Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 23 November 2020

Politicians and experts: austerity, Brexit and the pandemic


I’ll be talking about fiscal policy during and after the pandemic at a Resolution Foundation/MMF event in a week’s time:

I have written quite a few posts on the relationship between policy and expertise, and between expertise and the media. The better ones are in my book, but they were all written before the COVID pandemic. How does the relationship between experts on the one hand and politicians and the media on the other that we saw with economists over austerity and Brexit play out with medics and the pandemic?

All three cases are different from each other. Although the evidence set out in my book suggests that the majority of academic economists opposed austerity (a majority that got larger as time went on), this plurality had no impact on either the media or the politicians pushing austerity. A few well known academics who supported austerity got a lot of publicity, but this was because they supported a policy pushed by politicians and the media, and not because they were influential in driving the policy. An obvious example in the UK was Ken Rogoff, who supported protecting public investment from any cuts while the government did much economic harm by cutting public investment.

The most notable feature of austerity was the almost total disregard by the media of the views of the majority of academics. As Alan Winters in his analysis of experts and Brexit points out, it was David Henderson who said in his Reith Lectures of 1985 “There is no doubt that the policies of governments … are influenced by economic ideas. But … these have not necessarily been the ideas of economists”. This applies with equal force to the media. The media appeared to apply the logic of the household to governments, so that the necessity of paying back debt as soon as possible became common sense, even though saying this would be a fail for any first year economics undergraduate. For that reason I called it mediamacro.

The power of media narratives should never be underestimated, as the Labour party has experienced many times to its cost. Austerity was just another example. It was a particularly devastating example, because in this case the media’s common sense did terrible harm to the economy, and the media was ignoring what it should have regarded as a key source of knowledge, academic macroeconomics. Needless to say, media organisations have never examined their own mistakes in this regard.

Brexit was different in two respects. First, what was a plurality over austerity was an almost total consensus on Brexit. Making trade more difficult, which almost any form of Brexit did, would cause considerable harm to the economy. The second difference compared to austerity was that the broadcast media had less of any common sense to appeal to, and so they played the ‘two sides’ game. On the one hand was the overwhelming consensus of academics, together with all the major economics institutions, and on the other was a handful of pro-Brexit economists the most noticeable of whom was Patrick Minford. (A few media outlets, and particularly the Financial Times, did follow the academic consensus.)

In defence of the broadcast media, this ‘two sided debate’ format is their default on most issues, and it doesn’t normally matter what the expert consensus is (which is typically not mentioned). However as we saw with austerity, there are exceptions. Whereas the exceptions should be based on the expert consensus, they instead seem to be based on common sense narratives. As with austerity, the media has never examined its own mistakes in relation to Brexit. As the referendum was very tight, the actions of the broadcast media in treating the overwhelming consensus of academic economists as just one opinion could well have influenced the result.

This trivialising of expert opinion is not inevitable. Strong pressure from academic bodies can yield results. The obvious example is climate change. When broadcasters began to increasingly ‘two-side’ the climate change issue, academics and others protested, and the BBC trust acknowledged that on this issue the expert consensus had to be followed. Not all BBC programmes have subsequently respected the Trust’s findings, but nevertheless you will generally see broadcasters treating the need to reduce man made climate change as a fact, and not as a controversial opinion.

The obvious difference between austerity or Brexit and climate change is that the former involves economists and the latter involves scientists. Actually the difference in methodology between climate change scientists and economists is not that great: both attempt to predict in a highly stochastic environment, and neither can easily conduct experiments. There are differences in public perception, of course. Besides the insight of Henderson noted above, there are various myths about economics that are part of the public debate. But the most relevant difference in my view is the absence of institutional pressure on the media from economists that matched the pressure over climate change.

Another academic discipline that has similarities to economics is medicine, and more specifically public health and epidemiology. The story of COVID-19 initially appeared to be more optimistic than austerity and Brexit. In many European countries, including the UK, governments took scientific advice, although in the UK with a short delay that probably cost tens of thousands of lives. But as Alan Winters notes, that optimism has been short lived. In most countries in Europe, including the UK, the second wave has been far worse because politicians ignored the expert advice.

The rationale they have given for ignoring the medical experts has been to balance health with the economy. The irony is that once again most economists I have seen who have studied this issue have agreed with me that there is no meaningful trade-off between the economy and health beyond the very short term. Once again academic economists are ignored, this time where lives are directly at stake.

The media have faithfully echoed the excuses for ignoring the expert advice, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they have little basis. From what I have seen they have given air time to experts and particularly politicians pushing the ‘lockdowns do not work’ nonsense, as if this is just another opinion. I suspect once again this is because it is ‘common sense’ that there is a health/economy trade-off, because most people do not think in dynamic terms. I have not seen government politicians questioned in interviews for not following expert advice in a similar manner to the way Labour politicians were questioned for doubting Osborne’s austerity.

Why did politicians initially say they were following the science of how to deal with the pandemic, while the same politicians ignored economists on Brexit? It is not because medicine is a science and economics is not. As I have argued elsewhere, the two disciplines have many structural similarities. Henderson’s point about prior beliefs is undoubtedly one reason: not many non-medics thought about pandemics before there was one. For politicians another reason is ideology. With austerity and Brexit it was ideologically convenient, and perhaps even necessary, for its proponents to discount expertise. Initially there appeared to be little ideology involved with controlling a pandemic, beyond libertarian instincts.

One reason attitudes to medical experts changed among government politicians between the first and second wave was the emergence of ideology dressed up as science: the Barrington Declaration and all that, and the influence that has had on many Conservative MPs. Once again, it became in the interests of those politicians to ignore expertise, just as they did with Brexit. The correlation with pro-Brexit and anti-lockdown views is no accident. The lesson is simply not to elect politicians who can so easily cast aside expertise.

Unfortunately that is less likely to happen as long as the media fails to tell viewers what the consensus among experts is. I have made this point before, but I think the lesson of climate change is instructive. The media are not going to change what they do, particularly when some feel their existence may depend on keeping certain politicians happy. What changed the media’s approach to climate change, at least in principle, was pressure from science itself. The reason academic economics gets ignored is that academic economists don’t organise to apply pressure.

I have seen so many accounts of why economics was ignored over Brexit that blame themselves: things should have been presented more clearly, economists should have been more open about uncertainties, and so on. All have some truth, but none will make any difference as long as the media treats the consensus among academic economists as just another opinion. For the media to do otherwise requires the strongest pressure from groups who represent academic economists. At the very least, we need institutions representing economists telling the media what the consensus view (if any) is on particular economic issues. [1]

I suspect that some medics will be beginning to ask similar questions about the pandemic: why did politicians ignore consensus advice, why did anti-lockdown politicians get so much airtime and so on. The answers I suspect are similar to those I have just given for economics. Medics have one big advantage over economists: the bodies that represent them are used to applying public pressure. They should apply that pressure on the media if they want to avoid expert views about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines to be treated as just one opinion to set beside the opinion of anti-vaxxers.

[1] When I make this point I often get comments along the lines that I’m trying to impose conformity, and the public should be told about mavericks opinions because (very occasionally) they turn out to be right. I’m doing neither of those things. What is missing from the media is any sense of what the expert consensus is, and for politicians who depart from the consensus being interrogated on why they think they know better than the expert consensus.

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