Clearly, mainstream economists don’t like it when their advice is ignored. But that’s what seems to have happened with Brexit, Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.
In the lead up to the 23 June referendum, 12 Nobel Laureates and 175 U.K.-based mainstream economists launched their version of Project Fear to warn voters about the economic dangers—recession, inflation, falling investment, lower growth, and higher taxes—from deciding against Remain. But the people ignored the dramatic pleas for economic stability on the part of the “high priests of capitalism” and voted instead to Leave.*
Jean Pisani-Ferry sees the result as one example of a much broader “angry attitude toward the bearers of knowledge and expertise”—but one that is specifically aimed at mainstream economists. Why? The presumed expertise of mainstream economists was compromised because they “failed to warn them about the risk of a financial crisis in 2008,” they’re biased toward “mobility of labor across borders, trade openness, and globalization more generally,” and because they “tend to disregard or minimize” the effects of openness on particular classes or communities.
While Pisani-Ferry gives greater weight to the third explanation, the fact is they’re related. The thread running through all three factors is the issue of distribution. Mainstream economists tend to treat the inequalities that are both the cause and consequence of capitalism as either irrelevant (because everyone gets what they deserve) or as exogenous (created outside and independent of the economy itself). Thus, they ignored the role of inequality both in creating the conditions leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and as a consequence of the way the recovery was crafted and took place; and they tend to model and support economic globalization—in people, trade, finances, and much else—as if everyone benefits, rather than seeing winners and losers. Because mainstream economists relegate issues like power and class to (and, in many cases, beyond) the margins, they literally don’t see for themselves or show to others the unequal distributions that are either presumed by capitalism or that follow from capitalist ways of organizing economic and social life.
Neil Irwin, too, has expressed his concern about the rejection of expert opinion with respect to Brexit (and, he adds, the success of Donald Trump’s campaign). And draws much the same lesson: mainstream economists (and, more generally, the members of the economic elite whose views they tend to celebrate) focus their attention on efficiency and economic growth—with respect to issues ranging from rent control to international trade—and not on the unequal outcomes of those policies. Thus, he asks, “what if those gaps between the economic elite and the general public are created not by differences in expertise but in priorities?”
In the end, the problem identified by Pisani-Ferry and Irwin is not really one of economic expertise. It is, rather, a question of priorities and perspectives. Mainstream economists hold one set of theories, according to which capitalist markets lead to (or, at least can, with the appropriate policies, end up with) efficient, dynamic outcomes from which everyone benefits. But other economists—both other academic economists and everyday economists—use different economic theories, many of which highlight the unequal conditions and consequences of capitalist activities and institutions. In other words, each of these groups has a different expertise, informed by a different way of organizing their knowledge about the economy, including the effects of economic practices and policies.
What we’re seeing, then—with Brexit, but also after the most recent financial crash and the uneven recovery, the success of the campaigns of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, not to mention the battles over austerity and much else across Europe and the rest of the world right now—is a widespread challenge to the self-professed expertise of mainstream economists. It’s also a challenge to the economic and social system glorified by mainstream economists and by the elites that both govern and gain from that system.
Those academic and economic elites are clearly worried their opinions, backed up by their presumed expertise, no longer hold sway in the way they once did. And for good reason.
All they have to do is remember the fate of their predecessors who suggested the downtrodden and everyone else who had been marginalized or otherwise beaten down by the system just eat cake.
*As Rafael Behr explains, “People had many motives to vote leave, but the most potent elements were resentment of an elite political class, rage at decades of social alienation in large swaths of the country, and a determination to reverse a tide of mass migration. Those forces overwhelmed expert pleas for economic stability.”