Trade, Development, and Immigration

A response to Christopher Cook

On Monday, the IEA launched a substantial discussion paper making a set of practical proposals (“Plan A+”) to break the current deadlock in the talks between the UK and the EU.

Consistent with our intellectual philosophy and educational purpose, it also made the case for shifting Brexit in a more free-market and outward-looking direction.

As might be expected, the report had a mixed response, mostly favourable but also plenty that was unfavourable. This is, of course, fine by us. Our staff willingly engage with all sides, including at public events and across the media, despite the abuse (and worse) that often follows.

The IEA is a small organisation run on a tight budget, mainly funded by individuals, trusts and foundations, without the resources of the civil service, government grants or big corporate lobby groups. We therefore especially welcome constructive debate and criticism, especially when this helps us to correct mistakes and improve our arguments.

But Monday also saw one intervention that was very unhelpful, not just to us, but also to the general public. The BBC published an article by Christopher Cook, Policy Editor at Newsnight, headlined “IEA Brexit report based on dubious maths”.

In my view, this crossed several lines. It is a misleading and personalised attack on the IEA and in particular on my colleague, Shanker Singham. It is also materially inaccurate.

I am not making these complaints lightly. We have delayed responding to the article in order to give Mr Cook the opportunity to take our comments on board. However, we have not been able to agree. In the meantime, the original article is still being widely circulated and retweeted uncritically. We are therefore now publishing a detailed line-by-line rebuttal of the points made, here.

In summary, the article is fatally flawed for three, separate, reasons. First, Mr Cook attempts to discredit the entire IEA paper (of 149 pages) by focusing on just one number in one paragraph. This number is a preliminary estimate of the long-term gains in GDP that might be achieved across a group of countries from a reduction in anti-competitive market distortions.

Despite the headline in the BBC article, no fair-minded observer could possibly conclude that the IEA report is ‘based on’ this one number, or the modelling behind it. Indeed, it forms part of a longer discussion of the difficulties of quantifying the economic impacts of Brexit. This whole section could be deleted without affecting the rest of the report.

Second, the BBC article completely misrepresents the work that has been done in arriving at this estimate, and the processes behind it. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that the modelling is the sole work of Shanker. In fact, it is part of an ongoing collaborative project with external academic economists (just as the Plan A+ report itself was discussed with and reviewed by an external panel of trade specialists).

Mr Cook is also simply incorrect to imply that the analysis is not based on conventional economic growth models or econometric techniques. He complains that we have not provided him with our complete model or dataset, which is true. But the work will be peer-reviewed for publication in an academic journal. In the meantime, it is unreasonable to expect us to respond to every request to share work that is still in progress.

Third, Mr Cook’s attempts to replicate our results go completely awry and actually backfire. He states that he has not been able to replicate the results of the IEA modelling.

This is wholly unsurprising, because he uses different methodologies and different data. Indeed, his own work is already unravelling.

In the first version of the article he stated that his replication of the IEA model could only account for 40% of the difference in GDP between countries, compared to the figure of more than 90% that we have reported. But his own figure here has since had to be “updated” to 80%, following the intervention of someone presumably more familiar with econometric modelling.

This huge change isn’t merely an “update” – it is a major correction, and one which actually reinforces the credibility of the IEA work. The fact that he was unable to replicate several other results, and comes up with bizarre ones of his own, again says more about his analysis than ours.

To be clear, Mr Cook deserves credit for sharing his calculations and for his willingness to contribute to the debate, which we would not want to discourage. It is also good to see him acknowledge the positive role that independent think tanks can play.

But attacks on the integrity and competence of IEA staff cannot go unchallenged. At the end of the day, it is his homework that needs to be done again, not ours.

Julian Jessop is an independent economist with over thirty years of experience gained in the public sector, City and consultancy, including senior positions at HM Treasury, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Capital Economics. He was Chief Economist and Head of the Brexit Unit at the IEA until December 2018 and continues to support our work, especially schools outreach, on a pro bono basis.

14 thoughts on “A response to Christopher Cook”

  1. Posted 27/09/2018 at 15:45 | Permalink

    I’m glad you’ve written about this, Julian. It was a peculiarly passionate attack from a BBC journalist. Even if his criticism of that one particular statistic had been well founded – and he now admits it wasn’t – it would have been trivial.

    Mr Cook clearly knows how to rouse the rabble on Twitter. This pattern plays out often. First, a contentious but relatively unimportant claim is identified in a piece of research that most people haven’t read and wouldn’t be able to evaluate themselves. Second, it is asserted that the claim is untrue. Third, is implied (and later asserted) that the conclusions of the research depended wholly on the contested claim. Fourth, people on social media who have never read a word of the research but who don’t like the conclusions assert that it has been debunked/demolished/destroyed.

  2. Posted 27/09/2018 at 17:07 | Permalink

    The grudging, faux-light-hearted and strange nature of the BBC’s attempt not to apologise for misleading the public is typical of what is now commonplace from the elite and establishment when it comes to their desperate attempt to smear anyone who is opposed to EU memebrship…look at the awful phrases the guy uses: “the good news for ShankarASingham”…”behold the joy of peer review”. It all sounds like outdated 1950s public school lawyerly dissembling and knockabout (“Good news for you old chap…I might have needed to update and tweak those figures a tiny tad”, fixed grin and desparate at all costs not to actually tell it as it is). But of course they can’t (or won’t) just tell the truth or give the facts…another reason why people trust the establuhment less and less. It’s supposed to be a media you trust. Really? If we think that ABC in Australia is having problems…

  3. Posted 27/09/2018 at 18:06 | Permalink

    The BBC is a leftist organisation to its core. Their neutrality clause is a totally pointless load of flimflam. Their dream is that Brexit is thwarted. Democracy means nothing to them. Paying their licence fee is akin to paying for your own lobotomy.

  4. Posted 27/09/2018 at 19:13 | Permalink

    This would be much stronger without:
    “it is unreasonable to expect us to respond to every request to share work that is still in progress.”
    That point may be correct, but to share work in progress with one person in no way implies ‘responding to every request’.
    I agree with the thrust of your general argument, especially with “no fair-minded observer could possibly conclude that the IEA report is ‘based on’ this one number, or the modelling behind it. ” However, the weakness of the ‘sharing’ argument really doesn’t help your overall position.

  5. Posted 27/09/2018 at 20:05 | Permalink

    Well said. I’m sure this rebuttal of yours will be used over and over on social media whenever the Biased Broadcasting Corporation report gets a mention.

    Shame they couldn’t be more credible and went for headline-grabbing innacuracies. If they’d got proper experts in in the first place you might have been replying in a more professional denate than the one they’ve begun.
    Well done and keep up the good work.

  6. Posted 27/09/2018 at 20:48 | Permalink

    So very refreshing to read such intellectual integrity; it reminds me of my postgraduate days at UCL so long ago. The BBC should collectively hang their heads in shame at their institutional bias; they are simply acting beyond their objective remit. I invariably feel sullied when I listen to the BBC; surely this is not apposite.

  7. Posted 27/09/2018 at 21:03 | Permalink

    What would you expect from the BBC. The disgrace of this publicly funded corporation is that it’s reputation for being the fair, unbiased and truthful standard for all news agencies around the globe is in complete and total tatters. The BBC was the pride of the British Ex Pat when travelling, people from all around the world always told us ‘we listen to the BBC because we know they tell the truth’ I am afraid that no longer applies, and the management should be brought to book and if they cannot operate an unbiased service no matter what (including government prompting) then they should make way for those who will. The public DESERVE the truth, they pay enough for it.

  8. Posted 28/09/2018 at 10:28 | Permalink

    Much needed in this debate is some sort of detailed engagement between the IEA (and its fellow travellers) and the likes of either Christopher Booker and Richard North. North has in particular provided detailed nd powerful criticisms of the stances taken by the IEA, ASI, Economists for Free Trade etc…, on Brexit. He has certainly shaken my initial faith in the IEA’s position.

    Is it not possible to arrange such a debate be it on a Youtube video? A joint written pamphlete with rights of reply contained therein would be a second best option.

  9. Posted 28/09/2018 at 16:09 | Permalink

    Your document starts with the phrase : “Membership of the European Union stifles prosperity just as it prevents the UK governing itself.” – this is quite an unfortunate start to your document as the UK enjoys the most op-outs to a wide range of EU initiatives, is not part of the currency union, or Schengen and maintains a wholly sovereign parliament. Furthermore, the UK has been the country with one of the best economic growth records in the OECD while being a member of the EU until the Brexit referendum was won by the leave campaign put an end to that record. What has definitely held back UK growth has been entirely self-inflicted such, to cite just three examples : 1) a stultifying planning system that has been widely condemned as holding back economic development and essential and badly needed investment in infrastructure, 2) high taxation, and 3) a welfare system that provides poor incentives for retraining and job seeking. None of these are the fault of the EU.

  10. Posted 28/09/2018 at 16:58 | Permalink

    Who are your “external academic economists”? Name them. Otherwise this will look like yet more of your penchant for unsubstantiated claims.

  11. Posted 28/09/2018 at 17:22 | Permalink

    Has mr Cook been equally active in critical analyses of the absurd claims of the long discredited Remainer case?

  12. Posted 28/09/2018 at 17:40 | Permalink

    Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll
    just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing.

    Do you have any recommendations for novice blog writers? I’d
    genuinely appreciate it.

  13. Posted 28/09/2018 at 17:41 | Permalink

    The BBC has removed the article. You’ll need to link to this page instead:

  14. Posted 13/01/2019 at 21:13 | Permalink

    Julian, will you be reposting the #PlanAPlus article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *