I can explain the title through referring to a story from the Westminster political scene, as it demonstrates how politicians fail to understand the role of the economist. Although Mark Carney as governor of ‘The Bank England’ and is not strictly speaking an economist, only a person thoroughly grounded in economic theory and practice could fulfil this role. He was called to a meeting of the Select Committee on the Treasury to explain why he gave such a negative account of the impact of Brexit. Why the assembled politicians wanted to know did he give such a negative account of its impact on the economy, as all knew that in fact the economy was as buoyant after the vote to leave the EU as before it. He answered that he remained serene about his prediction of a dire economic future if Brexit occurred.
There are two answers to the question posed by the angry politicians.The first is that he by being aware of the possible bad effects of Brexit, had reacted immediately after the vote to offset the negative impact through cutting interest rates and pumping more money into the economy by the process of quantitive easing. These measures restored business confidence and enabled the economy to recover from the immediate post Brexit blues. However this was a short term measure, which had a short term effect. The truth or otherwise of his predictions will be known in 2017 when negotiations to leave the EU begin in earnest. The uncertainty engendered by the negotiations to leave the EU will have a negative impact on business confidence and investment. Businesses will postpone investment decisions or as with the major car manufacturers look to develop their new models in those parts of Europe that are unlikely to be subject to the import tariffs that British exporters will have to pay. There seems to be a consensus among economists that incomes will fall in the long term by 4% or more as a consequence of Brexit, which if these angry politicians had listened to Mark Carney’s speech would have realised that this is what he was saying.
However what these politicians fail to demonstrate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of economists. Economics is with some justification known as the miserable or the gloomy science. The role of economists is to look for the worst in possible outcomes that could develop as a consequence of current policy decisions or current changes in the economy and to warn against them. Foreknowledge of the bad to come enables politicians to take action to prevent the worst of all possible futures from happening. Happy economists fail in this task as they never foresee future economic storms and squalls. The Governor of ‘The Bank of England’ at present with his advisors is considering what possible future measures he will need to enact in 2017 to prevent the worst effects of a loss of the uncertainty generated by the Brexit negotiations. If like the many politicians advocating Brexit he took an optimistic view of the future, he would lie woefully unprepared for the expected downturn in the economy in 2017. What politicians fail to understand is that economists and Bank of England governors are doing the job for which they are paid when they a being economic miserablists or Jeremiahs.
When economists are happy they are not fulfilling their role. Before the crash of 2008 the vast majority of economists were upbeat about the economy. They believed that the world economy had entered a new paradigm in which the old caveats about credit bubbles and an overheated economy no longer applied. The over whelming majority of economists believed that the world economy had entered a new phase in which it would continue on an ever upward trajectory, in which the minor mishaps that occurred could be remedied by a few simple changes in monetary policy, such as varying the interest rate. Those few economists that warned that the world economy was heading for a financial disaster were ignored. After all who is interested in the pessimistic views of a miserable neighbour. Politicians just like the rest of the population are not interested in unpalatable truths, they just wanted the party to continue.
When the Queen asked the economists why they had failed to predict the crash of 2008, she was asking the wrong question. What she should have asked is why they had abandoned their role of that of social Jeremiah for that of cheer leader. Politicians could deny their responsibility for their irresponsible policies that led to the crash of 2008, by claiming that economists also believed that that they were pursuing the right policy. The financial crash could be claimed to be a once in a life time unforeseeable event, such as the Tsunami and therefore politicians should share no blame for the crisis which in reality was a large part of their making.
Economists can be compared to the Old Testament prophets who warned the Israelites of the dire consequences of ignoring God’s will. Similarly economists should be warning of the dire consequences that will follow from ignoring economic realities. Although revering their prophets the Israelites could react badly when their were told things that they would rather not know. Isaiah is reputed to have been sawn in two while hiding in a tree, after having angered King Manasseh. The Israelites had time for regret after the disasters following on from the invasions by the Assyrians. Economists will always be tempted to follow the party line or say what pleases those in power and the consequence is a disaster such as that of 2008, when economists should as one have been urging the government to take action to end the dangerous explosion of credit, they were encouraging the government to continue to inflate the asset bubble. A good economist is one that is willing to court unpopularity, as did the Old Testament prophets who sought no one’s favour when speaking God’s truth.
I as am economist am very wary of speaking the truth about future events to my friends, as to do so is one way of losing ones friends.