That essentially is the argument of the Telegraph’s Allister Heath, expressed as Donald Trump might. Heath says we have a been failures for over a century, “yet they now have the chutzpah to behave as if they should be treated like philosopher kings, an all-knowing “profession” that we are all supposed to bow down to uncritically.”
Actually right now I think we would settle for being heard. Ironically the only people in the media who seem to have noticed our Times letter are those supporting Leave. This matters. Recent polling evidence suggests voters have taken on board the Bank of England’s view that we will be worse off in the short term. But when it comes to the economy in 10 to 20 years time, as many voters think we will be better off by leaving as think otherwise. That the overwhelming majority of academic economists think there are significant long term costs to leaving might therefore be useful information for voters: information many currently do not have. So much for “philosopher kings”.
Of course economists have many faults and do make mistakes. But it remains the case that economists do know more about what determines trade and foreign investment and the impact of migration than most. We certainly know more than political journalists.
Should our expertise be ignored? Let’s look at some of the evidence Heath uses to suggest we nearly always get it wrong. The first is a poll conducted by the Economist in 1999 about whether the UK should join the Euro. Here the split was basically 2 in favour for every one against. But there is a crucial difference from Brexit. In the case of the Euro every economist would acknowledge (see the Economist article) that there were good arguments for and against. In the case of Brexit the only matter to discuss is how big the costs of leaving are. Our trade can only decrease following Brexit. Foreign direct investment can only decrease. Migration, which is also a plus for the economy as a whole, is likely to decrease following Brexit.
The main argument those supporting Brexit use to suggest the economy will do better is that we can get rid of all those pesky regulations that are holding business back. Which was exactly the argument the Conservatives and those in the financial sector made when they championed reducing regulations on finance before 2008. It worked for a few years, and then we had the financial crisis that led to the biggest post-war recession. Mr. Heath has the chutzpah to lay all the blame for that on economists.
But let’s roll the Euro story on to 2003. The government had to make a decision, and this focused on the economics. It commissioned a huge amount of work looking at all the evidence, consulting widely among academics. These studies flagged up some (not all) of the vulnerabilities of the Eurozone that became evident in subsequent years. This persuaded first Gordon Brown and then Tony Blair to say no. I would count that as a definite win for economists.
Of course he mentions what he calls the ‘infamous’ letter from 364 economists in 1981 criticising the Conservative deflationary budget. We are told that the 364 got it wrong because the economy started growing shortly afterwards. This is mediamacro logic, just like when we were told austerity was a success in the UK because the economy grew in 2013. As Steve Nickell pointed out in this speech, unemployment peaked not in 1981 but 1986. The combination of monetary and fiscal contraction in 1981 was overkill, and on that fundamental point the letter was right.
But I will concede this. Mr. Heath and his colleagues on the neoliberal right are much better at PR than economists. They have managed to create the perception in the media that the letter was wrong and Mrs. Thatcher was right. Their strategy is that if the evidence is against you, distort the evidence.
This is the real beef that Mr. Heath has against economists: we mostly follow the evidence and not an ideology. Most economists were indeed wrong about the Great Depression, but that led to the creation of macroeconomics as a separate discipline under the guiding light of Keynes. This helped produce a golden age of growth after WWII, a fact that Mr. Heath ignores. It was brought to an end by stagflation, but that was not the surprise to economists that Mr. Heath imagines.
The irony is that the ideology Mr. Heath follows is itself based on economics: economics as understood by a first year student who only listened to a third of their lectures. For Heath economics is fine as long as it is explaining the virtues of the market and competition, but if economists look at market imperfections then they are “obsessed”.
When I see Heath and his compatriots extol the virtues of the regulation free world that will be possible once they are freed from the shackles of the EU, I am reminded of the Troika and Greece. The Troika has been effectively running Greece for 6 years, yet unlike Ireland or Spain the economy remains in depression with no signs of hope. But rather than question what they have done, they blame the Greeks for not pursuing the prescribed policies rigorously enough. The UK is one of the least regulated OECD economies, and has recently had 6 years of government spending cuts and corporation tax cuts, but productivity growth since the crisis has been painfully slow. Rather than question the efficacy of the medicine, the ideologues blame the EU from preventing them doing even more.
It also reminds me of the Scottish referendum, where those in favour of independence just did not want to hear the bad news about the short term fiscal outlook. Some decided that those bringing that news were part of some Westminster conspiracy, and all preferred to believe the wishful predictions of the SNP. I’ll repeat now what I said then: do you really want to be ruled by people who prefer make believe stories to evidence, and who are so desperate for votes they tell you to ignore an entire academic discipline.