Brexit: What is going on?

On the eve of the commons vote that Theresa May has now tried to defer, we gathered to work what is going on, what we want and what is happening next.

The panel included:

Christian Michel – Philosophy and Economics Meetup Organiser
Lucy Harris – Leavers of Britain
Catherine McBride – Senior Economist, IEA Trade and Competition Unit

In their opening statements the panellists gave their point of view. I started by asking Christian why “people” wanted to be part of the EU in the first place?

Christian does not know why “people” want to Remain, but knows why he wants to Remain. This is because he feels that the EU destroys respect for the concept of a state. There is no love for the EU in the same way that there is love for nation states. States that are remote and undemocratic lack moral authority and the end result, he says, will be that the EU exerts less authority than would be wielded nationally.

Catherine, was working in Australia as the EU developed from the EEC into the EU. For her, the institution was an “OPEC for developed nations”. In particular this is what it was presented as in Australia, making its evolution into a sovereign entity with broad and deep powers a bit of a surprise. Such was also the experience of people here, she felt. Catherine also feels that had the EU stuck to the 9 first countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, West Germany, Denmark, Ireland and the UK) it might have worked out better. However the UK in particular was the “oddball” and had different economic needs and alignments, tending to develop ahead of the EU nations thanks to US influence. This meant the UK was incompatible from the the beginning.

Lucy, laments the rapid “twitter feed” progression of events in the current climate. Lucy felt that what the country needed now was a new leader from the Leave side who would be able to be braver and more bold than Theresa May and deliver the result of the vote. This deal, she says, is not Brexit and not the will of the people because it leaves us in the Customs Union. She says the Brexit we need must include “no connection” with the ECJ, freedom of movement, the customs union or single market. The reasons for Brexit are not especially tied to immigration and is not a racist phenomenon.

The panel went on to discuss, in some depth, the nature of democracy and the attitude of the Remain camp toward Brexit voters, and the likely direction of events.


How to usher in a new golden age of science without spending a penny

Many years ago, the wise king Jafar of Serendip spared no expense in the education of his three sons. He called in the best tutors and scientists from around the world to prepare his sons to be rulers, but soon realized that books and teachers would not be enough. The sons would have to depart the kingdom on a journey of discovery in foreign lands to find knowledge and wisdom not contained in any book.

So begins the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, which through Horace Walpole gave rise to the term serendipity –  accidental but fortunate discoveries in science unrelated to the goal of the study. Although the meaning of the term in later years has shifted somewhat into implying a large degree of luck (perhaps a sign of envy from competitors), the process of incidental discovery is no mystery. In fact, it is inevitable that hard work and a deeper understanding of a complex system, along with new data and observations, opens new avenues and insights. There is no doubt that luck can be a major factor, as in the case of Alexander Fleming waking up one morning to find his agar plates contaminated by a mould which eradicated any nearby bacteria. That mould was later identified as penicillin, which brought on a revolution in medicine and finally swung the long battle between humans and bacteria into our favour. Similarly, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by leaving a photographic plate overnight in a box. In both cases, their hard work and diligence allowed them to capitalise fully on lucky circumstances which would have passed many of us by.

Sometimes, serendipitous discoveries result in billion dollar industries, as in the case of a marker protein used in almost every microbiological experiment since the 70s, which was a consequence of a modestly funded study of luminescent jellyfish. Once the principles of the molecule were understood, industry quickly enhanced the product with an efficiency only a market economy can provide.

There are also some commercial enterprises whose primary products are serendipitous. One very interesting example of this is the Fraunhofer Institute, as you may recognise as the inventors of the mp3 audio format. Their main source of income is to perform research on a bespoke level for external clients, and as a consequence, they have amassed a considerable range of patents in virtually every field they operate in.

Previously, I have argued that public funding of science is a waste, and that the human and financial resources would be better allocated elsewhere (i.e. not allocated at all), so wouldn’t that imply that scientific advances would be halted when funding dries out? Perhaps not at all, as long as the resources of other actors were freed up and invested into research. One way to achieve this is by removing costly and inefficient regulations on industry. The best example of the massive overheads of regulation is the cost of developing a new drug. On average, US pharma companies must be prepared to gamble $2 billion for each new drug development. As bad as that sounds, it is actually worse since the drug may still not be approved or commercially viable. Most of this cost is due to draconian FDA regulations, which in the true spirit of statism are intended to protect the populace, but whose effects are instead to deny them risky but potentially efficient drugs.

Let’s say that regulatory costs were cut, freeing up a billion dollars per drug. What would pharma do with these extra funds? Most likely, they will invest it back into research and development. Some of these funds would even open up a sector of businesses who specialize in a specific field but who operate similarly to the Fraunhofer Institute. If for instance a drug company needed genetic screening based on fruit flies, it would be more profitable for them to outsource the study to a business specializing in it than to set up an in-house facility. The diligent fruit fly business would perform the study, deliver the results, and also potentially develop products of their own based on serendipitous discoveries, elevating them to proper pharma companies in their own right. And it doesn’t end there – perhaps the fruit fly business needs support from another business focusing on yeast, and perhaps that work leads to further discoveries and so on ad infinitum.

The economic gains of opening up the market for bespoke research companies similar to the Fraunhofer is a strong enough argument in itself, but there are also other benefits that are harder to quantify. First, scientific support companies have to produce real and replicable results in order to maintain their good reputation and gain more clients. As I have argued previously, academia does not. Second, the incentive to pursue a scientific career would be based on market forces rather than political decisions. Fewer scientists would be trapped in dead end careers and held back by the altruism prevalent in academia. Third, it would derail predatory academic journals, fraudulent results and politicised science, shifting the currency of research from publications, grants and ideology to actual concrete results.

The three princes of Serendip walk among us every day. They represent the inquisitive and creative nature of humans, but they are stifled by regulations, politics and the altruism of academia. Let them roam fully free and unfettered, and we will usher in a new golden age of science unlike anything in history.



Sean Hooper speaks tonight 13 November at the Two Chairmen.

My Journey To Brexit

I voted to leave the European Union in 2016. But if you would have told me that just two years before I would have rolled over laughing at you. Until really quite recently I was a staunch defender of the EU- in fact, if you asked me in 2014, I would have told you that we should head full steam into a United States of Europe. So what changed?

The reason I am posting this article now is that, over the past few years, it seems like the debate about Brexit has gone nowhere. This weekend one hundred thousand people marched in London to demand a vote on the final Brexit deal. There is a serious discussion to be had about the public voting on such a crucial issue. But there should be little doubt in our minds that many of the people marching on Saturday had every intention of scuppering Brexit completely, by any means necessary. Having a final vote gives the hardcore remain camp a golden opportunity to do just that.

When people discuss leaving the EU they get bogged down in minor details and end up making ridiculous predictions about the future. If I listen to a row about the EU on the radio, it often feels like a competition to figure out who possesses the most accurate crystal ball. The reason I and many others like me voted Brexit is the sordid state of the European Union. More fundamentally, many people on both sides do not have a good understanding of what the EU is or how it works. For some Remainers, the EU is the pillar that holds up our economy, without it the whole framework of Britain beings to fall apart. This is a hopelessly misguided view. Yet, on the other hand, many Breixteers assume that life outside the EU will be a blessed, voyage to a prosperous garden of Eden. This is also wrong.

When Britain voted in 2016, it passed its verdict on the European Union. I believe that the reason why so many people voted to remain part of the EU is that they had an incorrect perception of what the EU is. Here I will detail why my view on the EU changed. In my pro-EU days, my positive perception of that amalgam of institutions was based on three crucial axioms that turned out not to be true:

  • The EU would help Europe deal with a crisis.
  • The EU keeps Britain prosperous
  • The EU is fair

These were the assumptions that kept me supporting the EU. But in the years leading up to the referendum, one by one these perceptions were revealed as nothing more than empty myths.

The first and probably most significant reason for my support of the EU was the perception that is would help small European countries deal with a crisis. Indeed, if you look at the placards and banners that were being gleefully thrust into the air this weekend you will see lots of references to ‘brotherhood’ and ‘togetherness’. There is a palpable sense amongst Remainers that the EU helps bring humanity together. Having spent my formative years watching Newsnight and reading copies of The Economist I assumed that the EU was great because it allowed otherwise small nations to club together and punch above their weight. But then the refugees came…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not in favour of stopping desperate people from seeking a new life in a stable and prosperous country. In fact, on paper, if you have a mass influx of refugees the EU is exactly the sort of organisation you would hope could address that issue. The EU should have acted as a bastion of hospitality that stood firm and addressed this challenge as brothers arm in arm with a shared love of humankind. So it was a big shock for me when this didn’t happen. Part of the logic of the EU is that it allows small European countries to club together to deal with big challenges but the EU crumbled under the pressure of this crisis. Far from being able to address the issue effectively, we saw some truly horrific scenes emerging from the frontiers of this supposedly ‘civilised’ institution.

Instead of showing a spirit of togetherness we saw children washing up dead on the shores of EU countries. We saw families charging through border towns with angry police platoons chasing them like cattle. We saw EU leaders close their borders rather than accommodate starving families. Hardly the progressive bastion of international love that many in the Remain camp associate with the EU. Furthermore, the handling of the refugee crisis has had devastating long-term consequences for Europe. By mismanaging the large-scale migration so spectacularly the EU has contributed to the rise of extremist far-right movements in almost every single EU member state. Three years on from the migrant crisis, the EU is no closer to solving this problem; just ask anybody in Sicily, Malta or Calais. In my view, the people that assume that the EU is a defender of Human Rights and an organisation that brings the world together are just wrong. Rather than acting in unison, the small countries of the EU were left on their own to deal with this enormous challenge. I understand their opinion because I used to hold it myself. But our opinions must change when new evidence proves us flat out wrong. 

The next myth that I held sacred about the EU was that it keeps Britain a prosperous country. I used to adhere to the platitudes that ‘without the EU Britain will not survive.’ The Remain argument is on it’s best footing here. It is undeniable that Britain does a lot of business with the EU and Brexit will incur some serious economic challenges for the UK, that much is undeniable. Since the Brexit vote, several big companies have signalled that they wish to move their businesses overseas to countries within the single market. I believe in free trade. Obviously losing access to the single market will be bad for Britain. But does Brexit spell doom for the British economy? The answer must be an unequivocal no.

40% of Britain’s external trade is with the EU, this is an impressive figure. Enough to convince me that Britain was much better off in the EU. But there are other important things to consider. Firstly, only around 6% or British businesses export anything (never mind the proportion that export to the EU). Furthermore, although, exports are important, they are not the linchpin of the British economy as some Remainers suggest. We are a much greater importing country than an exporting one, the value of our business to the EU is plain for all to see. Not being part of the single market is not ideal, but not fatal for Britain. It is a delusion to assume that the Germans, Dutch, French et al really don’t care about whether we are part of their trading block or not. But like many other Remainers, I fell for the argument that without the benevolent hand of Brussels our entire economy would grind to a halt.

One of the most pervasive myths about the EU is that it is in a strong economic position. One of the great unspoken aspects of the Brexit debate is the scale of the European debt crisis. This is a sword of Damocles looming over some of the most important countries in the EU. So far, by fiscal bullying and outright manipulation, the EU has avoided total collapse due to this issue. Yet, there is no doubt that is the EU is going to avoid total financial collapse it will have to undergo a process of economic integration that will rival the introduction of the single currency in terms of its scope. A key moment in my journey to voting for Brexit rather than Remain was the realisation that voting to stay in the EU was not a vote for the status quo. It is a barely hidden secret that those in the upper echelons of the EU see their organisation as a federalist project rather than an alliance of countries. During the Brexit debate, we were constantly being told that a vote for Remain was a vote for stability. But nothing could be further from the truth. Over the next decade, the EU will probably take further strides towards being a single political unit or begin the process of dissolving. Not by design of its member states but out of sheer necessity. My brother had a copy of Yanis Varofakis’ book And The Weak Suffer What They Must. I have a bad habit of picking up a book and reading the last page. In it, the influential Greek statesman argues, very forcefully that to survive the EU must integrate much further and much fatser and I have to say that I agree with him. It didn’t mean much to me at the time but that realisation had big consequences for my referendum during the EU referendum.

The final and last reason that persuaded me to change my vote from Remain to Brexit was the realisation that the EU is not a fair institution. If you read into the anti-Brexit march on Saturday one of the things that comes across is that the EU is seen as a bastion of democracy by some in the Remain camp. Indeed, back when I used to be a cheerleader for the EU one of my implicit assumptions was that it was a profoundly democratic body that was a vehicle for spreading enlightened views across the world. But like many of my other assumption about the EU, during the years leading up to the referendum, this view was proven completely false.

Fundamentally the way the EU works is as a club. Just because you are in the unions it does not mean that you will derive any benefit from being a member. To really benefit from being an EU member means that you need to ‘play the game.’ Countries like France and Italy are excellent at gaining benefits from the EU whilst minimising their commitments. Whereas Britain, Denmark, Sweden are much less good at playing the European game. Britain has never been good at ‘playing the EU game.’ The EU is not a fair institution, while some nations benefit greatly from being an EU member, others get pushed around strong-armed into accepting policies that are not in their best interests. Another important demonstration of how the EU uses its power to bully members was the Greek bailout referendum in 2015. Led by the left-wing Syriza party Greece was asked to accept a bailout package from the EU to help with its chronic debt problem. Yet, one the stipulations of the bailout would mean that Greece would have to implement harsh austerity measures, despite the fact that the Greeks had just elected a left-wing party to do the exact opposite of that.

The solution to Greece’s debt problem should have been rather simple. Devalue currency to increase exports, reduce public spending commitments and renegotiate debt repayment arrangements. But because it was an EU member state it was virtually prohibited from doing any of these things. The EU made quite a fuss over the Greek decision to vote oxi (no) and reject the EU’s bailout deal. This issue quite an eye-opening moment for me. The apparent democratic credentials of the EU I knew and loved were being stripped away. The EU leant very heavily on the Greeks to make the ‘right’ decision. And after the whole incident was over, and the Greeks indeed voted to reject the EU’s financial demands they were essentially imposed on Greece over the course of the next few years. The Greek bailout referendum was a watershed for me and my view of the European Union.

The final straw for my love of the EU was during the buildup to the referendum. We all remember David Cameron waxing lyrical about how he could get a deal with Angela Merkel and reform the EU. At this stage, I was on a knife-edge. If David Cameron could reach an agreement with the German chancellor and come to some kind of arrangement to give Britain greater autonomy within the EU then I would quite probably have voted to remain. AT least in the EU would have proven itself open to, and capable of making necessary reforms and adjustments when the circumstances called for it. But it wasn’t to be. The Prime Minister’s requests were met with a flat and definite no from the de facto head of the European Union. This was the last straw for me, all of the events that had caused me to change my once fervently pro-EU opinion began to make sense. Despite the fact that Britain has been a net contributor to Europe and one of it’s most valuable assets we were unable to get any concessions fro Europe. The EU is a fundamentally unfair institution.

Obviously, it is dead wrong of me to state that the EU is incapable of reform. It goes through transformations and changes all the time. Yet, these changes are always towards one direction- ever closer union. One of the strangest facets of the Brexit aftermath has been the way people interpret the EU’s leverage over the UK. It is an open secret that Michel Barnier cannot give too many concessions to the Brexit team because many of the EU’s member states will then want to leave the EU. It boggles my mind that people then think the EU is negotiating from a position of strength. This truly sounds like some sort of abusive relationship; ‘If I am nice to you then all my other friends will want to leave me.’ It is pure folly to suggest that a vote to Remain was a vote for stability, quite the opposite. If our recent past is anything to go by the EU is heading into uncharted territory where the lines between the EU and it’s member states are becoming more blurred. There was never really an option to vote for the status-quo. There were only ever two choices, to live out the fantasies of Jean Claude Junker, or to go our separate ways

In this article, I have outlined that I voted to leave the EU not because I am a racist or a moron, but because I looked at the current state of EU and drew my own conclusion from there. I don’t believe Breixt will lead to a new golden age, I never did. My choice was pragmatic. Like many people who voted Brexit, I simply observed what the EU was doing and decided that wanted no part in it. I sincerely wish that many in the Remain camp would do us the courtesy of acknowledging that rather than smearing us as jingoistic reprobates. But just like the dreams of a ‘two speed Europe’ that might be too much to ask.

Stating the Obvious About Knife Crime

There has been a recent resurgence in knife crime over the past year. According to the Office for National Statistics there were 32,000 knife crime offences in England and Wales in 2011 this had fallen to 25,000 by 2014. However, since 2014 the knife crime figures have risen alarmingly. In June 2017 the number of recorded knife crime offences was 37,000 and rising. This trend is obviously not good and it comes with a tragic human cost.  Over the past week there has been a spate of fatal stabbings in London.

There has been much public hyperbole about this rise in violent crime (over 50 deaths have attributed to violent crime in London this year). In fact, the Home Office has embarrassed the home secretary this morning by issuing a report laying the blame for this surge in violent crime in falling police numbers. Despite the fact that Amber Rudd said that the crime wave has absolutely nothing to do with police numbers in a radio interview only hours before.

But the figures here can be problematic for those who want easy solutions to this problem. Police numbers in the UK have been falling consistency. In 2010 the number of police officers stood at 140,000. This had been reduced to around 120,000 by 2017, a drop of  20,000. Yet these figures seem to show that there is little link between violent crime and police numbers. In 2014- the low water mark for knife crime, the number of police officers had already been reduced by 10,000.

Then we come to the infamous stop and search issue. According to the Metropolitan Police, there has been a drop in stop and searches since 2017 to 8,500 in February 2018. So far things are pretty clear. If you reduce stop and search then knife crime increases. But don’t jump to conclusions yet! The vast majority of stop and searches (6000) result in ‘No Further Action’ (NFA). In fact, the London boroughs that are the most targeted for stop and search have the largest number of NFA outcomes. If stop and search were effective then the boroughs that were the most targeted should not top the list of boroughs were NFA is the most common result of those searches. Clearly stop and search is not the solution to this problem.

As a libertarian, I naturally don’t want to see the government ploughing vast sums of money into the police force. However, I also hate the idea of our streets not being safe. Of course, overall numbers of police officers will make some difference to crime. But we all should know by now that it is not the whole story. Many of the suggestions of measures that could be taken to reduce the tragic events that have occurred over the past week make vague references to helping communities and access to services. There has been a lot of nonsense said but there are some important grains of truth.

There is a real danger here that the government in response to the pressure it is under decides to pass some ham-fisted legislation restricting access to knives that will have no real impact on the level of crime but make the lives of ordinary people much more difficult. Similarly, in response to media coverage police forces may stage a staged ‘crackdown’.

Tackling knife crime (and youth crime generally) can be reduced to two things; opportunities and education. The things that actually do seem to have an impact on knife crime is quality of education and economic prospects. In other words, a system that values these young people as individuals and takes their potential economic contributions seriously. Clearly blanket legislation or an injection of funding will not solve this problem.