Monday, January 31, 2011

Less is More

Imagine that your favorite author wrote a book that was 1900 pages plus. Would you begin reading it? Maybe yes and maybe no. And even if you began reading it, would you read with the same careful attention that you would a work that was far shorter? Would you be tempted to skim parts instead of concentrating on every word? Would you wonder if you were ever going to see the end and just give up without finishing the work? Would you skip whole parts just hoping to see the end at last?

Fiction writers don't write single tomes running to 1900+ pages. They understand the limitations of their readers. They also generally believe that any particular subject deserves its own work, not bundled together with other subjects broadly in the same topic area. There are plenty of authors who write series, centered around the same character or set of characters or around the same geographic area or general topic. The key is they write series--one book at a time. This allows the reader to absorb and digest one bite before being fed another bite.

Oh that our lawmakers would emulate these best selling authors. I am still trying to slog my way through the gazillions of pages in the Health Care package that Congress passed. And now the news is out that a fiscal reorganization plan that some congressional leaders are pushing to get passed is already at 1900 pages and not finished yet.

Is there anyone out there who seriously believes that our lawmakers, even one lawmaker, are going to go through a document of that size word by word, idea by idea and understand by page 1900 the import of things discussed on page 107? Is there going to be any lawmaker, even one, who will know everything that such legislation contains? Just what is it the lawmakers will be voting for when they have no idea about everything stated in a bill?

One word comes to mind when I hear about documents of this length: obfuscation. Somewhere, some place in those pages is something that someone, perhaps a lot of different someones, doesn't want people to know are a part of the package. Some lawmakers are counting on the fact that no one will thoroughly read a document of this length to sneak in some items that would not be so palatable if they were considered on their own. Instead, those items are going to be hidden in plain sight.

Amazingly the foundation documents of our country, the Declaration of Independence (one to two pages plus the signature pages), the Bill of Rights (one page) and the Constitution (four handwritten pages in the original, 17 pages including the amendments) don't come anywhere near the length of some of today's proposed legislation. You have to wonder why.

Note to Readers: It's not just me beating this particular drum. To see a view about our tax code, go to By comparison, the health care package is a breeze to navigate through.


Abba's Rantings said...

" . . . don't come anywhere near the length of some of today's proposed legislation. You have to wonder why."

because those aren't legislative documents. (indeed, one of the critiques of the prohibition ammendment is that regardless of its merits, as pure legislation it didn't belong in a foundation document such as the constitution.)

JS said...

Geez - why are you reading the health care bill? What exactly are you trying to gain from such an endeavor? Are you also going to read all the administrative law that will certainly go along with it?

To our society's benefit, we don't rely on any one particular lawmaker having read the entire legislation. As you point out, that's absurd. Legislators have teams of people reading legislation and giving them bullet points. Beyond that, we have an open society full of political organizations, pundits, experts, etc. that read and review such legislation. Law firms review proposed legislation and put out updates for clients and the general public about changes in the law and what it means for the individual and businesses. News agencies report ad nauseum about this.

So, go ahead and read it, but I have no idea what you intend to accomplish and I highly doubt it will make a more informed citizen or help you navigate the health care changes any better.

Could our laws be clearer? Certainly. But, brevity is not an indication of clarity.

JS said...

"Amazingly the foundation documents of our country, the Declaration of Independence (one to two pages plus the signature pages), the Bill of Rights (one page) and the Constitution (four handwritten pages in the original, 17 pages including the amendments) don't come anywhere near the length of some of today's proposed legislation. You have to wonder why."

This isn't amazing. Further, it's a lousy example. These foundation documents are meant to be aspirational in nature and verbalize overarching principles. They aren't supposed to be bogged down in details. A constitution is the perfect place for a general idea such as "freedom of speech" or "Congress's commerce power" - but, how could we possibly have an actual statute that simply says "Health insurance companies shall provide health insurance to those seeking to be insured" or some other brief (but otherwise meaningless) clause?

You neglect the fact that likely tens of thousands (if not more) pages have been written trying to grasp just what exactly is meant by freedom of speech. A stature is the perfect place for lengthy definitions (what exactly is a health insurance provider, what is a pre-existing condition, etc). No one is trying to obfuscate - the documents are open to the public and thousands of people are parsing them to make sense of them. It's just hard, if not impossible, to adequately describe things that are very complex (and as mentioned before, this is just the statute, there will be thousands more pages written by administrative agencies filling in the details left by the, still broad, nature of the stature - e.g., what does the statute mean that a "form shall be sent to X" - what form, what does it look like? etc)

If you have a better way of drafting incredibly complex legislation that is both clear and brief, you should say so.

To be clear, I'm not trying to be harsh or mean or anything, I just don't think this is a good criticism of legislation you may disagree with.

ProfK said...


Do I have "a better way of drafting incredibly complex legislation that is both clear and brief"? Undoubtedly I do. But it is not clarity nor briefness that legislators are looking for when they write legislation running into the thousands of pages.

As George Orwell said "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

Or perhaps Oliver Wendel Holmes: "I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who 'ligate' arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well."

And of course Twain had it right when he took on sesquipedalian words and the places they appear.

Many years ago the government was worried that the language of banking and credit documents was unclear and was harming those who signed these documents. They insisted that the language used on such credit documents must be clear, simple and common language. Well, to the government (and yes, to the lawyers who assist in drafting legislation) I say "Physician, heal thyself."

As to why I am reading the original, well why not? I will be directly affected by what is in it at some point or another, or those I know will be. Why shouldn't I be reading it? Having the document "translated" by others does not guard against errors being made in the translation, whether accidental or on purpose.

And yes, I'll stick by my use of obfuscation--check the dictionary. Far too much of legislative/legal language is defended as being necessary for exact meaning, while exactly the opposite is true. Use obfuscatory language and you can always claim later that you were "misunderstood" and that what you actually said (or meant to say) was something else.

JS said...

I'm not sure why you ascribe such sinister motives to those that draft our legislation (or, in particular, the health care legislation). I don't think anyone who drafted it was purposefully writing in an "obfuscatory" manner so they could later claim they were misunderstood (what does this mean anyways? I can't even think of an example).

Legislation is difficult to understand because it's incredibly difficult to draft a law that covers every single possible situation, variable, or circumstance. You can't simply rely on common sense because that invites litigation and then you're turning over legislative power to the judiciary who is now forced to divine your "legislative intent."

The real issue is that you seem to equate length with obfuscation as if making something long necessarily makes it difficult to understand.

Legislation isn't a novel; it's not meant to be an enjoyable read. It's meant to be comprehensive, involve sections, subsections, sub-subsection, etc. which cross-reference each other. It sucks, but it's the best system we have.

Also, it's not nearly as difficult to understand as you think. Lawyers are trained in statutory understanding for one thing - so while it's not easy, it's not impossible; it's a skill set like any other.

Also, no one just sits and reads legislation page by page. It's pointless. It's like trying to read the phone book. You have a legal question or issue and you go and find the relevant statute, regulations, judicial opinions, etc. Or, by example, you need to find a plumber, so you look at that section of the yellow pages.

Legislation is eminently more understandable when it's motivated by more than just a reading exercise.

Primum Non Nocere said...

I'm with you on this one, ProfK. And what's more, I think that legislators shouldn't be allowed to pass a bill without first passing a test on the details of the bill. Don't get me started on the tests I think people should have to pass in order to vote. :)

Primum Non Nocere: Revamping the Shidduch System #2