Sunday 3 June 2018

Average economic statistics and how they turbocharged Brexit

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix website...

No doubt it is a sign of age, but I find myself a good deal less critical of people who vote for so-called 'populists' than I ought to be.

I put the word in inverted commas because what they actually mean is ‘rabble-rousers’, and I don't have time for them. As Thomas Frank explained in the Guardian last weekend, populism was originally a left-wing reform movement which swept the Midwest of the USA in the 1880s and 1890s (and incidentally gave us the Wizard of Oz). It may actually be part of the answer.

I find myself leaning towards a different approach which, instead of blind panic and refusal to accept the electoral verdict (like the Italian president), we advocate a broad attempt to understand why so many voters hate the centre left – and why, in particular, all those Cornish Liberals backed Brexit.

And, when you think about it – there is one economics habit, above all others, which has contributed to the reaction against conventional expertise. Averages.

Thanks partly to the boneheaded refusal of UK institutions to contemplate the existence of regional, city or local economies, official economists have been staring exclusively at the national statistics, apparently unaware that there might be any other way of doing it. Because when you average out the prosperity statistics across a relatively equal nation, then it may mean something – but across an increasingly unequal nation, it becomes increasingly meaningless. One Abramovitch skews the whole thing.

The result has been an inevitable mismatch between what people’s lives have been like in, say, Hartlepool or Ipswich, and the economic experts who tell them with confidence that actually their lives must be improving because the national statistics say so.

It is no small step forward that the Bank of England is going to collect and publish regional and local statistics as well, and that they have set up regional citizen reference panels (a recommended by the RSA). But don’t let’s undermine the cynicism that this mismatch has caused – between the experts and their statistics and people’s lived experience.

It has certainly contributed to the sense that the so-called experts don’t understand, and are not on our side. Nor is it in the least bit surprising.

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