Gove v. Portes. The big fight was held last night at the Royal College of Surgeons, before an audience confidently expecting blood to be spilled.
But would Michael Gove tear Jonathan “the Expert” Portes limb from limb? Or would Portes pulverise Michael “the Populist” Gove?
Some of us did not much mind how the fight ended, as long as we witnessed a gladiatorial combat worthy of ancient Rome. Nos morituri te salutamus were the opening words to which we were looking forward.
Instead of which we were palmed off with an accurate quotation of what Gove had actually said during the referendum campaign:
“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”
This was discouraging. The adversaries were going to be polite to each other. They were going to treat each other with the courtesy and scrupulous scholarship which make a bloodbath less likely.
Gove was generally reported, during the campaign, to have expressed the public’s fed-upness with experts. He was said to be urging the public to throw off the tyranny of the technocrats. The more expertise someone possessed, the more he wanted that person’s advice to be discounted.
But now we discovered it was just economists from organisations such as the OECD, the IMF, the CBI and the Bank of England’s MPC that he could not stand. They had all been getting their forecasts wrong.
And Portes agreed that economic forecasts are indeed generally wrong. He pointed out that this is a “niche” part of the economics profession, and its inevitable errors should not be taken to discredit the researches of everyone else.
Here was no basis for a proper fight. But Portes did his best. He said Gove was still quite happy to appeal to “authoritative” experts when these happened to agree with whatever Gove was saying.
Gove began in self-deprecatory style. He said that LBJ – President Lyndon Baines Johnson – had once observed that for a politician to give a speech about economics was like urinating down your own leg: “It may seem hot to you, but everyone else just thinks it’s embarrassing.”
He nevertheless wished to spend “a few seconds shooting fish in a barrel”, during which he pointed out how “consistently wrong” the OECD and the rest had been about the immediate economic consequences of Brexit.
He issued a number of eloquent warnings against the danger of “group think”, which can afflict experts as much as it afflicts anyone else.
And he pointed out that if one was going to regard the opinions of experts as definitive, one might as well give up on the idea of democracy. He instanced the introduction of the euro as an example of the “terrible mistakes” which are caused by the rule of technocrats.
When the time came for questions, we could not help observing that as far as Germany was concerned, this was grossly unfair. German experts warned repeatedly, in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and elsewhere, that from a technical point of view, the euro was bound to be a disaster.
So indeed did members of the German public. In the 1990s, one could go into any bar in Germany, and find someone who said it was ridiculous for the Germans and the Italians to share a currency.
It was the German political class, dragooned by the economically illiterate Helmut Kohl, which pushed the project through, in flagrant defiance of the Bundesbank and any number of learned professors, and also in flagrant defiance of the German people, who would have preferred to keep the German mark, that healthy symbol of post-war German recovery.
So we see that experts and ordinary people quite often agree with each other. But last night, the problem was that Portes and Gove quite often agreed with other.
At the end, Gove showed a flash of anger. He said that when he led the Brexit campaign, he was annoyed to find it was thought he “must be leading a revolt of numbskulls”, who were motivated by “unthinking atavism”.
Each vote, he declared, is an equal vote, whether you have a PhD or left school at 15. But once again, Portes would not rise to the bait, and refused to declare that actually the vote of an economist is worth ten of anyone else’s votes.
So a veil of good manners obscured whatever anger the two speakers felt with each other. This was a pity, for one sensed throughout the debate the essential incompatibility of their outlooks.