The title is pinched from a tweet by Tony Yates, who was one of many economists who did warn of the impact of Brexit. Of course we economists need to ask ourselves if and why our message was ignored, but that is no reason to stop us feeling angry that it happened. This post from the economist who did more than most to try and get the message across, John Van Reenen, expresses that anger better than I could.
What John’s work showed, backed up by similar analysis in the Treasury and elsewhere, is that Brexit would not just cause a short term economic downturn: cutting wages and increasing unemployment for just a year or two. By making it harder to trade with our immediate neighbours it will reduce UK trade overall, and the evidence suggests that this will permanently reduce people’s living standards. The markets clearly agree, which is why sterling fell immediately and substantially after the Brexit vote. In terms of people’s living standards that was not a ‘might be bad, might be good’ event: it makes everyone in the UK poorer. (Never start from a price change, but ask why prices changed.)
The tricky thing to do now is know how much the current downturn is just a foretaste of that, and how much is something over and above that. To the extent that it is the latter, how much
of that is offset by some short term benefit to exporters (before the impact of actual Brexit kicks in) as a result of the depreciation? That is initially the Bank of England’s problem.
Their response today, a cut of 0.25% plus more QE, tells us it is not just their problem. We are back at the lower bound for nominal interest rates, which is why the Bank is doing more QE. Because the impact of the QE is extremely uncertain, and in the absence of helicopter money, we now need fiscal action to back up this interest rate cut. That is what Labour’s fiscal credibility rule, and the academic work by Jonathan Portes and myself, utilising textbook and state of the art macro, tells us we should do. When interest rates are at the lower bound, forget about the deficit and focus fiscal policy on avoiding a recession. As the Bank’s QE action makes clear, there is no good reason to delay this: it should happen now.
But Brexit was not the first time economists have been ignored. For some years now the clear consensus among academic economists is that, when rates are at their lower bound, you need fiscal stimulus. Although Conservatives have disowned 2015 Osborne austerity, they appear not to have backtracked on his 2010 version. If they do nothing now, we will know that they are wedded to pre-Keynesian 1930s economics.