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Friday, August 25, 2017

Simon Wren-Lews: Brexit remains an exercise in deception [feedly]

Simon Wren Lewis makes an interesting observation  at the end of this post. I think the intuition of many -- including on the 'Left' -- is indeed that not only "economic theory" is "just opinion, not science". This is a product of economic issues being the major subject of most politics--the field where all interests are in contention. The same intuition that can't buy "economic science" completely disregards "political science".

One of the unfortunate ideological consequences of this "gulf in economic knowledge" is that the same intuition begins to suspect that the real economy, not just the study of it, is also just  a matter of opinion, subjectivity, and arbitrarily under the direction of whoever is most powerful, or rich. 

Let me put it this way: except in extraordinary historical moments, economic systems choose YOU. You don't choose them. It's not a buffet.

Brexit remains an exercise in deception

Simon Wren-Lewis

talkedlast week about how the Leave campaign involved lies at its centre. Not the occasional exaggerations of the Remain campaign, but claiming things that were the opposite of the truth. Like there will be more money for the NHS, when in fact there will be less. That particular lie probably swung the result, accordingto the man who organised the Leave campaign.

Labour people tell me that public opinion on Brexit will turn once these lies become apparent, and at that point Labour can safely take up the Remain cause. What this overlooks is that the managing of information characterised by the Brexit campaign continues. The Tory tabloids continue to distort the truth, and the Telegraph acts in a very similar fashion. The UK government appears more interested in saying stuff to pleaseits UK audience than actually negotiating with the EU, and its studies of the impactof Brexit remain secret [1].

Meanwhile the opposition give no hint of the costs that Brexit will involve, and by designor conflicted confusion are just a tiny bit less pro-Brexit than the government. The broadcast media, and particularly the BBC, appear hopeless at questioning the facade that both main parties and supporting think tanks have erected. I have never heard a politician pulled up for saying we must retain access to the Single Market: all countries have access to that market! (Thisis the kind of journalism we should be seeing.) Individual MPs are intimidatedinto silence by the power of the Tory tabloids.

When I talk to Leave voters, all they tell me is how the economic 'catastrophe' predicted by Remain did not come to pass, or other Leave nonsense talking points like the exchange rate was overvalued anyway. They are often unaware that falling real wages are the direct result of the Brexit depreciation, and as a result the economy hardly grew in the first half of this year. They, and many people who voted Remain, do not realise that the government's position papers are largelyfantasy and that the EU is in a position to dictate terms. This is not because these voters minds are closed. They just get their information from sources that go along with the government's Brexit fantasy, unless they are fortunate enough to read the Financial Times. No wonder there has been no majorchange in public opinion since the referendum.

Those in the Labour party should realise more than most how the media can present a one-sided reality which many non-political voters accept, until they see for themselves the other side during a general election campaign. The problem with a 'wait and see' attitude to Brexit is that its major economic cost will not become apparent until years after we actually leave the Single Market. Few realise that the original Treasury study, with the central estimate of an average annual cost of £4,300 per household (6.2% of GDP) was not some piece of Remain spin but a perfectly reputable study, which economists at the LSE saidwas "overly cautious". Instead we get nonsense like thisreported by the BBC. [2]

Some time ago I calculated a conservative estimate for the cost of austerity, and it was £4,000 per household. Ironically it was based on OBR estimates that the MSM largely ignored, just as they ignore the OBR's estimates for the short term cost of Brexit. But my austerity cost estimate was a total cost, over all the years of austerity. The Treasury estimate is a cost each year. There is therefore a strong liklihood that Brexit will be far far worse than austerity in terms of lost resources, and unlike austerity there is no way of avoiding these costs once we are outside the Single Market.

For Labour party members and MPs I would put it this way. Imagine winning the next election but having to accept continuing austerity. Winning an election after leaving the Single Market will probably be much worse, and of course the media and voters will blame it all not on Brexit but on Labour's 'far left' policies. Winning an election after Brexit is a poisoned chalice.

[1] Hereis Mike Galsworthy on this and the earlier 'Balance of Competences' reviews that the government kept very quiet about before and during the referendum.

[2] I've talked to people at the BBC, including their economics editor, about why they cannot apply the BBC Trust's recommendationson science coverage to economics. (The Trust's conclusion, in summary, is that in controversial areas the BBC should go with the overwhelming scientific consensus. In other words recognise scientific knowledge, and not treat it as just an opinion.) I think a summary of their response to my question is that economics should not be regarded as a science: there is no economic knowledge, just opinions. What that attitude means in practice is that the public do not hear from the many experts in international trade we have in the UK (and there are many), but instead they hear from Patrick Minford.

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