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Brexit and the balance of bulls***

Two articles published recently by the New York Times correspond almost precisely to Harry Frankfurt’s seminal definition of 'bulls***' – not necessarily true or false, but 'unconnected to a concern with the truth'

Jonathan Portes
Monday 07 August 2017 10:06 BST
Daniel Hannan must know that trade talks with India are going nowhere fast due to Theresa May's resistance to immigration liberalisation
Daniel Hannan must know that trade talks with India are going nowhere fast due to Theresa May's resistance to immigration liberalisation

In the last fortnight, the New York Times published two opinion pieces on Brexit.

The first, by Jenni Russell, described it as an unmitigated disaster; the second, by Daniel Hannan, claimed that, by contrast, most Britons were celebrating the “good news”.

Fair enough, you might say; the newspaper offered two, radically different, points of view; readers could consider both and make up their own minds.

No. The New York Times did its readers a profound disservice.

Both articles were, to put it mildly, polemical and tendentious.

Russell’s contained a number of obvious factual errors – for example, the claim that UK per capita GDP “has not risen at all over a decade”.

In fact, it’s at its highest ever level, about 2 percent higher than the pre-crisis peak.

Similarly, Hannan argued that Brexit optimists had been vindicated by relatively strong growth in the second half of 2016 – ignoring, bizarrely, the fact that in the first half of 2017 growth was at its weakest in five years.

The authors clearly weren’t chosen for their expertise.

Hannan, despite having been a Member of the European Parliament since 1999 – and having written books on the EU and trade – recently made headlines by claiming, absurdly, that the EU imposed 32 percent tariffs on Chilean and other New World wine.

Russell’s sources appear to be mostly reports in other newspapers, rather than actual analysis or data.

And although both articles concentrated on the economics of Brexit, neither has any economics training.

Underneath the false, selective or misleading statistics – and both articles are littered with other examples – there’s usually a substantive point.

Russell is correct that UK growth, per capita, has been miserable since the financial crisis – and that the misguided policies of the UK government, not the EU, are largely to blame.

Hannan is right that prophecies of immediate doom by some pro-Remain politicians – notably the former Chancellor, George Osborne – were scaremongering.

But when presented by people who are propagandising, not analysing, these arguments lose their force.

Indeed, both articles correspond almost precisely to Harry Frankfurt’s seminal definition of “bull****” – not necessarily true or false, but “unconnected to a concern with the truth”.

That is, words and arguments constructed purely for an instrumental purpose – to convince, by fair means or foul, that the author’s position is correct.

This applies to Hannan’s claim that the UK is “starting discussions” on a trade deal with India – not strictly false, but Hannan knows perfectly well that Theresa May’s resistance to liberalising UK immigration policy means any discussions are going nowhere just yet.

So it’s meaningless verbiage to those who know this, but deliberately misleads those – the vast majority – those who are less well informed on this obscure topic.

Equally, Russell quotes, accurately, the CBI estimate that Brexit could knock 3 to 5.5 per cent off UK GDP by 2020 – but omits the rather important caveat that they also think that about half of this impact would be recovered subsequently, so that GDP per capita in 2030 would only be 1 to 3 per cent lower, so an impact on growth of less than 0.2 per cent per year.

Not great, but not the end of the world either. Again, anybody who didn’t read the underlying research wouldn’t understand this.

So it’s simply not the case that readers could analyse the arguments and make up their own minds.

No doubt those with strong views already had those confirmed by the article they agreed with, and easily spotted the flaws in the one they didn’t - I certainly observed this phenomenon on Twitter.

Those who hadn’t made up their mind, but knew something about the topic, probably realised neither should be taken seriously; while the less well-informed would have been merely confused.

Was anyone genuinely educated or informed? I doubt it.

So what should the New York Times – and other media outlets that want to inform their readers or viewers – actually do?

Well, a start would be asking for people to explain a position, not to argue it.

What will Brexit mean for the UK economy? There’s a range of views – from those who think it will be utterly disastrous, to those who argue that any short-term damage will be minimal and that in the long-term the impacts will be positive (for what it’s worth, the consensus, which I agree with, is somewhere in between. That doesn’t mean we’re right).

But any serious analyst, wherever they stand, will recognise the uncertainties and will confront the weaknesses in their own position.

To take a specific example: EU membership has been good for the UK economy.

There is a wealth of evidence to this effect, and economists who dispute it are largely on the fringes.

However, as a matter of logic, it simply does not follow that leaving the EU will necessarily be bad for the UK economy; the impacts are very unlikely to simply be the reverse of joining.

Anyone who tries to ignore either of these two points is probably trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Similarly, we should not take seriously those who deny the obvious.

Again, both sides are guilty. Those on the Leave side who claimed Brexit would be smooth and painless, and that the EU would quickly agree a seamless transition to a new trade deal, now – rightly – appear ridiculous (and let’s not even talk about that famous £350 million a week for the NHS).

Equally, those on the Remain side who prophesied immediate economic disaster were wrong.

The same goes for other Brexit-related issues, from immigration to “sovereignty”.

A year on from the Brexit referendum, the UK is, collectively, still struggling to make sense of it all.

A little humility – and this applies to my own profession, academia, as much as journalism and politics – would not go amiss.

We don’t need more columnists telling us the answer.

Getting the questions right would be a good start. It’s a shame the New York Times doesn’t even get that far.

Jonathan Portes is Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College, London and Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe

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