Economists take a lot of stick for their inability to foresee crises and recessions. But I wonder: wouldn’t it be fairer to chastise politicians for their lack of foresight?
Two current events make me ask.
One is the scandal about Windrushers being deported. This injustice was not just foreseeable but foreseen. Ministers were warned of it two years ago. It should be no surprise that a “hostile environment” and crude targets would hit law-abiding British citizens. As I said in 2016:
Just as “anti-terror” laws have been used to harass journalists and peaceful protestors, so immigration controls will hurt decent people. And for the same reason - because they are the softest targets.
And yet in both cases, some ministers and commentators seem surprised. They remind me of the hotel guest who complained of the poor view to whom Basil Fawlty replied:
May I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom? Sydney Opera House perhaps, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically?
In this context we should ask: what can people reasonably be expected to foresee and what not?
It might be that recessions are inherently unforecastable because they are emergent phenomena which arise from micro-level shocks which are sometimes amplified by network effects. Similarly crises result from falls in asset values. But the same “often negligible” (Keynes’ words) knowledge of the future that causes asset values to be precarious also stops us from predicting such falls.
Maybe, therefore, crises and recessions are not reliably forecastable.
But the political events I’m considering are not like these. Everybody should know that targets can be misused. And anybody who had thought about knew that a hard Brexit meant a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This is not of course to say that all political problems are foreseeable and all economic ones not. All I’m asking is for us to consider in which contexts it is possible to have foresight and in which it isn’t. Only by answering this can people be properly held to account for not foreseeing events. Only if you have a theory of what is knowable and what isn’t can you fairly blame people for not knowing something.