Saturday, 6 August 2016

John Van Reenen is rewriting history

John Van Reenen has it that Brits voted to leave because they're ignorant of economics, the media was biased and there is an animosity to foreigners. Basically we're all thick and racist in his view.

"There are multiple reasons for the Brexit vote, but by far the most important one can be summarised in a single word: immigration. In the last few weeks before the vote, the Leave campaign was ruthless in focusing on our fears of foreigners."says he.

There is a problem with this. It's a pack of lies. Ashcroft polls have it that the primary reason people voted to leave was because they thought that decisions affecting the UK should be taken in the UK. Moreover, concern about immigration and the real world manifestations of it does not equate with "fear of foreigners". And actually, one might suspect that the assertion that it does is a calculated insult. We might even say that this whole article is clickbait.

There are only two possibilities. Either the self-referential bubble of academia is so distant that he actually thinks this, or that he is trolling. Ordinarily both reasons would be good cause to ignore the article so as not to be dancing to his tune, but when other economists like Simon Wren-Lewis (in all seriousness) express similar opinions in all seriousness it's worth examining. If economists feel ignored then that is one of the many reasons. They're pig ignorant snobs.

As it happens, there has been a full and frank discussion about immigration since well before the general election. Most people are now well aware that it is complex. My experience of the debate is that it's only a hardcore rump of Ukippers who are actively hostile to immigration and they scored a mere 14% in the general election. A mere four million votes. Seventeen million voted to leave the EU.

As it happens, I had never really looked at immigration issues in any detail until 2014. I could make the distinction between freedom of movement and immigration as a whole and was dimly aware of the issues surrounding asylum, and my views were possibly closer to Ukip than I might like to admit. Through reasoning though I now have a much more nuanced view and will actively defend freedom of movement. Yet this does not impact in any way my decision to vote to leave the EU.

Unlike Van Reenen, I don't see jackbooted fascists everywhere I look. I just see people who have yet to be furnished with all of the facts. But even so, you can still be in command of the facts and still be in favour of stricter immigration controls. It comes down to more practical considerations as to whether we can integrate people properly with this rate of influx and whether infrastructure can keep up. Fear of foreigners it is not.

It's also wrong to say the hard line on immigration was a swing factor. There were serious concerns among Leave activists that Vote Leave's inexplicable focus on Turkey's accession into the EU would lose us the referendum. Nigel Farage's antics also left many of us feeling depressed and defeated. Vote Leave and Ukip demolished any chance of winning over moderate swing voters. How can you make a progressive case for leaving the EU when you have men like Farage and Arron Banks undermining your every effort?

Van Reenen has it that it was the right wing media stoking immigration fears that tipped the balance. "Most of the British press has been unrelentingly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant for decades. This built to a crescendo during the Brexit campaign with the most popular dailies like the SunMail and Express little more than the propaganda arm of the Leave campaign."

That's right. The thick plebs exist on a diet of tabloid news and have absolutely no reasoning abilities. Except of course there was that whole social media thing. Lively and thorough debate spanning every topic in depth. This referendum was very much won on the internet.

But then Van Reenen points out that:
The main alternative source of information for ordinary people was the BBC, which was particularly awful throughout the referendum debate. It supinely reported the breath-taking lies of the Leave campaign in particularly over the ‘£350 million a week EU budget contribution’. Rather than confront Leave campaigners and call the claim untruthful, BBC broadcasters would say things like ‘now this is a contested figure, but let’s move on’.
This created the impression that there was just some disagreement between the sides, whereas it was clearly a lie. It’s like saying ‘One side says that world is flat, but this is contested by Remain who say it is round. We’ll let you decide.’ The public broadcaster failed a basic duty of care to the British people. There was a need to tell people the truth for probably the most important vote any of us will have in our lifetimes. And the BBC failed.

The BBC also failed to reflect the consensus view of the economics profession on the harm of Brexit. A huge survey of British economists showed that for every one respondent who thought there would be economic benefits from Brexit over the next five years, there were 22 who thought we would be worse off. Yet time and again, there would always be some maverick Leave economist given equal airtime to anyone articulating the standard arguments.
Here we can agree on something. The standard of television debate was woeful. Where we disagree is that Van Reenen thinks viewers are passive recipients of information and believe everything they are told. But if you talk to anybody with a pulse they will tell you that they thought the standard of debate was poor and nobody was especially convinced that the £350m figure was valid and many in the Leave campaign distanced themselves from it.

But then to say the BBC did not communicate the near universal view that Brexit is bad is also a lie. I'm sure Van Reenen laughed as hard as I cringed at the sight of Kate Hoey being unable to name a single study that said Brexit was economically beneficial as Andrew Neil rattled off a list of prestigious organisations warning against Brexit. In fact there was a torrent of news on a daily basis from one or other economist telling us that Brexit is bad. It became a cottage industry spawning its own branch of satire. To deny that is to deny what is as plain as day, which makes Van Reenen either a vicious liar or singularly stupid.

Van Reenan then goes on to examine the economics profession, lamenting the lack of public understanding of the subject. That much is understandable. For most normal people talk of aggregate demand, trade deficits and interest rates causes the eyes to glaze over. Most people don't know much about economics and they don't want to. What people are aware of though is that economics is a predictive science with a pretty dismal track record.

Van Reenen protests that the "usual clich├ęs about not predicting the financial crisis were dutifully rolled out. As if the medical profession’s failure to predict the AIDS epidemic means that you should ignore your doctor’s advice to give up smoking. No, we cannot predict the date you will die of lung cancer, but if you smoke we can be pretty sure your health will suffer."

This is trite. What we are talking about in Brexit terms is two very stark economic avenues. We are told that one avenue brings recession and uncertainty, with an implied message that continued EU membership means prosperity and certainty. But what have we seen? The Euro on the brink, riots, frightening fallout from the refugee crisis and Greece falling apart. The same economists telling us that leaving will be a disaster are the same ones who campaigned for our entry into the Euro. Yet now the consensus among economists seems to be that we dodged a bullet by not joining.

The fact is that economics as a science is only really useful when applied to specifics when you have a comprehensive model and you have factored in as many variables as possible. But when applied to something like Brexit many of the variables are not known and are unknowable. It is vast and economists also have their blind spots. Put simply, economics is not a crystal ball. It may give us some indication as to what might happen in the shipping industry and it may give us an insight into the sort of events that can happen but that is no guarantee that they necessarily will happen. Such insistence to the contrary is why economists are rightly ignored.

But then there's the politics. Van Reenen remarks that "The basis for increasing populism all around the world is economic insecurity caused primarily by the worst recession and recovery since the war. But some blame must also be apportioned to the UK’s current crop of politicians, who are surely the worst in living memory. David Cameron called an unnecessary referendum in order to steal some votes back from the far right. It was obviously going to become a vote on general grievances to kick the establishment, rather than about EU membership."

The problem here is that as bad as the current crop of politicians are, they are the continence of a long line of dismal, shallow and venal creatures. We've had thirty years of it and nobody my age has ever had a say on EU issues. We didn't get a say on any of the treaties and we watched as our political class conspired to prevent the public having a vote on Lisbon.

Van Reenen has it that Cameron called an "unnecessary referendum in order to steal some votes back from the far right". A truly shallow analysis. Ukip may be a populist movement but it has existed for two decades. At the core is a small but deeply obstinate core of people who will never rest until we leave the EU. Fanatics you might say. And though I am not of Ukip I count myself as one of them.

Because of that dedication we have been kingmakers in elections. Gordon Brown was probably the most unpopular prime minister for a generation. Kicking him out should have been a walk in the park resulting a a landslide for the Tories. Yet Cameron was forced into a coalition. Eurosceptics have political leverage and we can if needs be keep the system off balance forever. The only way to lance the boil was to give us a referendum. To ignore it any longer would lead to something much uglier. Politically, it was very necessary.

The Cameron gamble was that these people would be so clueless, so odious and so bitterly divided that they wouldn't offer a credible threat. It was a good call too. He didn't expect to lose and I didn't expect to win. In fact, I rather expected we would be thrashed and the issue would be buried for a generation because the official leave campaign was so utterly shambolic.

So was it these people who really delivered such an astonishing victory? No. Was it the power of the £350m lie? No. The most basic explanation is that as bad as the Brexit bunch were, the remainers were worse. What we got was a torrent economists, scientists and and politicians and cronies from the establishment threatening us, piling on scare after scare and belittling our concerns.

The conceit of Van Reenen and his fellow travellers at the LSE is that their side told only the truth. I can pick any number lies out from the remain campaign, many of them devious sleight of hand techniques. What we get from Van Reenen is the arrogant assumption that there is only one truth. That Brexit is universally bad and to disagree makes you mad, bad, racist and insane. It is a continued onslaught that says the little people don't know what is good for them, and they are motivated by fear of foreigners.

Even now their near total incomprehension of why they lost lends us more clues as to how they think. It is pure snobbery: the assumption that the public lack any critical faculties or moral agency and that they are hapless serfs in hock to Rupert Murdoch's views. As bad as that is, their pathology is also interesting. The view that only the views of economists matter. They are genuinely surprised that people would seemingly vote against their own economic interests.

To them it could only mean that the voters will gullible and believed lies and that they simply didn't understand what they were saying. It meant that the wise men were powerless to combat the might of the tabloid media and that the little people are victims used by a corporate media machine. Never once does it occur to them that Brexit is a rejection of their snobbery, arrogance and all round unpleasantness.

And though they may look down their noses at the old white men who voted to leave, these are people who were young men when they decided we should leave the EU and nothing has changed their view since. Not least after witnessing a generation of politicians conspiring to keep the public out of the decision making process.

And the real kicker of course is that contrary to Van Reenen's assertions, we heard economists loud and clear. Every grassroots Leave campaigner will have admitted that there will be some economic disruption. We all said that it will be bad, but not as bad as they say. I even said on this very blog that Brexit probably will lead to a recession. Arron Banks said the same.

In the end the message got through. Economists think Brexit is bad. The people however took a longer term view. That these odious people in power had to be brought to heel and that the political orthodoxy underpinned by our EU membership had to change. We heard the evidence, we weighed up the risks, we accepted the consequences and we voted to leave.

We waited to see if the EU could be reformed. Cameron failed. No serious effort was made to reform the EU and then they expected us to swallow yet another massive lie. What other response could there have been than to vote to leave? I might even go as far as saying that we would have voted to leave even if there had been no official leave campaign at all. And when you look at why we won, in the absence of the £350m nonsense and the histrionics about immigration I think we might even have won it by a bigger margin.

But then John Van Reenen knows all this. He is playing a different game. There is new campaign under way. The game is to rewrite history to the effect that the reasons we voted to leave were those put forth by Vote Leave. They are confident that they can expose all of Vote Leave's campaign messages as bogus and if they can show that Brexit will not deliver then they can de-legitimise the mandate for leaving. That is why they are busy spinning this alternate universe and that is why they need you to believe that we really are hapless serfs conned by the media. They are fighting to ensure we remain in the EU.

So as much as the LSE is engaged in a nasty campaign of historical revisionism, they are very much demonstrating why economists are not trusted. These are thoroughly dishonest men. John Van Reenen is a cynical, lying snob with a phobia of democracy. If Van Reenen really wants to know why we voted to leave he should seek out the nearest mirror and take a long hard look. Brexit was a rejection of scum like him.

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