• Who’s to Blame?

    The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andrew Haldane, has had the good grace to admit that the Bank’s forecast of the likely economic consequences of Brexit – that consumption, employment, share values and economic activity in general would fall – was, at least in the short term, mistaken.  The British economy, since the Brexit referendum, has prospered and has out-performed most other developed economies.

    In making his mea culpa, he acknowledged that the error had further weakened confidence in the economics profession, but it is not only economists who must shoulder the blame.  There was no shortage of establishment voices – business leaders, media commentators and politicians in particular – who issued similar ill-founded warnings; remember George Osborne’s need for an “emergency budget” in the event of a decision in favour of Brexit?

    In reality, Andrew Haldane did no more than concede the truth of what had already become apparent.  But the interesting aspect of his admission is not the fact that he made it, but the explanation for the error that he offered.

    The experts, it seems, did not take into account the “irrational behaviour” of those who live in the real economy, rather than in one of those economic models so beloved of economists.  If only people had reacted to Brexit as the experts thought they should, the forecast would have passed with flying colours.

    Let us pass over for the moment the irony that what was supposed to be an admission of error on the part of those who claim to know best became the vehicle for, yet again, shifting the blame for the error on to those who were supposedly too stupid to listen to what the experts told them and to know what was expected of them.

    It is nevertheless worth pausing for a moment to unpick the convoluted logic employed by Andrew Haldane to explain what went wrong and presumably endorsed by those many others who are used to being taken very seriously on important matters.

    The starting point, it seems, is that those who know best were agreed that Brexit would be an economic disaster.  At this stage of the argument, facts and rational analysis were apparently not needed to validate this position.  It was enough that they said that it was so – and they were then able to construct a whole supposedly “economic” forecast on the basis of this rickety and insubstantial foundation.

    It was then assumed that this consensus on the part of the important people – those who just knew, whatever the arguments, that we must belong to a particular economic arrangement called the European Union (not the “Europe” to which we have belonged from time immemorial) – would be listened to and acted upon.  It therefore followed that, in the event of a pro-Brexit vote, the British people would be so alarmed that they would lose all confidence in their economic future, and their reaction would produce such a downturn in economic activity as to validate the initial projection as to what would happen.

    This circular process, where it was not the prediction itself but the response to the prediction that was at issue, was no more than an exercise in picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  The British people, however, failed to react according to the script.

    Perhaps they were not impressed by a perennial deficit in our trade with “Europe” in manufactured goods, or by an unstoppable inflow from “Europe” of cheap labour, or by the prospect of further concessions to meet the interests of major corporations at the expense of working people.

    Perhaps they sensed that they had lost what has long been an essential part of the British heritage – the power to govern ourselves – and that it had been lost to a hegemonic continental power which, parading as “Europe”, was in reality a direct successor to many earlier attempts to establish just such a hegemony.

    Whatever the explanation, the fact is that they have so far reacted positively to Brexit when the experts said that they would pull in their horns.  The lesson we should learn is that experts are valuable when they deploy their expertise accurately – but postulating an a priori position and then seeking to validate it retrospectively on the basis that – true or false – people will believe it and act upon it is not expertise but charlatanry.

    Bryan Gould

    7 January 2017