Saturday, 28 January 2017

The death of expertise

Genuine expertise on trade is hard to find. The discipline is broken up into several specialisms where functionaries within the machine have no idea how the whole of the machine works. There are plenty of economists knocking about and there's a cottage industry devoted to bickering about tariffs but that's really all they know. Seemingly that is all the LSE teaches which means few in the London set have really grasped what they are talking about. Regulation is spoken of but not really understood.

Very occasionally I will stumble across real expertise (which tends to be American) - and when you see it you can instantly see the difference. When you look at the people the government is consulting, mostly you see tribalist chancers and posers making a name for themselves. People who six months ago didn't know what a non tariff barrier is - and now that they do, they're dining out on it. And that really explains why government is not getting good information. 

It's really quite troubling looking at Twitter today. Any time there is a select committee meeting it is assumed that it is the government taking expert advice, thus what is said by witnesses becomes established as fact by reporters unable to tell the difference. One such example is the meeting earlier this week whereby various head honchos in the haulage and freight sector were talking about the delays they might experience at customs if we left the customs union. 

As you should know by now, customs cooperation is a wholly separate concept to the customs union which basically governs the common external tariff. Consequently, far from moving forward, the debate is actually regressing and MPs understanding of the issues is getting worse - with misconceptions becoming entrenched. They really need to be talking to EU constitutional experts - of which there are very few.

Worse still, egotism will fiercely fend off genuine expertise, especially if such expertise had a Remain tendency. If they have preferential access to politicians they will make damn sure nobody else gets close. When real experts have no shortage of offers, why would they waste their time with politics? 

Thus, the people close to government are dismal self-regarding parasitic toryboys who produce error strewn PDFs to share between the party faithful so they can all tell each other how marvellous they are. The stuff coming out of the right wing think tanks about Brexit deregulation is actually embarrassing to read.

MPs have now lost sight as to what real expertise even is having so very rarely encountered it. This week the international trade committee is taking evidence from Allister Heath - a Telegraph hack who wrote during the referendum that the IMO makes "naval regulations". You would really struggle to find anybody who knows less about trade. He can knock out a half decent polemic, but that's about it.

Half the problem with this discipline is that the very last people you should be talking to is economists. There are plenty of headline absurdities in the trade system they take issue with, but as with everything else in government, if something seems absurd there is likely a reason - and sometimes a good reason. In this it really helps to go back and learn who made the decisions and why. A good analyst must be part historian.

What we find is that the more puzzling quirks of the system are the by-product of it which, for the most part, works quite well and to fix one thing means breaking something else. That's why legacy problems remain untouched after many years. As a whole, efforts to bring down tariffs have stalled which is why we see a shift in focus to trade facilitation, looking to make savings in the supply chain which can offset tariffs. Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is to go around it. 

This dynamic is ultimately why I think Britain will struggle to make good of Brexit. As the global rules based system has matured the scope for sweeping solutions and "bumper deals" just isn't there. Advancements in trade are made by microsurgery, not hacking with an axe. Everybody is looking for the big fixes while ignoring the potential of minor increments. Politicians seeking big results and flagship deals don't want to get bogged down in the minutia of trade nor is there anything especially glamorous about debating standards for formaldehyde testing on furniture. 

If we are to break the deadlock in trade then we need sophisticated joined up policies as part of an overall foreign and trade strategy. Instead we see the usual suspects blathering about prosperity zones and CANZUK alliances without any reference to the myriad of obstacles that stand in the way of these blue sky fantasies. 

It's a fine thing to be aspirational and sometimes politics can sweep aside the ossified systems we work in - and sometimes that kind of creative destruction is exactly what is needed, but what I suspect will happen is that the UK will be mugged by reality. As much as anything Brexit has started a trade space race with the EU, which is now ultra keen on concluding deals in the works, not least to save face. Brussels has clout in can bring to bear meaning that we will be dancing to their tune for a while yet. 

Between that and the various global accords Britain will find that it does no have much wiggle room and bilateral deals will bring little reward, nor will they do much to replace that which we have voluntarily surrendered by leaving the single market. We will learn the hard way that there are no shortcuts and like everyone else we will have to go to the top tables and put the work in. There are sunlit uplands eventually but they won't come automatically by leaving the EU.

Standing between us and progress though is an odious establishment locked into simplistic and old fashion ideas, and because it's so completely sealed off from genuine expertise it is setting itself up for a fall. The good ideas won't get an airing until all the bad ones have been tried. For the time being, all we can really expect is bewildering incompetence. 

Before Britain shines there is a learning process to go through and we will have a few bloody noses before we get the hang of it. The Westminster system is rotten and the firewall between government and reality is too strong. The feedback mechanism is broken and institutional knowledge is thin on the ground. We will pay a price for that. This is what you get for downgrading Westminster to the status of a toothless talking shop.

During the referendum the suggestion that the public are sick of experts rang true, but it isn't expertise we see most of the time. More often than not we are witnessing flatulence from party hacks and nonentities with an economics degree from LSE. The system values prestige over knowledge. Until MPs learn the difference we can only expect more of the same mediocrity and gullibility.  

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