Chris Johns: Ignore Michael Gove, it’s time to become an expert

Recognising complexity of housing and Brexit problems is the only way to solve them

 Confound Michael Gove, arch enemy of experts, and the rest of the Brexit hardliners, by embracing complexity and acknowledging the uncertainties. Photograph:  Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Confound Michael Gove, arch enemy of experts, and the rest of the Brexit hardliners, by embracing complexity and acknowledging the uncertainties. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

It was a nice ego tickle to achieve top 10 status (twice) in The Irish Times “most read” business articles of 2017. Both pieces were about Brexit, a topic of obvious fascination to most people living in these islands.

Brexit is a gift that keeps on giving to commentators: I used to envy tabloid writers who could get their readership figures into the stratosphere by writing about either sex or soccer, preferably both at the same time. Business columnists have discovered, somewhat late in their career in my case, the joys of reaching a mass (sort of) audience without having to try too hard.

Many of us now profess to be bored to death by Brexit but are still drawn to its horrors in the way that car crashes attract far too many onlookers. We are all rubberneckers now. The challenge of dealing with the complexities of Britain’s exit from the EU will no doubt occupy this and many other writers for years to come, ennui notwithstanding.

Complexity and an 800-word column often make for an unhappy partnership. Facebook and Twitter have been fingered as significant factors in the rise of US president Donald Trump and Brexit for the ways in which they provide an echo chamber for like-minded people to reinforce their prejudices and remove all contact with anything that might challenge those biases. That is undoubtedly true but the other, less explored, insidious aspect of the tweet is the way in which it convinces us that complex problems are easy to understand and trivial to sort out.

Moreover, scrolling through a typical Twitter timeline would leave a proverbial visitor from Mars impressed by how certain we all are about pretty much everything.

Another popular column I wrote a while back was about the dangers of social media. It attracted almost universal condemnation, especially from the digital editors of certain national newspapers.

The undoubted benefits of instant dissemination of useful stuff provides only a partial counterweight to the dark side of the web. Forgive the self-congratulation, but I feel somewhat vindicated. Growing awareness of cyberbullying, especially among children, the interfering with elections and referendums, the alacrity with which so many people indulge in the vilest of abuse and the contribution to the polarisation of our societies – all are now sadly well documented.

The almost total evisceration of our ability to deal with – or simply acknowledge – complexity deserves to be added to that sorry list.

Complicated

Two of the biggest issues facing Ireland right now are Brexit and housing. Both are far more complicated than is often acknowledged. I was reminded of this during a recent conversation with some Remain-voting acquaintances in London (I too cannot bring myself to socialise with anyone outside my own echo chamber). Two views about key drivers of Brexit were discussed. First, the pressures on the NHS: these are obvious to anyone who uses that service as are, apparently, their causes.

It is widely believed that increases in population, mostly caused by immigration, are straining the resources of the health service to breaking point. This is partly true. But only partly true.

All of the available evidence says that immigrants to the UK pay far more in taxes than they consume in public spending. So the resources to allow the NHS to cater for more people are there. But austerity fiscal politics meant that an explicit choice was made, by successive governments, not to allocate the necessary cash to hospitals and GPs.

It is almost impossible to convince anyone of this, even anti-Brexiteers.

Almost as difficult is trying to counter the widely held belief that immigrants depress wages. The evidence for this is virtually non-existent. Try discussing that in a tweet.

Property prices and housing shortages are common across many cities and countries. Blame and simple solutions are the stuff of most conversations about all of this. It really is complicated. Some aspects are common to different cities: the presence of large numbers of well-paid tech company workers in Dublin and San Francisco is an obvious similarity. But a culture and planning system that still despises high-rise apartment buildings is pretty unique to ourselves. The desire to look out of a large window and complain about how it is “too wet to mow the lawn” runs deep.

My own guess is that unless we acknowledge the deeply complex roots of the housing crisis we will only stumble on a solution by chance.

Brexit will probably have profound and long-lasting consequences for this State. The uncertainties are pervasive. It will help if we make the effort to understand the nature of the enemy (I use the word deliberately): it may come as a shock, but it’s important to realise that Brexiteers really don’t see much of a problem, at least for them, if the Border is reinstated on this island.

Take the time to read what Michael Gove, arch enemy of experts, has said about the Belfast Agreement (it isn’t pretty). In a sense, confound him, and the rest of the Brexit hardliners, by becoming an expert, embracing complexity and acknowledging the uncertainties.

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