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The issue is the issue

Summary:
The NYT has an interesting article showing how Brexit has split British society right down the middle, as people lose their best friends and stop speaking to family members: “It’s definitely visceral, it’s definitely nasty, and there are certainly people who won’t accept the core of the other person’s position,” added Mr. Fraser, who thinks that his support for Brexit in London, which generally voted the other way, cost him friends. At one level this is kind of surprising, as Brexit is not a very important issue in substantive terms. I believe it will lower Britain’s RGDP a couple percent and Brexit supports think it will raise GDP by a few percent. But lots of other issues also impact the economy without stirring this sort of passion. Yes, Brexit might affect

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The NYT has an interesting article showing how Brexit has split British society right down the middle, as people lose their best friends and stop speaking to family members:

“It’s definitely visceral, it’s definitely nasty, and there are certainly people who won’t accept the core of the other person’s position,” added Mr. Fraser, who thinks that his support for Brexit in London, which generally voted the other way, cost him friends.

At one level this is kind of surprising, as Brexit is not a very important issue in substantive terms. I believe it will lower Britain’s RGDP a couple percent and Brexit supports think it will raise GDP by a few percent. But lots of other issues also impact the economy without stirring this sort of passion. Yes, Brexit might affect immigration, but I doubt it. The UK already has the ability to control immigration from non-EU countries and nonetheless decided on a high immigration policy. The next government will likely be Labour, and they certainly won’t sharply restrict immigration.

As far as cultural change, the only immigrants affected are from other EU countries, whereas it is immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean that have the bigger impact on British culture.

While I opposed Brexit, it’s just not that important. For God’s sake, even Norway and Switzerland are not EU members!

Just as it’s a mistake to look for American explanations for Trumpism, it’s a mistake to look for British explanations of the Brexit civil war. The NYT story would apply just as well to the governorship of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, which split apart the good people of that formerly “nice” state. A few months ago I did a post on Poland, which noted a similar phenomenon. There are dozens of other examples.

Earlier in American history, the issues were far more important but people did not take them so personally. You might object that Vietnam and civil rights tore the country apart during the 1960s. Not really. At a certain level, the political right knew that the left were the good guys (albeit a bit too idealistic). The right might not have wanted blacks moving into their neighborhood and they might not have wanted a defeat in Vietnam, but they understood that protestors had a point. Everyone knew that blacks had been treated shamefully and the Vietnam War was a misguided adventure. Lots of Republicans participated in forcing Nixon from office. Things were nowhere near as polarized as today. (The old TV show “All in the Family” accurately captured the mood.)

Unlike in the 1960s, the right is no longer ashamed of its views, and is willing to state them publicly. They are in a mood to fight back against the smug condescension of elite liberal opinion. After the Vietnam War, things quickly got back to normal in America. Today’s splits (which are occurring in countries all over the world) will take much longer to heal. Social media has helped to create two tribes.

When I used to be a professor, there was a joke about faculty senate debates being so vicious because they involved such trivial issues. In the modern world, the political debates aren’t about consequential issues like workers’ rights, civil rights, war and peace, etc. No one seriously expects Trump to do anything about illegal immigration, trade deficits, etc. Today’s debates are about symbolic issues. It’s as if half the population decided to pick a fight with the other half, just as an aggrieved spouse that had built up years of resentment suddenly lashed out at their partner over some trivial issue—forgetting to do the dishes.

While Brexit itself has only a trivial effect on the UK in utilitarian terms, the Brexit debate might be the biggest blow to the UK’s aggregate utility since WWII. It is reducing happiness on both sides.

The real issue is the issue itself, not what the issue is about.

PS. Here’s something else that’s lurking the background. For the first time in human history, most voters are older (above 50 in the case of Brexit). And they are increasingly getting their way, all over the world, to the dismay of the young.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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