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'This Is Going To Be Bad': Economist Reacts To Brexit Vote


As the weeks go on, there are going to be a lot of thoughts about why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and thoughts about what comes next. Before the vote, both sides made promises and predictions, and economics writer Tim Harford fact-checked them all for the BBC keeping his own views to himself. Now that the vote is over, NPR's Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money team asked Harford what he really thought.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The morning the results came in Harford was in Paris.

TIM HARFORD: That's how we roll in the European Union - or at least that is how we used to roll until the referendum result.

GOLDSTEIN: He was rushing to catch a train back to the U.K. and trying to figure out what to make of things.

And how did you feel?

HARFORD: How did I feel as an economist or how did I feel as a human being?

GOLDSTEIN: As a human being.

HARFORD: As a human being? Actually, you want to know the truth? As the taxi driver dropped me off he said, monsieur, you will always be welcome back in France. I wanted to cry. I really did. It was just that moment of what can you do? What can you do?

GOLDSTEIN: How did you feel as an economist?

HARFORD: Oh, [expletive]. This is going to be bad.

GOLDSTEIN: Harford said he started getting worried well before the vote.

HARFORD: I was struck by how little people seemed to be interested in facts.

GOLDSTEIN: For example, he said, the Leave campaign kept citing these huge figures for how much money the U.K. sends to the EU. If we leave, they promised, we can spend that money on health care instead.

HARFORD: Every independent expert said that's just not true. And it didn't matter.

British politicians used to be good at misleading people without actually lying, and that particular discipline appears to have been abandoned in this campaign.

GOLDSTEIN: Did you fact-check the Remain campaign as well?

HARFORD: Oh, of course. And the Remain campaign were big on taking economic forecasts that looked gloomy and presenting the forecasts as absolute fact.

GOLDSTEIN: Now that the results are in, Harford says, it's at least theoretically possible that the leaders of the U.K. and the EU might sit down and work out a deal that does not radically change the status quo. It could be something similar to the deal Norway has.

HARFORD: Norway has a relationship with the EU which is very close. It has to accept most EU rules. It has to pay EU membership fees. It has free movement of people just like other EU countries, but it's not actually in the EU. I don't think that's going to happen, but that's the case that this is no big deal.

GOLDSTEIN: Harford clearly thinks this is a big deal for a couple key reasons.

HARFORD: We now have political chaos. We've got parties in Ireland saying they want to merge with Northern Ireland. You've got parties in Scotland saying you want to leave the U.K. You've got the Spanish government saying it would like to take ownership of Gibraltar which is a British overseas territory. So that - just the politics of this is a mess.

GOLDSTEIN: And then of course there's the economics. Harford says it's not just the market turmoil we've been seeing for the past few days. There are long term consequences as well.

HARFORD: A lot of international companies invest in the U.K. as a base for doing business with the rest of the European Union. Say a Japanese car company wants to build their factory to make cars. Historically the U.K. would've been a great place to do that - good infrastructure, political stability - ha - and access to the European market. And now it's not clear that they are going to have access to the European market. So most economists think we're likely to be poorer in the long run.

GOLDSTEIN: I asked Harford about the do-over referendum some people have been calling for. He says that is not likely. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
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