Free trade – whatever the cost?

Free trade and a hard Brexit are all but synonymous. There’s an obsessive quality about free traders, men on a mission, who feel their time has come: seize the moment, lest it slip away.

Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson recently helped launch the Institute of Free Trade, arguably duplicating the work of the long-established Institute of Economic Affairs. I’ve always had a sense of vast lacunae between argument and reality among free traders, and I turned to an article on the IEA website, by its chief economist, Julian Jessop, to check out whether this judgement was justified. For the full article see:  https://iea.org.uk/whos-afraid-of-free-trade/

Jessop expresses puzzlement as to why ‘the economics commentariat’ (i.e. most economists) had given a ‘sceptical, with some downright hostile’ response to two papers advocating a policy a free trade once the UK leaves the EU, by Professors Kevin Dowd and Patrick Minford.

It may be unfair to quote passages and not reproduce the whole article, but to my mind they do speak for themselves.

‘… it has been suggested that Prof Minford’s analysis shouldn’t be taken too seriously because his forecasts of the economic and market impacts of the vote itself were inaccurate. As it happens I don’t know what Prof Minford was forecasting in 2016. But nor, frankly, do I care….’

‘Professor Minford’s current and past work in this area has been challenged for using what some regard as a simplistic and out-dated model of world trade. But the ‘gravity models’ favoured by many of his critics also have their flaws. Even if Professor Minford’s numbers are only as good as his models (which is always the case) …’

The phrase, ‘the underlying principles are as sound as any’, is key: there is a millenarianist belief in free trade as a universal panacea, the UK’s adoption of which will open the eyes of the rest of the world, as Britain did once before, in the early 19th century. ‘Gravity models’ refers to the long-established and incontrovertible pattern of a much heavier weighting toward trade with one’s neighbours, than with more distant countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the correct interpretation here, these legal points do not weaken the more important economic argument that the UK would be better off lowering its own trade barriers regardless of how the rest of the EU responds.

Free trade it seems works because it works, regardless of circumstance. In what sense better off – who would be better off?

‘… of course, there would be some losers from free trade among consumers as well as producers …

‘….there would be some losers..’ The reality is that the disruption would be extraordinary.

Others have suggested that trade can never be fully ‘free’, because of non-tariff barriers. But this is tedious semantics. Even if unilateral free trade only results in freer trade, relative to the status quo, that would be an improvement.

‘…tedious semantics’? There’s an impatience here, a touch of the Gadarene swine.

What then about things that we do produce ourselves but where other countries have a genuine comparative advantage? Why should we subsidise domestic producers if consumers can buy better or cheaper products elsewhere?

A few suggestions as to why… Easily disrupted supply chains, sourcing expensively at long distance, security implications, quite apart from the disruption to urban and rural landscapes as industries close and new ones – we would hope – spring up elsewhere. But in the chaos, and the economic disruption, what certainty is there that new industries, competitive on the world stage, would rise up?

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Read the whole article: you may find you’re on his side, not mine.

Wishful thinking

…..and its consequences.

How do you deal with half-truth or dissimulation, with hyperbole – or simple wishful thinking? Or simply two versions of the truth – see my last post on the subject of identity. I might disagree with Roger Scruton, but I’d never doubt his integrity.

Government isn’t about certainties. Most government policies don’t deliver on their original intentions. But if based on clear principle and sound argument then we can accept them, for good or ill, as part of the political process. Not so wishful thinking, which can have malign consequences.

Workforce planning in the NHS  From the Department of Health, last December: ‘Brexit will be a catalyst to get [workforce] planning right.’ [Source: The New European] This in the context of a steep rise in the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK. And the answer, we’re told, is to train more of our own nurses.

Why Brexit should in any way be a catalyst for workplace planning in the NHS I can’t see. There is an ongoing need to train more nurses, Brexit or no Brexit. Desperation, as we find our health services understaffed, is hardly the way forward. And if anyone has seen cold, clear planning on the Brexit side over last few months, please let me know.

Trade deals and food standards  ‘Mr Gove has insisted that the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower deal” with the US.’  Retaining access to EU markets, vital for many farmers, ‘will require continued adherence to EU standards’. That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU. But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal, it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.’ [Source: Financial Times 25/26 November]

Remember the context: 70% of the UK’s food exports last year went to the EU. 80% of our food exports come from the EU.

Obama warned how difficult a trade deal with the USA could be. Maybe under Trump we wouldn’t be at the back of the queue – but only, as Wilbur Ross makes clear, only if we accept American standards, and abandon the EU standards we ourselves have done so much to nurture over forty years. The first lessons of negotiation are to be sure of your argument, and negotiate from a position on strength: neither would true of any post-Brexit US trade deal.

Remember also that this is the USA of Donald Trump, busily posting anti-Muslim videos produced by the British extreme right. More than ever, we need to stand our ground, and know who our friends are, friends who share our values.

A new generation  There’s a breed of establishment liberals, all avowedly Remain voters, who may see Brexit as an economic mistake, but ‘put the blame for the mistake on liberal leaders rather than the benighted masses’. Robert Peston is one such: I’m quoting here from The Economist’s review of his new book, simply entitled ‘WTF’.

This isn’t to say that ‘the self-renewing elite’ Peston refers to shouldn’t be in the dock. And I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether ‘establishment liberals’ are true liberals. My focus here is on wishful thinking, and I’ll let The Economist’s review of Peston’s book speak for itself:

And his conviction that ‘out of the current swamp a new generation of politicians with credible ideas will emerged primped and pristine on the shoreline of our ageing democracies’ looks delusional. There is little evidence that Britain’s elites are prepared to use Brexit as a spur to bright new policies. There is ample evidence, by contrast, that Brexit is being handled in the worst possible manner: dividing the country still further and distracting attention from what ails us.

That last sentence, and the last clause, ‘distracting attention’, is key. ‘Wishful thinking’ in everyday life may help keep us all afloat, but in politics the damage it can do is extreme.

 

 

Which side are you on?

Or, put another way, do you need – do we need – to be taking sides at all?

We muddle along in democracies, more or less getting along with each other, tolerant in the sense that we don’t enquire too deeply about each other’s opinions, and preferences and prejudices. We give each other space. Some of my best friends are Tories, or Marxists, Corbynites, or liberals, or whatever…. Then some event comes long which polarises, an event with an emotional charge which takes us by surprise. And if we hadn’t realised before, we know then which side we’re on. We don’t have Civil Wars, inspired by tribe or religion or ideology, or simply survival…. But we do have Brexit.

Brexit is about many things, but maybe the most fundamental is identity. An exchange of letters to The Times involving Roger Scruton and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill puts this neatly into focus. Scruton hopes that Brexit will restore a sense of patriotic identity ‘in a place of belonging which we can identify as our home, where the inhabitants can be trusted, and which is protected by a single sovereign power’.

What’s remarkable about this hinges on one word, ‘restore’. This assumes a loss of identity, and if that’s what in Scruton’s mind, then that’s where it is – in his mind. There’s been an extraordinary amount of press focused on a divide between the UK and Europe, and when it comes to refugees and foreign aid, between the UK and the world. But I don’t for a moment believe that at a deeper level, certainly on the Remain side, we have lost our sense of patriotism.

Scruton is well-known as a philosopher and specifically as a writer on conservatism, the person I’d turn to first for a deeper understanding of the conservative mind. I can connect even if I don’t agree. Hearing him speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival recently I found him affable, gently humorous and lucid in the spoken word in a way he isn’t always in the written. In other words, I want to be on his side.

But I, and countless others, millions I assume, need to explain to him, to insist, that patriotism doesn’t equate with insularity. We patriots are happy in our skin, in our own land, but we’re happy also sharing it with others, and their lands with us.

There is of course another phrase in in Scruton’s letter, quoted above: ‘[a sense of patriotic identity] … which is protected by a single sovereign power’. Maybe there’s the rub – how best to share sovereignty, widen our sovereignty if you will, in an ever more globalised world. But let’s not for a moment elide sovereignty and patriotism, which is what Scruton is doing. It takes us on to dangerous ground.

Wallace-Hadrill quotes a 5th century Roman Orosius, proud of his ability to travel: ‘Among Romans I am a Roman; among Christians a Christian; among humans, a human.’

He continues: ‘Like Orosius I feel proud of my country, but I also enjoy the fact that I can travel freely in Europe as a fellow citizen, and feel a European among Europeans.’

For Orosius the freedom he enjoy was soon to disappear, with barbarian invasion threatening. We will be also be losers, if we exclude ourselves from the EU, and this would be of our own making. The barbarians (and who might they be?) are within the walls.

Yanis Varoufakis: Adults in the Room

A review of Adults in the Room, My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, by Yanis Varoufakis, formerly Greek finance minister, which I’ve written for the blog, Brave New Europe – a blog by the way which I’d highly recommend.

Cross-posted from https://braveneweurope.com/

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How far should economists engage in day-to-day politics?

“Researchers have an obligation to society to take positions on questions on which they have acquired professional competence,” says French economist Jean Tirole[1]. But how does an academic do this when media are not, in Tirole’s words, his ‘natural habitat’?

Yanis Varoufakis, in his recent incarnation as visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin’s School of Public Affairs, took more than a position. He became a politician. He doesn’t share Tirole’s constraints: “…my resignation of 6 June 2015 [as Greek finance minister] was due precisely to my peculiar commitment not to sign any agreement I could not defend as an economist, politician, an intellectual and as a Greek.”

The step into politics was a big one. But Greece, after 2008, was, and remains, in crisis. No country has a more acute sense of its own sovereignty and identity, as the troika of the Eurogroup (of finance ministers), the European Central Bank and the IMF were reminded in January 2015, when Syriza, the radical left party, took power, and the Greek public once again took to demonstrating in Syntagma Square.

“Adults in the Room” (a phrase coined by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF) is Varoufakis’s highly personal account of his brief tenure as Greek finance minister: six months of negotiations between January and June 2015, during which time he initially had the backing of his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, for a radical stance which held out the threat of leaving the euro, and a full Grexit, if the EU and the IMF didn’t agree to renegotiate the debt.

Friends who discussed the book in a reading group were divided: some were exasperated by the repetition as negotiations inched forward. Others saw it as an epic tale. Varoufakis is a skilled storyteller who allows the events to speak for themselves.

Meeting Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup and finance minister of the Netherlands, on 30th January, Varoufakis told him that there were only three options available (he recorded meetings on his phone):

“One was a third bailout to cover up the failure of the second [in March 2012], whose purpose was to cover up the failure of the first [(May 2010]. Another was the new deal for Greece I was proposing: a new type of agreement between the EU, the IMF and Greece, based on debt restructuring, that diminished our reliance on new debt and replaced an ineffective reform agenda with one that the people of Greece could own. The third option was mutually disadvantageous impasse.

You do not understand, Jeroen told me, his voice dripping with condescension. ‘The current programme must be completed or there is nothing else.’”

There is also Thomas Wieser, Dijsselbloem’s deputy, to take into account. As president of the working group of officials behind the Eurogroup meetings he was, in Varoufakis’s words, ‘the most powerful man in Brussels’. Wieser circulated an unsigned ‘non-paper’ (a nice Orwellian touch) which made it clear that Greece should expect to receive no money owed to it by the European Central Bank, nor any loans agreed under the previous government… but it was still expected to meet its debt obligations in full. There might be an extension of the existing bailout agreement, a temporary appeasement, “but this would be conditional upon Greece taking a ‘cooperative approach’”.

The hidden agenda, the obstacle that ultimately overpowered all Varoufakis’s proposals, however clever, was that the French and German banks, which had invested so heavily in Greece, would always be given priority. Their governments had invested too much political capital to allow otherwise.

No bailouts, no haircuts, no debt renegotiation.

We’re down to the roots of the ‘deep establishment’, beyond prime ministers or presidents, finance ministers, EU commissioners, the Eurogroup of ministers (Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t even have a walk-on part), down to the level of a working group which, taking its lead from the two most powerful EU governments, sets the mood and calls the tune.

Varoufakis in his account of the 30th January meeting with Dijsselbloem uses the phrase, ‘an agenda which the Greek people must own’. Sovereignty is not an issue he addresses directly in ‘Adults in the Room’, but in his 2016 book, ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must’ he argues that the dismantling of sovereignty could ultimately lead to the dismantling of Europe. Varoufakis is a passionate European: his Democracy in Europe Movement, launched in autumn 2015, focuses on a much more open exercise of power within the EU.

But even the closed structures of the EU can be overridden. When Prime Minister Tsipras loses faith in the Brussels negotiating process he begins direct discussions with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and is quickly impressed ‘by her diligence and mastery of the Greek programme’. They should, she suggests, sideline their finance ministers Wolfgang Schäuble (a supporter of Grexit) and Varoufakis. Their discussions led in July 2015 to a third bailout agreement.

As for other participants in the skirmishes, Christine Lagarde is let off lightly on a personal level, with her integrity and goodwill just about intact. But not the IMF itself, which backed the third bailout against its own better judgment. Emmanuel Macron as French economy minister is peripheral to the negotiations, but always supportive of Varoufakis.

There are many who argue that Varoufakis’s confrontational approach made the ultimate settlement between the Syriza government and the EU worse. And, had debt renegotiation been taken seriously by the EU, another issue would have come to the fore: how far Varoufakis and the Syriza government would have voluntarily accepted privatisations, cuts in pensions, labour reforms etc.

Varoufakis not only had to contend with practised stone-wallers and the deep establishment, he also had to deal with a press that portrayed him as a dilettante. To quote The Economist (25 March 2015):

‘Mr Varoufakis’ lifestyle … is embarrassingly close to that of the rich Greeks he castigates for avoiding taxes by stashing cash abroad …he lectures his euro-zone colleagues and shows little interest in the detail of reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors…. as a fellow professor puts it: “Unlike his predecessors Yanis isn’t interested in managing the economy. What he really enjoys is brinkmanship.”’

Varoufakis had a conversation in 2012 with Larry Summers (former US Treasury Secretary), who argued that there were “two kinds of politicians, insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions.” And the insiders? – they “never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what the insiders say and do.” Varoufakis replied to Summers that he would behave “like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table.”

In the end Varoufakis never stood a chance. To be a fully accredited insider he would have had to accede to the insiders’ working methods and conclusions. The Syriza party were self-designated outsiders until their leader and prime minister brought them in. Tsipras to the surprise of many ultimately had the insider mentality. Varoufakis did not.

[1] Economics for the Common Good, Princeton UP, 2017

Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.

 

The British press – a view from the Netherlands

I’m not claiming what follows is original in anyway. I’m quoting extensively from an article in the November edition of Prospect by a Dutch writer and journalist, Joris Luyendjik.

He writes with real insight on Britain in Europe, or Britain out of it, but it’s his comments on the British press that strike home. It’s what many of us in the UK think, but too few dare to say. If we do, we invite confrontation, and too many of us are too nice and too polite, and the press ride roughshod.

He and his family came to live in London ‘as fellow Europeans, but when we left this summer to return to the Netherlands we felt more like foreigners: people tolerated as long as they behave. At best we were “European Union nationals” whose rights would be subject to negotiations—bargaining chips in the eyes of politicians.’

He quotes a working-class mother, the day after the referendum:

‘She had used the referendum to try to smash that expensive middle-class toy called the EU and it had worked. At last, for the first time in decades, those who felt like life’s losers openly defied the winners, and carried an election. Now her country would have £350m a week to spend on the number one worry for people like her: the NHS…’

He continues:

‘…that scene on the morning after the referendum encapsulates my disappointment with the country. Not only the division, but also the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about “foreign judges” and the need to “take back control” when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?

Before coming to Britain I had always thought that the tabloids were like a misanthropic counterpoint to Monty Python. Like many Europeans, I saw these newspapers as a kind of English folklore, laying it on thick in the way that theatrical British politicians conduct their debates in the House of Commons. Newspapers in the Netherlands would carry on their opinion pages articles by commentators such as Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash—giving the impression that such voices represented the mainstream in Britain. Watching QI before coming to the UK, I remember seeing Stephen Fry banter with Jeremy Clarkson and imagining the former was the rule, and the latter the exception. Living in London taught me that it is the other way around. George Orwell is still correct: England is a family with the wrong members in charge….

Until the tabloids are reformed and freed from editorial interference by their plutocratic owners, the rageful misunderstanding that I saw in the school playground will not go away. Tabloid readers will sometimes see through the bias on particular issues and against particular people, as many did when they voted for the demonised Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in June. But when it comes to Europe and the world beyond, the campaign of chauvinism has been so unremitting, over so many decades, that it is much harder to resist. And as things stand, the journalists at those publications could never come out and admit that they have misjudged Brexit—that would mean not only losing face, but very likely losing their job. Indeed, where is the investigative reporting about the exact quid pro quo when Rupert Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre come out in support of, say, Theresa May? Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

It’s worth repeating that last line:

‘Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.’

Luyendijk also brings our entrenched inequalities into his argument, our class system, along with our adversarial culture (true of many, but not of all), our superiority complex… You don’t have to agree with everything he says – though there’s substance to his arguments.

But on the British press, he’s spot on.

Have we had enough of experts?

Experts have taken a beating recently, in both the academic (focusing on peer review) and political spheres. Focusing on politics, the issue of trust has been brought to a head by the Brexit debate, and Michael Gove’s infamous comment that ‘people have had enough of experts’.

The economy, immigration, sovereignty are central to the Brexit debate. But informing all three is the issue of how expert knowledge is conveyed. Brexit is of course only one focus, though it has become obsessive. What of climate change, migration, overseas aid, crime and punishment? All central to the public discourse, all areas where views tend be to be personal and strongly held, and resistant to argument.

Wider issues relating to post-truth (wilful miscommunication), a malign press, and the use and abuse, and multiplicity of opinion, on the internet, are also relevant – but my focus here is on how expert knowledge,  and how political the subject has become.

I found an article in Prospect (August 2017) by Helen Jackson and Paul Ormerod helpful. (All quotes below are from the Prospect article.)

Last year, in the referendum debate, ‘many members of the public formed an impression, whether fairly or not, of experts attempting to settle an important and emotive matter over the heads.’  There’s a fault line between the ‘people’ and ‘those who think they know what’s good for them’.

Why has this divide developed? The independence enjoyed by central banks has been, Jackson and Ormerod argue, a contributing factor. Huge faith was vested in their predictions, until the crash came.  Likewise, the end of the Cold War led to a ‘a narrowing of disagreement’ in politics, the sense that we were managing the economy, rather than debating bigger issues.

I’d add austerity to the mix, which as a post-Crash remedy has had the status for many as holy writ, whatever the social cost, and one of the reasons for the Tory debacle last June was a widening of the anti-austerity base to include many Brexit supporters. Above all, in a Brexit context, we have immigration, where public sentiment is impervious to counter-argument.

On the left we have Corbynite populism, picking up on austerity, and swinging to a far extreme of public spending based on unrealisable funding projections. Critical commentary from economists is disdained. (There is of course a far left, neo-Marxist resurgence here as well, a coming-together of the Cold War-era faithful. But that’s another story.)

But, Jackson and Ormerod argue, the backlash against experts is still principally associated with the right. ‘The more educated, liberal-leaning section of society needs to understand why this is. It is not because, as is commonly assumed, the right is simply the political wing of the dark side.’

(‘The more educated, liberal leaning’ … these days even language like this can raise hackles – education can be held against you.)

The right argues that political choice, however well-motivated, is ultimately based on economic self-interest.  Noble theoretical aims – or simple good intentions – go awry in practice. Jackson and Ormerod cite ‘public choice theory’ as developed by Nobel-Prize-winner James Buchanan in this regard, arguing that ‘the Buchanan analysis can easily morph into the intransigent view that pursuing any collective goal will lead to empire-building bureaucrats, who also fall prey to “capture” by self-serving lobbyists’.

(So opposition to expertise morphs into opposition to the big state – and we have the phenomenon of the attempted post-Brexit takeover of the Tory party by the libertarian right. Also, the American right’s position on climate change and healthcare.)

Whatever their political persuasion, ‘expert elites’ (‘elites’ is also a contentious word these days!) are happiest operating at arms-length from the electorate. They see themselves too readily as a class apart.

To combat this, ‘evidence-based thinking …must (be) subject(ed) to more “sense-checking”, (we) must give thought to what a wider public would make of it’. This can be easier said than done when both public and the popular press demand easily-understood arguments and, wherever possible, certainties.

Paul Johnson (of the Institute of Fiscal Studies) touched on this point in his talk (‘Making Choices’) at the Cheltenham literary festival last night. The public don’t want a range of possibilities, they want a straightforward yes-no answer to a question, and that’s what our media interviewers and commentators try to cajole out of them. Nor are they allowed changes of mind, however justified or well-argued.

It’s a black-or-white world and experts hoping to contribute subtle or balanced argument to public debate can have a mighty task on their hands.