already considered a major source of development research, ranking first among institutions in terms of the number of times its work is cited, ahead of Brown University, the London School of Economics and Harvard University.

Poverty Fight

But Romer expressed to those around him that the department should communicate more clearly, dive right into public debates, and align its work with the institution’s goals of ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality.

It didn’t take him long to shake things up. Romer asked for shorter emails and insisted presentations get right to the point, cutting staff off if they talked too long, said another person familiar with the matter.

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Romer, who believed researchers were too focused on their pet interests, paid close attention to how money was spent, showing a willingness to cut redundant positions and insisting on term limits for senior staff. He canceled a regular publication that didn’t have a clear purpose, one of the people said.

But researchers didn’t like the curt way Romer often conveyed his message, said another one of the people. They were flummoxed by some of his stylistic hangups, including a distaste for the conjunction “and.”

Romer was frustrated with what some see as the dense, convoluted style of many of the department’s reports. He pushed researchers to write more clearly, using the active voice to be more direct.

Coded Language

A study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab in 2015 found the bank’s use of language has become more “codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language” since the bank’s board of governors held their inaugural meeting in 1946. The study coined the term “Bankspeak,” a vague “technical code” that symbolized the lender’s organizational drift.

In an email to staff obtained by Bloomberg, Romer argued the World Development Report, one of the bank’s flagship publications, “has to be narrow to penetrate deeply,” comparing his vision for the report to a knife. “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 percent,” said Romer, citing the percentage of the word’s use in World Bank documents analyzed as part of the “Bankspeak” report.

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The “Bankspeak” study noted the penchant of World Bank authors to link long chains of nouns with the word “and” can produce mind-numbing lists that create the impression of activity. One of the study’s authors, Stanford English professor Franco Moretti, was skeptical that eliminating the conjunction would improve the clarity of World Bank communications.

Fewer ‘Ands’

“It will take much more than a few fewer ‘ands,’” Moretti said in an email.

In her new role overseeing DEC, Georgieva will look to strengthen the link between research and the bank’s lending operations, Kim said in his note to staff. But some scholars worry the unit’s independence will suffer if the arrangement is permanent.

The World Bank produces research on many countries that aren’t covered closely by academics, who are more likely to advance in their careers if they focus on big economies such as the U.S., said Lanjouw, the former DEC researcher.

“If it’s being starved or downgraded in any way, that doesn’t bode well for this type of knowledge that isn’t really being produced anywhere else in the world,” he said.

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