Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Economists deserve to be ignored

Janan Ganesh is not the first person to pour high minded scorn on anybody who disregards the opinions of prestigious economists.
There is a class of people in politics for the frisson of belief, for communion with the like-minded, for anything but the tedious amelioration of material life for most people. There are Remainers who think household finances too tawdry a theme for a campaign that should major on European civilisation and the epic sweep of history. But many more Leavers think like this. For them, economics is a vulgar reason to support a political proposition, even theirs. Principle trumps all. They say it because they can afford to.
Firstly, I think like this and so do most of my friends. And we of all people can't afford to. We haven't a pot in which to collectively piss compared with the army of celebs and politicos telling us the sky will fall in if we leave the EU. But we're not special. Pick any age group or social demographic within the leave side you will find people who will vote to leave come hell or high water whatever the cost.

It never occurs to the likes of Ganesh that there are some things in life that do transcend the weekly shopping bill. And for those with nothing to lose, why not give change a try? But more than that we believe in four things:

Firstly that if there is a price to pay then we will manage - because we have managed through far worse. Secondly, British democracy is something worth fighting for. Thirdly, not all of us are thinking in the immediate self-interest, and instead are thinking of the future and what they will pass to their children.

And then there's the more immediate point. We don't believe you or your smug companions at the FT and elsewhere, Mr Ganesh. You assume we're thick and because we're not educated in how to calculate standard deviation to the nearest decimal point we can't possibly think for ourselves.

What we have seen from both sides is a volley of statistics on how much this or that will rise or fall. All of it is based largely on fanciful scenarios. When we have a political and media class which lies to us all the time, we have only our own judgement to go on. And being this a referendum, this is entirely a matter of opinion.

Economists would have it that they must be listened to. That is the essential deceit in this whole referendum; that this is first and foremost an economic issue. It isn't. It is a cultural, social and political issue as well as economic choice.

And in this the politics are just as important as the economics. This is after all a more basic choice. Do we want Britain to be governed by a supreme government for Europe? That in itself is a fairly large existential and philosophical question on its own, but one worthy of even more debate when looking at something as profoundly antidemocratic as the EU.

But then the other major deceit of economists is the absolutism. The instance that Brexit necessary must be bad for now and all of time. Who gave them a crystal ball? Moreover, what happens when we leave is entirely contingent on how we leave.

Now if any economist wants to charge in and demolish Boris Johnson or Michael Gove's vision of how we leave, go right ahead. I will pitch in. It's bonkers. But I don't recall any democratic process that put such men in charge of the referendum and they do not speak for the rest of us. It is wholly dishonest to pretend that they do.

However, to get anywhere near a precise economic projection you must first have the political nous to understand what the process will look like. And in all such estimations I find the opinions of economists profoundly naive.

Economists are caught up in the tariffs trap, completely oblivious to what actually makes the EU tick. What facilitates trade more than anything is the numerous optional cooperation programmes from public health surveillance to air traffic control - none of which can be separated inside a decade and would take a decade even to plan. There is only one way out of the EU - very gradually. Give me an economic analysis on that and maybe I will take it into account. Maybe.

More to the point, Brexit is not the end of voluntary involvement in systems which remove technical barriers to trade, and many non EU members participate anyway. Then there is the regulatory aspect. Nobody is more ignorant of regulations than economists.

Speaking to Giles Wilkes of the FT yesterday I floated the notion past him that EU rules were predominantly made by global regulators suchas the IMO, Codex and UNECE. He was incredulous at this news. The universe that exists over and above the EU (evolving in wholly unpredicted ways) is news to everyone at the FT it seems.

Without being aware of the many platforms for multilateralism and what having our own trade policy back could do for Britain, focusing on regulatory harmonisation over the obsolete bilateral approach, you cannot possible paint an accurate picture of what could happen over in the plus column for Brexit.

The déformation professionnelle we see from economists is based on the presumption that they know and see all - and that their narrow-minded bean counting makes them uniquely qualified to tell us what is in our best interests. This is a very human delusion. Entirely forgiveable since my own piece of the puzzle sometimes makes me blind to other concerns.

Being this a jigsaw, where no one piece gives you a clue what the picture is, people must be free to make up their own minds without being hectored by snobbish and aloof economists who think they have a god given right to be heeded.

But then we can't expect the hacks at the FT to have a wider debate about such things or even entertain that there may be a missing piece of the jigsaw. Read Mr Ganesh and you will see his article is dripping with contempt for those who hold a different view and he is absolutely convinced of his own superiority. As much as there is good reason to discount to opinions of economists, the snobbery and condescension is as good as any.

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