Thursday, December 01, 2016

Schrödinger’s Brexit

There is a most amusing article in the "Buttonwood's Notebook" section of the Economist, which you can read in full on their website here. It is about economics and populism which draws on the parallels between Brexit and the "Schrödinger’s Cat" thought experiment.

Here are some extracts:

"SOMETIMES an analogy strikes you on the head with the force of a plummeting cricket ball. On Radio 4 yesterday, Hamish Johnson, editor of physicsworld.com, had the brilliant insight to explain the British government’s policy in terms of physics; Schrödinger’s Brexit.

The poor cat is stuck in a box with a radioactive substance and a poison; when the substance decays, the poison is released. Since it is impossible to predict when the substance will decay, the cat may be deemed simultaneously alive and dead. The only way to know is to open the box.

Before Britain voted to leave the European Union in June, then prime minister David Cameron promised to trigger Article 50 (the exit mechanism) immediately. Five months on, Article 50 has yet to be triggered. The new prime minister, Theresa May, has promised to do so by the end of March.
 
But in terms of what Britain wants, we have heard nothing but platitudes: “Brexit means Brexit”, or “have our cake and eat it”. Pushed for details, Ms May has said there will be “no running commentary” on negotiations. In fact, it is quite easy to do a running commentary. Since the other EU members won’t talk until Article 50 has been triggered, there have been no negotiations."
"Among the many important questions to be answered are whether Britain will stay in the single market, or the customs union, and whether there will be a transitional period after Britain leaves the EU during which it would retain existing access (in order to reduce the economic disruption). The rationale for this silence is that Britain does not want to “reveal its hand” before negotiating starts."

This doesn’t really make sense since it will have to reveal its hand when Article 50 is triggered and the negotiations will last two years; everyone in the EU will have plenty of time to react and counter Britain’s offer.

"Anyway, until such decisions are made, Britain is like the cat; simultaneously inside and outside the single market and customs union. This has the advantage for the government of allowing it to pretend that the “have cake and eat it” solution can occur; no trade-offs need to be made between sovereignty and economics. But were the government to open the box, to declare for one option over another, the full costs (political or economic) will be revealed. The longer the box can be kept closed, the better."

"The analogy can be used more broadly for Trumpian-style populists. Such politicians promote the idea that there are simple solutions to national problems that involve no trade-offs; if only existing leaders had been better negotiators, our country would have had a better deal. It is easy to spout this stuff from the sidelines; harder to achieve when actually in government."

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