Brexit has become the benchmark of an idiotic mistake
You’ve had enough of experts? Of facts? Of data? Magnificent. We shall see how you enjoy poverty, dysfunction and chaos. For such are the fruits of ignorance.
The UK in the 2000s had its problems like everywhere else, but Lord knows London, which was my home for most of that decade, was on top of the world. It was unrivalled as a financial center in its hemisphere, wealth was skyrocketing and the culture veritably crackled with a sense of destiny and progress.
Then the UK Conservatives came to power in 2010, after 13 years of Labour, as part of a natural cycle. They looked around for a purpose. There was some data flowing around that provided an argument for spending cuts, but mainly there was an ideological obsession with austerity masked by a plan called the “Big Society” to empower local initiatives at the expense of central authority.
Thus began a steady decline that went into overdrive when the Tories finally won an absolute majority in Parliament, making their centrist Liberal Democrat allies unneeded and putting Prime Minister David Cameron at the mercy of his own party’s Euroskeptic nutjobs.
The argument for leaving the European Union, which had contributed to keeping the peace and expanding prosperity, was not totally insane. The EU requires conceding some sovereignty to the union and a bureaucracy whose rules and procedures can seem petty and ridiculous. They may want to define a pickle or a beer or an olive a certain way. As with any family or group of friends, the EU requires compromises.
A purist hates compromises. A fanatic disdains the big picture. The heart wants what it wants. The heart of a child wants everything now. “Take back control”!” became the infantile Leave slogan. Experts raised a eyebrow and awkwardly shuffled their papers.
Almost all serious economists, and most observers who understood how Britain goes about its business, warned that the campaign to leave the European Union was based on false claims and numbers. They shouted to the heavens that if the so-called “Brexit” (a once-facetious updating of “Grexit”) happened, the cost would be dire.
The response by Britain’s populists was this:
· They insisted that the change would bring benefit, not damage: more freedom, more governability, more democracy, more wealth even.
· They issued subtle appeals to racism. Thus did confused British bigots vote to leave the EU (instead of the Commonwealth) for fear of Africans and Caribbeans, achieving only a wall between themselves and white Europe.
· They claimed that their opponents are elitists detached from the real people, the Salt of the Earth.
· They dismissed with disdain the warnings. The Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, with breathtaking indifference to math, put it this way: “The people of this country have had enough of experts.”
Gove hit paydirt there. It is a quite powerful idea: Evidence suggests the masses are in such rebellion against “global elites” that when educated and successful people point right they will turn left just out of spite, almost no matter the consequences. The source of the anger is an interesting question. Is it inequality? culture wars? social media? jobs vanishing? But there’s no disputing the rage, and it’s not making us much smarter. That’s how Donald Trump somehow won the White House in 2016.
The British were once the most sober of nations, even if not in the literal sense. But they lost it with Brexit, and the mistake is painfully coming home to roost. The pound, trade, tax revenue and jobs have all plummeted, London’s financial mojo was sucked up by Paris and other sites on the continent, and by some estimates the GDP is 10% lower than it would have been without Brexit. Studies show Inward Foreign Direct Investment fell by up to 19% compared to the “counterfactual” scenario of no Brexit.
This is why supermarket shelves are shockingly empty of European vegetables and why the sick wait all day for an ambulance and weeks for a hospital bed.
The polls show the Labour opposition is heading toward a massive victory in the next election — even though they too are guilty of cowardice and acquiescence to the Brexit foolishness. Brexit remorse has spread to about two-thirds of the public, who want a new referendum. If Britain returns to the EU, it will be as the “sick man of Europe” once more, with hat in hand.
All of this has a remarkable connection to an issue I’ve written much about recently — the effort by Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to install authoritarianism in Israel and weaken the justice system that has put him on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Under the “reforms” Israel’s government would appoint the judges and be able to cancel even these puppets’ decisions by a simple majority in parliament. In Israel’s reality it means no checks on government and no rights for citizens. The coalition could cancel elections or game them by denying the vote to whatever group it wants. It certainly could jail its opponents.
Like Britain’s populists, and their brethren in the United States, the Israeli right is expert at bamboozling voters with over-complication, grievance messaging, stoking divisions, distortions of history and fuzzy math. But unlike the case of Brexit, serious results are already visible, perhaps in time to scuttle the scheme.
By now all three major credit ratings agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poors, and Fitch, have issued warnings that the “reforms” could hurt Israel’s outlook. Billions of dollars have left and are leaving the country. Bessemer, one of Israel’s top VCs, has advised its companies to manage their exposures to the shekel and not keep all their dollars in Israeli banks. Every day brings more of this — and it will amplify if the reforms pass, because anyone holding cash in Israel will fear unchecked currency controls, the loss of the independence of the central bank, and even seizure of accounts.
Israelis’ sense of prosperity has been in large part based on the strength of the shekel. This is why the GDP clocks in at higher than most of the EU’s — it is math. And the strength of the shekel is based on demand for the shekel. Should this continue it will go in the direction of the current Turkish lira. The era of inexpensive vacations by the middle class to the Greek islands will be over.
Add to that the growing revolt in the armed services — for example, all living former Air Force heads signed a letter urging the government to desist — and one can imagine the security atmosphere the day after, and the temptation to Israel’s enemies.
Electorates are just assemblages of people, and like people they make mistakes. Brexit was a terrible mistake and the same electorate now collectively knows it. As with Israel’s authoritarian overhaul, it should never have happened and the only positive outcome would be an eventual reversal.
Parliament votes are a more controllable situation. Each vote should be weighed with sacred caution and face national public scrutiny. Brexit would not have been adopted by the British parliament. The authoritarian overhaul should not be adopted by the Israeli Knesset. Perhaps a few legislators in the coalition — righteous persons in a veritable Sodom — will discover their decency in the nick of time, and block it.
The larger issue, which is universal, is disdain of expertise. There’s no question that experts and the subgroup “academics” can be an surly bunch — high-minded, given to annoying jargon and occasionally inclined to groupthink. But you ignore their consensus at your peril. Pilots are experts, and without them you can’t fly.
Have the people truly had enough of experts? Of facts? Of data? Magnificent. We shall see then how they enjoy poverty, dysfunction and chaos. For such are the fruits of willful ignorance and folly.