Saturday 1 October 2016

Who am I to question Officialdom and say Brexit will be good for us?

Published 15/06/2016 | 02:30

Left to right: Priti Patel, Boris Johnson, host Aasmah Mir, Liz Kendall and Alex Salmond taking part in a EU debate in London.
Photo: David Rose/The Daily Telegraph
Left to right: Priti Patel, Boris Johnson, host Aasmah Mir, Liz Kendall and Alex Salmond taking part in a EU debate in London. Photo: David Rose/The Daily Telegraph

Are you concerned at the lack of any real analysis in Official Ireland's position with regard to the upcoming EU referendum in Britain?

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Do you find it odd that in a plebiscite as tight as this, where the implications for politics, economics and society are so uncertain, that our Government and the main organs of the Irish State are so overwhelmingly backing one side?

Wouldn't it be far more sophisticated to assess what is in Ireland's interest and act accordingly?

Why has Official Ireland lined up so unambiguously on one side in a debate with two potential outcomes and uncertain ramifications?

Maybe the reason is that this is exactly how Ireland works. Ireland is a country that is enormously susceptible to 'group think'.

We saw this during the boom. At the very top in Ireland there was no questioning the official mantra of the 'soft landing' because the people at the top had created the mantra.

We are seeing something similar with the 'Brexit will be a catastrophe' mantra.

We are a small country, with a small number of people at the top politically, socially, in the business world, academia, the professions and the commentariat.

In small countries, people at the top tend to promote people who think like them.

After all, this is the prerogative of being powerful, it's kind of natural. So the top is not only bonded by social class - with access, power and money - but it is also cemented by a suite of ideas. Like all clubs, the suite of ideas becomes a sort of creed.

The creed, which is only a set of common notions shared by people who promote each other, soon morphs from being a set of ideas into something called conventional wisdom.

Therefore, far from being an open place where ideas are teased out and examined, the top of a society, or the professions, becomes an echo chamber of conformity.

Conventional wisdom is the great bully pulpit of conventional people. You will notice that powerful people, who believe in conventional wisdoms, like to be taken very seriously.

So in time, a conventional idea will come to be believed by a group who are termed by themselves and others as 'serious people'.

Serious people like to hang with other serious people and congregate around a few serious ideas.

The other implication is, of course, that those people who might question the conventional wisdom are not serious people.

They are cranks! They are not to be taken seriously. They are mavericks or - even worse for serious people - dismissed as 'self-promoters'!

Serious people never see themselves as promoters of anything as base as themselves (the group does that); and, anyway, the conventional wisdom is the self-evident truth and doesn't have to be promoted.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how propaganda begins; and this is how 'group think' becomes solidified in a small society.

Therefore, we get to a situation where a contentious statement like 'Britain leaving the EU will be bad for Ireland' stops being a 'contention' and miraculously becomes a 'truth'.

It is the same process that transformed the contention 'Ireland will have a soft landing' from being a highly questionable assertion to become the conventional wisdom of the society.

But back then, those who questioned this conventional wisdom weren't debated with but dismissed or ridiculed. The reason for dismissing those with unconventional counterviews is because deep in the soul of the 'serious' person is the fear of being wrong.

Because he has invested so much time in the conventional wisdom and all his friends believe it too, and the belief is a gelling agent which binds the group together, the conventional man risks ridicule if he is wrong.

Because if he is wrong, how can he be serious?

In truth we are all wrong all the time, because we are human. But being so human is not what being serious is all about.

Serious people think themselves to be infallible. This fear of being wrong is the reason so many serious people spout such nonsense on so many issues, even when events suggest they may be wrong. I suppose there must be comfort in numbers.

Indeed, the great economist JK Galbraith, when speaking about such serious conventional people, observed that: "When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for the proof."

This is where bad economics comes in because so much of economics is used to quench debate and opinion. Economics, with its pretense of certainty via numerical answers, can often stifle dissent because it purports to have the single right answer.

So models are used to prove that Brexit will be a disaster.

In the past few weeks, rarely can so much spurious economic argument have been deployed with such abandon and so much certainty.

In fact, rarely has so much 'opinion' been shoved into economic models in order to produce 'fact'.

Here in Ireland and all across Europe, 'Giga' econometric models have been cranked up to support, almost overwhelmingly, the Remain side. Can I remind you that the last time we had such uniform certainty from economic models was also during the 'soft landing' era. We all know what happened next.

These are Giga models: 'Garbage in, garbage out'.

A Giga model is marketed as being at the cutting edge of economic forecasting, bolstered by unimpeachable rigour and mathematical elegance. But in truth, these models are more often than not wrong.

The reason is simple: these models fail to forecast that one creature who is central to how the economy works - you, the human being.

But despite a lamentable record in the past forecasting the future growth path of the economy, they are being used confidently today to tell us what will happen tomorrow.

I've no idea what might happen economically if there's a Brexit. My hunch is that it might be good for Ireland.

What is clear is that Official Ireland, by backing one horse in a two-horse race, has taken the tyranny of conventional wisdom to its limits once again.

Irish Independent

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