No apologies for writing more about Scottish independence, which is a big deal for a Union that has been around longer than the United States. However this post also has a more general theme.
I was struck by one feature of the latest YouGov poll that has found for the first time a majority (just) for independence. Here are the numbers:
As far as I know there has been no compelling new evidence that has emerged between these two dates, so the obvious inference is that as people have become more exposed to the economic arguments, they have found the pro-independence side more convincing.
At one level this seems odd, because for me the evidence that Scotland will be worse off for at least the first decade of independence seems pretty clear. The fiscal position of an independent Scotland also looks worse, as the highly respected and impartial IFS explain. These views seem to be shared by a large majority of UK economists: here is the CFM survey of mainly academic economists selected for their macroeconomic expertise. Now this survey is more equivocal about whether the UK is right to rule out currency union, but again the general view is that in such a monetary union Scotland would face severe fiscal constraints. As Paul Krugman puts it:
“I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.”
So what is going on here? Perhaps voters have looked in detail at the numbers, and concluded that most economists are wrong. A little more plausibly, voters have decided the next decade or so are not critical, and in the longer term the kind of dynamism that the Scottish government’s numbers assume will come to the fore. However, a more worrying conclusion is that voters are simply not aware of what economists as a whole think. They are certainly exposed to the economic arguments, and to some economists, but invariably in the form of a two sided debate.
I suspect something very similar happened with the macroeconomic debate on austerity. Once again, a survey suggests that the vast majority of economists think that fiscal stimulus increases output and employment. Yet there are of course many prominent economists who think otherwise, and the format of media discussion is generally a debate between two sides, particularly when issues become politicised. Another example may be climate change, where at least in some countries public views have become more sceptical in recent years. Maybe this is because of the weather, but maybe it is also because climate change is increasing viewed as a ‘controversial’ topic which lends itself to the two-sided debate format.
Returning to Scotland, it would be very easy to test what is going on here. As well as asking people whether they think they will be better or worse off, they could be asked what they think most economists think. If, as is the case for climate change, public perception about scientific opinion is very different from reality, then this is a big problem for democracy and the media. If instead the public know what most economists think but have rejected this expertise this is a big problem for economists. It seems important to know either way.