In a thoughtful piece, Paul Johnson of the IFS says that economists must take some of the blame for not getting our message across. In fact he says: “But it is always a mistake simply to look at the media as a scapegoat. The real failings were with my profession.”
What were these failings. He identifies four. The first is that we have failed to get basic economic concepts across to the public, like that a depreciation does not make us richer. The second is that we have no means of getting our voice across as a collective, rather than as individual voices. Third, most of us cannot respond quickly to important issues. Fourth, we fail to translate impacts on ‘the economy’ into concepts people can relate to.
All of these things are indeed general problems. I have written about the lack of collective view here, so I completely agree that is something we should act on. I also think collective action is the only way economists have of dealing with the first problem (apart from individually writing non-economist friendly blogs of course). I do not think the third was an issue for Brexit. Of course the fourth is always likely to be true (more media training!).
But having said all that, Paul is basically wrong. Even if you had put all these things right, I do not think it would have made any difference to the result. In this referendum economists did do their collective best to inform the public. Failing to have a collective voice was compensated for on this occasion by letters and polls. The lack of knowledge of economics (and in this case Europe) among many political correspondents is not really something economists are in a position to rectify. And right from the start, the long term costs of Brexit were expressed in term of costs for the average household. (And when that was done in a perfectly reasonable way, the media mistakenly told us we were doing it wrong.)
This really is like blaming scientists for not warning enough about climate change. And the problem is not confined to the EU referendum. We saw the same problem arise during the Scottish referendum, when the term Project Fear was first coined as a way of dismissing difficult economic realities. The result of the referendum permitted a degree of complacency. I personally would argue, along with other economists, that much the same happened in the 2015 general election, when mediamacro turned perhaps the worst economic record since WWII plus the promise of a referendum into ‘economic competence’. But that was seen as partisan and so ignored. I don’t think either of those two events had much to do with a failure of the economics profession either, and I take no pleasure in having used that experience to anticipate how this referendum would go.
There are all kinds of people you can blame for ignoring economics expertise. Voters themselves, the politicians that call such advice Project Fear, the tabloid media that keeps expertise from the eyes of their readers (or trashes it), the broadcast media for an obsession with balance, underlying economic conditions that lead people to think it cannot get any worse (a phrase I have heard a number of times since the result). It is a long list, and in order of importance the failures of economists themselves comes a long way down it.
And before I get the inevitable comments about the failure to foresee the financial crisis and the sins of neoliberal orthodoxy, please note that the medium term costs of Brexit come largely from models of trade, productivity and international investment which are very empirical and hardly ideological. But if a respected Financial Times columnist calls economists’ assessment of what that literature implies “the profession’s intellectual arrogance” what can you do. Let’s get real: what we said was ignored, and the reasons for that have very little to do with economists themselves.