Tim Besley's picture
Affiliation: 
London School of Economics
Credentials: 
Professor of economics and political science

Voting history

Are academic economists ‘in touch’ with voters and politicians?

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Question 5: Voters think that the preferences of economists do not align with their own preferences. (This includes the possibility that they thought that the predicted negative economic consequences would not affect them personally).

Do you agree this was an important reason for a majority of UK voters going against the near unanimous advice of the economics profession?

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Answer:
Agree
Confidence level:
Confident
Comment:
There was an element of this. We are happy to trade-off costs and benefits to get an aggregate outcome. Anyone who has spent time involved in policy-making knows that these arguments tend to grate with people who see the issues much more in terms of the lives of affected people. There are many with more anecdotal views of the world who think that those who look at aggregate outcomes does not align well with their circumstances. It is hard to explain to painter-decorator who has struggled to put up prices for ten years, which he/she blames on migrants, that they should not care about this because the aggregate economic picture favours staying in. This is always a struggle in economic policy discussion where the criteria that economists use to look at benefits and costs are not see easy to communicate to the general public.

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Question 4: Voters did not believe the economic arguments put forward (for example, because they thought the arguments put forward by macroeconomists with dissenting views made more sense or because voters have little faith in economists in general).

Do you agree that this was an important reason for a majority of UK voters going against the near unanimous advice of the economics profession?

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Answer:
Disagree
Confidence level:
Confident

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Question 3: Voters chose to leave the EU for non-economic reasons.

Do you agree that this was an important reason for a majority of UK voters going against the near unanimous advice of the economics profession?

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Answer:
Strongly agree
Confidence level:
Confident
Comment:
One problem is that we tend to see migration as a purely economic issue where the benefits are clear looking at the economy as a whole. Even though there was lots of misinformation, it does not get away from the fact that the migration is symbolic of concerns about a wider loss of sovereignty which is why the "take back control" message was so powerful. This was mistakenly dismissed too readily as pure "xenophobia". In the end, these are issues of political economy, not economics per se. I suspect that many "out" voters also had doubts about the competence of the EU to resolve issues as evidenced by the Eurozone crisis and the migration crisis. It is hard to get away from the argument that creating the Euro was an act of great folly driven by political ambition. Even though we stayed out in the UK, it reflects poorly on those key decision-makers who are at the heart of the European project. Little of the argument put forward by economists about the economic costs to the UK speaks to these issues directly even though the logic is compelling and by being dismissive of these concerns, we may have come over as remote from the thinking driving the out campaign. In the end, the argument had to be that we could play a more important role in influencing the direction of economic affects which will impact on the UK if were in than out. But clearly that is quite a subtle argument to get over and it is hard to provide direct evidence to support it of an economic nature.

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Question 2: What do you think is the most likely reason that a majority of UK voters went against the near unanimous advice of the economics profession?

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Answer:
A. Non-economic reasons more important
Confidence level:
Confident

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Question 1: Do you agree that the economics profession needs an institutional change that promotes the ability to communicate more effectively with policy-makers and the public at large and to make clear when economists have a united view; and do you agree that we need to introduce leadership to help achieve this improvement through coordinated efforts?

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Answer:
Agree
Confidence level:
Very confident
Comment:
We have to begin from the premise that economists do not speak with one voice. Even on Brexit, there were differing views on the important issues and the magnitudes involved. The fact that they pointed in the same direction for the most part was the main salient fact. The aim should never be to converge on specific predictions but where the balance of probabilities lies. There is no natural vehicle for creating an institutional opinion except for the kind of informal collaborations that occurred. Professional associations such as the Royal Economic Society, British Academy or Econometric Society are rightly set to avoid taking policy positions which would in the end destroy these organizations if people started joining based on whether or not they agreed with the policy stances on particular issues. In hindsight, HMT should have set up an expert body drawn from a range of respected economic experts and asked them to look at the evidence before the referendum -- that would be the institutional solution I would favour. The landscape was just too diffuse for effective communication and the risk associated with publicly-funded bodies too great. The LSE growth commission recommended establishing a standing commission looking at long-term economic evidence and issues which was independent of government and could offer advice on a range of long-term policy-making. We thought that the learned academies (British Academy, Royal Society etc.) would be the right place to start this given their long-standing links to BIS. Had such a body existed, it could have served the role that I mentioned above.

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