How could economists make themselves useful in the Brexit debate?
Marianna Koli (New College of Humanities)
What should the priorities for economists be in communicating economic policy to the public at a time when trade policy may be changing fundamentally? Public interest in the economic implications of Brexit is certainly strong, as evidenced, for example, by widespread use of social media and other public discussion forums to discuss economics.
Economists have responded to the demand for communication. Many British economists have followed the example of prominent American colleagues and started blogs aimed at the wider public and to policymakers (my favourite is Simon Wren-Lewis’s Mainly Macro blog). Several universities have introduced economic history, economic thought, and alternative approaches to Economics degrees, and even created entire courses in economic communication.
In early 2016, during the EU referendum campaign, Brexit was a traditional economic communication problem. However, it has since morphed into a non-traditional – and much messier – type of problem. How do you communicate economic issues when the event you are addressing is not economic, or at least involves also a very strong political narrative?
The good news for economists is that Brexit has brought international trade policy to the British public’s attention in a way that no prior events had. In recent years, for some brief windows of time, the public discussion actually was economic.
What have been the key opportunities for economists in the public Brexit debate?
The first opportunity was in early 2016, before the referendum. People wanted to know who we trade with, how much, what “international trade” actually means, and how goods physically enter and exit the UK.
The second opportunity was after the referendum, in early 2017, when the Withdrawal Bill was being prepared and Article 50 was invoked. People wanted to know the difference between free trade areas, customs unions, and other arrangements. The intricacies of Swiss, Turkish, and Ukrainian trade policy briefly became common British discussions on public forums and in the mass media.
However, from late 2017, both the professional commentariat and the debating public moved on to political questions. What does the British constitution say about the various steps of Brexit? Why will the EU not compromise on the Four Freedoms? What makes the Irish border so complicated?
At the time of writing, the daily news is about below-zero economic growth in the UK between April and June 2019. This would seem to be another economic communication opportunity. How are recessions created, and how do they affect people? What does it mean when growth is below zero? Might we ever think of falling consumption as a good thing?
However, economists as a community, I’m afraid, tend to miss these chances to explain big economic issues to the public. No superstar economist has emerged to capture the imagination of the nation and do the kind of thing David Attenborough did for climate change communication. No projects have been launched to build a British “Museum of the Economy” (in the vein, for example, of the Interactive Museum of the Economy in Mexico City, or the Museum of External Debt in Buenos Aires).
How can economists spot communication opportunities, given the difficulties of economic prediction?
The media tends to be key to the public communication of any major societal issue, and public outreach of any description needs to link up to current public interest. Science communicators use the media to talk about major scientific achievements: the recent 50th anniversary of the moon landing also created publicity for the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft on the same day in 2019.
Similarly, historians highlight famous anniversaries, such as the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (April 2016), or the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King (April 2018). The public’s prior interest in historical events is then used for promoting modern research, events, or causes that are thematically connected to the anniversary.
Could economic communicators use the same strategy to get the attention of the media? For example, the 100-year anniversary of Ford’s five-day workweek will occur in 2026. This would create an opportunity to talk about the car industry, supply chains, the changing nature of jobs, globalisation, and many other issues that the Brexit debate has clearly shown the public is both interested in and relatively poorly informed about.
Looking further forward, the 20-year anniversary of the start of the Global Financial Crisis will happen in 2027, and the 100th anniversary of the Wall Street crash will happen in 2029. If Brexit happens, there will be anniversaries of that.
Why is there so little economists can do to communicate effectively in the short term?
There are many structural reasons why the communication of economic issues is challenging to do while the economic news is happening.
Firstly, effective and sustained communication campaigns require time and organisation, and economic news tends to move too fast. Reactive communication rarely reaches the public in any meaningful way.
Secondly, it is not clear that different groups have the same motivations for economic communication. Academics are increasingly incentivised to engage in public outreach, but the change is happening much too slowly for it to make a dent in the public Brexit consciousness. Academics are also reluctant to make concrete predictions – so instead journalists approach private sector economists, employed to produce and sell their company’s analysis, to make predictions instead.
The media’s fascination with shocks does not help in creating balanced analysis, either. In my experience as an economic commentator, the most common reason for getting “dropped” from a broadcaster’s agreed schedule is that the newly published figures you were going to comment on contained no surprises. In other words, on the days when it turns out economists predicted something correctly, economic commentary gets axed from newsroom schedules.
It is my belief that the best way for economists to tap into existing public interest, and communicate new information, is to collaborate with those who already know how to grab the public interest – including, but not limited to, the mass media. Can we make use of famous anniversaries or other opportunities that might engage the public imagination?
Economists would also benefit from asking larger questions. We should focus economic predictions not on numbers, but on identifying impending big economic issues. Alternatively, we can choose topics that are likely to recur, such as recessions or stock market bubbles, and build long-term communication projects on those.
On Brexit, we must find a way to zoom out to the bigger picture. In Brexit, we are observing a rare attempt by a nation to reinvent its role in the world. What are the big, formative, economic questions that are not being answered at present? The government may be bogged down with political debates right now, but the economic questions will return sooner or later.
Marianna Koli is Dean for Education in Business & Economics, Head of Faculty and Senior Lecturer for Economics at the New College of the Humanities