Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months you’ll be very well aware that there’s an upcoming UK referendum to decide whether we, as a country, should leave the European Union. While your ballot paper will present a simple yes/no question, it’s a far from simple decision, particularly when you consider the wealth of ‘information’ currently being thrown around by the UK media, politicians and, well, everyone on twitter.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a lecture urging you to vote a certain way (but I am a strong advocate for actually going and voting on June 23rd); rather, I intend to offer some comment on the endless debate surrounding the issue.
I come at this from the viewpoint of an economist … kinda. I have both an undergrad and postgrad degree in economics and largely specialised in econometrics, which is a snazzy name for using statistics to test economic models on real world data; but I don’t work in the field.
While my economic knowledge may be starting to rust, I know enough to know that we will never know whether it’s better to stay in, or leave, the EU.
I take strong issue with the UK media, and some politicians, throwing the numerical results of economic modelling around like facts. Headline figures (relating to forecasts of growth, unemployment, prices and the like) are highly sensitive to future policy assumptions. How can we take the results of these models as facts, or ‘near facts’ or even a ‘good estimate’, when there is no consensus on how leaving the EU would affect an overwhelmingly large amount of policy?
The results of economic modelling always depend on an IF statement. Unemployment will rise IF ‘all these other things remain the same’, IF ‘this policy holds true’, IF ‘we’ve not forgotten to include something that would drastically affect the result’. Which is why so many opposing calculations, from both sides of the campaign, have surfaced in the media. Although it’s more than likely that none are a truly accurate representation of potential future reality, it doesn’t mean they’re ‘wrong’. Their legitimacy depends on assumptions, assumptions that can be manipulated to create a result that favours the creator’s original point of view. Surely that makes it dangerous to base your vote on the outcome of any single piece of analysis?
Even if you trust figures from reputable institutions, a single model usually only quantifies one aspect of the Brexit problem. Leaving the EU is a very, very, complicated issue that will affect every aspect of the economy in multiple ways. Unless every model uses the same policy assumptions, you cannot consider the results of different models compatible with each other; meaning they can’t be used to come up with an overall conclusion as to whether leaving the EU is better than staying.
How Will I Decide?
I personally don’t think this decision can be made on the basis of numerical analysis (and it pains me to say that because I really, really, love statistics). I’ve based my decision on a wider, long term, viewpoint relating to non-quantifiable factors such as the UK’s position in the world, our bargaining position within the EU and the politics of the whole thing. I also think it’s important to consider that this referendum is unlikely to be repeated, which could make short term sacrifices more justifiable. I won’t go into the ins and outs of my reasoning, it’s a large can of tangled worms definitely best kept for another post or my own head; but I’ve decided how I’ll vote and I hope by June 23rd you will have too!