Ann has a article that talks about the underlying factor behind the Brexit vote. Her thesis, that it represents the discontent of those left behind by globalisation, has been put forward by others. Unlike Brad DeLong, I have few problems with seeing this as a contributing factor to Brexit, because it is backed up by evidence, but like Brad DeLong I doubt it generalises to other countries. Unfortunately her piece is spoilt by a final section that is a tirade against mainstream economists which goes way over the top. Let me just go through the factual errors.
“Economists dictated the terms for austerity that has so harmed the British economy and society over the past ten years.”
The only support she gives for this statement is the 20 economists who signed a letter to the Times on 14th February 2010. She neglects to mention that 58 equally notable economists signed a response in the Financial Times on 18th February arguing the 20 were wrong. Austerity has always been a minority view among academic economists, a minority that has got smaller over time. Of course those that signed the first letter, and in particular Ken Rogoff, turned out to be a more prominent voice in the subsequent debate, but that is because he supported what policymakers were doing. He was mostly useful rather than influential.
“As the policies have failed, the vast majority of economists have refused to concede wrongdoing, nor have societies been offered alternatives.“
In the case of the 20 economists who signed that letter, nearly half did revise their views just two years later. More importantly, for the last few years pretty well every macroeconomist of note, including Ken Rogoff, has advocated a substantial increase in public investment. So this sentence, in so far as it relates to austerity, is almost as wrong as it could be
“[On Brexit} All the heavyweights of the economics profession … were wheeled out to warn the British people of economic facts known, and understood apparently, only to ‘experts’... But the ‘experts’ and the economic stories they tell have been well and truly walloped by the result of this referendum. And rightly so, because while there is truth in the story that international and in particular European cooperation and coordination are vital to economic activity and stability, there is no sound basis to the widely espoused economic ‘religion’ that markets—in money, trade, and labour—must be unfettered, detached from democratic regulatory oversight, and must be left to ‘govern’ whole countries, regions, and continents.”
Where did these heavyweights talk about “economic facts known, and understood apparently, only to experts”? When they were given the chance, they explained the common sense idea that trade would suffer if we left the EU because it is easier to trade with your neighbours, and the easy to understand empirical findings that more trade increases productivity and therefore economic growth. There is no religion involved at all, but rather statistical evidence. If you are looking for religion, you need to focus on the handful of economists supporting Brexit, who really did believe that it could usher in a neoliberal nirvana that would more than offset the costs of Brexit. To the extent that the public ignored the warnings of economists, it was probably because these warnings were ‘balanced’ in the media by this handful.
When Ann talks about the failings of economists related to the financial crisis she has a point, but it is one that she grossly exaggerates. Economists hardly “led the way to the re-regulation and ‘liberalization’ of the finance sector over the past 40 years”. The way was led by the financial sector itself. If more economists had backed up rather than dismissed Rajan’s warnings in 2005, I doubt if anything would have changed. Why do I think this? Because mainstream economists have subsequently argued that the only way to prevent another crisis is to substantially increase the capitalisation of banks, but they have been completely ignored by policymakers. If economists are being ignored after the financial crisis which created untold damage, why should things have been any different before the crisis?
I think the same point applies to globalisation. Most economists have certainly encouraged the idea that globalisation would increase overall prosperity, and they have been proved right. It is also true that many of these economists did not admit or stress enough that there would be losers as a result of this process who needed compensating from the increase in aggregate prosperity. But once again I doubt very much that anything would have changed if they had. And if they didn’t think enough about it in the past, they are now: see Paul De Grauwe here for example.
There is a regrettable (but understandable) tendency by heterodox economists on the left to try and pretend that economics and neoliberalism are somehow inextricably entwined. The reality is that neoliberal advocates do use some economic ideas as justification, but they ignore others which go in the opposite direction. As I often point out, many more academic economists spend their time analysing market imperfections than trying to show markets always work on their own. They get Nobel prizes for this work. I find attempts to suggest that economics somehow helped create austerity particularly annoying, as I (and many others) have spent many blog posts showing that economic theory and evidence demonstrates that austerity was a huge mistake.