Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid.

Expert advice on the perils of leaving the EU cast aside

Economists feel they sufficiently voiced their concerns about the risks of the U.K. leaving the European Union. People just didn't want to listen.

According to recent survey by the U.K.-based Centre for Macroeconomics, economists say voters’ ignored their warnings largely because they prioritized non-economic reasons, as well as a general mistrust of the profession. A majority also said they felt voters didn't believe the economic arguments against Brexit.

“The public’s lack of trust in economists is really problematic,” Wouter den Haan, co-director at the CFM, said in a telephone interview from London. “Some colleagues say it would have been better to keep our mouths shut. Economists are seen as allies of people in the City, and voters could have thought, ‘If these guys think it’s bad, it must be good.”’

The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union has prompted much soul-searching among economists over why voters chose to go against their advice and dismissed their warnings, according to the CFM. With economists not taking responsibility for poor communication, Den Haan says the main issue is public mistrust. Their stature may not have been helped during the buildup to the vote, with Conservative lawmaker and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove at one point saying Britons had “enough of experts.” 

In the survey, several respondents pointed to the fact that voters might perceive economists as belonging to another class that benefits from different circumstances than the rest of society.

This gap with the public, Den Haan says, could probably not have been fixed in time for the referendum. One reason lies in the strong bias the profession has for abstract, mathematical research in order to reach top journals, with respondents saying the profession failed to communicate basic economic concepts. 

“In economics we’ve got the balance wrong,” Den Haan said. “It doesn’t happen so often that us economists are so united on an idea, but that seemed to have no effect, or perhaps even a negative effect. We really need to work on building trust and doing things that the public cares about.”