Did Jonathan Portes Cause Brexit?
I should like to show that Jonathan Portes most probably did not cause Brexit. To do so, however, I first must examine the plausibility of the case that his actions and words did indeed provoke a decisive margin for the Leave vote in the EU referendum last June.
Portes is Principal Research Fellow, formerly Director, at the National Institute for Social and Economic Research in London. From 2002 to 2008, he was chief economist at the U.K. Department of Works and Pensions and, following that, chief economist at the Cabinet Office. David Goodhart has described Portes as “one of the architects of Labour’s immigration policy” during that period. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, frequently on migration issues.
In a 2012 blog post, Portes fondly reminisced that explaining the lump-of-labour fallacy “to six successive Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions, usually in the context of immigration… was probably the most useful thing I did, from a public policy perspective, in my six years as Chief Economist at Department for Work and Pensions.” The lump-of-labour fallacy is the spurious claim that supporters of some policy or other are motivated by a false belief that there is only ever a “certain amount” of work to be done.
The alleged belief is indeed false, as is the claim that support for the policy in question is motivated by it. The bogus fallacy claim was a staple of 19th century anti-trades union propaganda. Portes thus prided himself on his acumen in persuading Labour cabinet secretaries “to go out and defend policies that were consistent with” an archaic, reactionary view of the labour market.
That is not to say that the policies defended by cabinet secretaries coached by Portes were reactionary. The phrase “were consistent with” is notoriously ambiguous. Wearing an amulet is “consistent with” being a Satanist. It is also consistent with not being a Satanist. One must always be wary of “affirming the consequent.”
|Not wearing an amulet is consistent
with Portes not being a Satanist.
In response to Portes’s 2012 blog post, the Sandwichman wrote an open letter to him to point out some of the key historical context of the fallacy claim. Portes was kind enough to reply and to grant permission to publish his reply. It didn’t seem to me, though, that he adequately addressed the points I had raised about the validity of the fallacy claim.
A year after our exchange, Portes wrote a review in the London Review of Books in which he called David Goodhart’s The British Dream “an exercise in scapegoating.” Once again he hauled out his cherished lump-of-labour fallacy to dismiss a contention by Goodhart that “a disproportionate number of new jobs seem to have been going to recent immigrants”:
But this is an expression of the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy he elsewhere dismisses. The belief that if immigrants get ‘more’ of something (jobs, education, opportunities, political power), natives (or whites) must get less. This guides his discussion of the local economic impact of immigration in Merton, South-West London… It isn’t entirely obvious from Goodhart’s description of Merton why immigration is responsible for this. Do the immigrants displace natives from jobs, schools and polling booths, or do they somehow drag them down?
In his reply to Portes’s review, Goodhart rightly pointed out that the unreality of the lump-of-labour is no guarantee that there is no displacement:
Of course there is no fixed lump of labour, many newcomers fill jobs that are complementary to existing workers and some of those jobs would not have been created at all if the outsiders had not turned up. And, of course Jonathan is right, even with no immigration the hard to employ in almost completely indigenous former industrial areas like Barnsley would remain hard to employ.
But it is surely dogmatism to argue, as Jonathan appears to, that the “lump of labour fallacy” means there is no displacement or discouragement of resident British workers as a result of immigration: what one might call the opposite “no displacement fallacy.” As the top economists at the government’s Migration Advisory Committee agree, there is clearly some trade off between immigration and opportunities for domestic labour especially in a weak labour market with competition from often better motivated foreigners with lower wage expectations, which raises issues about the country’s social contract with its poorer citizens.
Alas, in his responses to Goodhart’s reply, Portes simply ignored this rebuttal to his fallacy claim. Apparently, Goodhart’s refutation left no deeper impression on Portes than had Sandwichman’s.
Last month, I emailed Portes regarding my blog post, “Can John Cochrane and Jennifer Rubin handle the truth about the lump-of-labor fallacy?” in which I stated, “In my research of 236 years of the fallacy claim, I have come across very few examples of claimants offering any evidence whatsoever for the existence of the belief.” I received an adorably sarcastic reply from Portes to my observation about the conspicuous lack of evidence for the fallacy claim:
You’re completely right of course. It’s almost impossible to find any examples at all of anyone of any significance ever even hinting, for example, that by taking jobs immigrants might reduce the number of job opportunities for natives and that this might just possibly be a reason for opposing immigration (that is, using the lump of labour fallacy in a political context).
Indeed, it took me many long seconds of tortuous research (google) to find somebody saying this:
“Now I know there are some people who say, yes there are costs of immigration, but the answer is to manage the consequences, not reduce the numbers. But not all of the consequences can be managed.. there are thousands of people who have been forced out of the labour market, still unable to find a job.” — The Independent
And even then I have to admit that the person who said this is not very prominent or important, so she can probably be ignored, and doesn’t count as a counterexample to your point. Whatever happened to Theresa May anyway?
Remember what I wrote above about “affirming the consequent” and X being “consistent with” Y? Theresa May’s comment may indeed be “consistent with” a false belief in a lump-of-labour but it is not persuasive evidence that she actually has such a belief. No doubt Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng was thinking of someone a lot like Portes when he observed, shortly after the Brexit vote:
A lot of clever people talk about the “lump of labor fallacy” and all the rest of it, but there are lots of different economic theories involved. But the perception was what drove the politics, not the economic theory. In large parts of rural England—a town like Boston, which your own town of Boston is named after—the perception was that things were changing, life wasn’t getting better for quote-unquote indigenous people, and they voted against that.
Fancy that! People valuing their perception more than they do clever people’s talk about a whimsical belief in a fixed amount of work. Admittedly, those perceptions may have been wrong. But whether right or wrong, there is no still no evidence the perceptions were “guided by” a ridiculous false belief in a fixed amount of work to be done. The latter explanation is a non sequitur.
Now, having reviewed some of the relevant context, on to the important question of whether Portes caused Brexit.
The victory margin for Leave was 1,269,501 votes, meaning that a 634,751 “flip” from Leave to Remain would have resulted in a victory for the Remain side. It would be fallacious, however, to assume a fixed number of voters. If 600,000 of those Leave voters had stayed home on referendum day and 700,000 more potential Remain voters had actually gone out and voted, then Remain would also have won. With a voter turnout of around 72%, the number of non-voters outnumbered the final margin by approximately an order of magnitude. Suffice it to say that the outcome could have been different regardless of whether or not any given number of Leave voters “flipped” to Remain.
Regardless of what specific churning might have been required to change the outcome of the referendum, it is highly unlikely that Jonathan Portes’s dogmatic parroting of the lump-of-labour fallacy claim moved hundreds of thousands of voters one way or another. There are probably no more than tens of thousands who even know who Portes is or read his columns in the Guardian. Only a small percentage of that would have grasped exactly what he was talking about and only a tiny handful would have been so seduced by his eloquence or so offended by his arrogance for it to have altered their vote.
Similar reasoning applies to the matter of Portes being, supposedly,”one of the architects of Labour’s immigration policy.” If Portes hadn’t taken that job somebody else would have. Unlike the broader job market, there presumably is a limited quantity of Labour immigration policy architect jobs to go round.
I am pleased to conclude, therefore, that there is no more evidence that Jonathan Portes caused Brexit than there is for the claim of a widespread belief in a fixed amount of work to be done. And there is absolutely no evidence for that latter assertion.*
*Not only is there no evidence, there is substantial evidence of no evidence. Such evidence can never be conclusive but I would submit it is persuasive. I have compiled a database of more than 500 assertions of the lump-of-labour fallacy claim spanning the 120 years from 1890 to 2010. Not a single instance cites an overt statement of the false belief by a supposed believer. Furthermore, I found only six allegations that even named an alleged culprit and each of those turned out to be unflattering inferences by the accuser rather then direct utterances by the accused.
Meanwhile, I stumbled across an 1890 survey of over 600 labor unions conducted by the New York State Department of Labor Statistics. The unions were asked whether and why they supported legislation for an eight-hour day. There was again no direct statement of the false belief. A small number of the unions said that a shorter day would employ more workers given “the same amount of work” but that “same amount” clearly indicated a qualifying conditional and not a “belief” about the amount of work being inherently static.
I discuss this evidence, and more, in finer detail in a post scheduled for Labor Day entitled, “The Outlaws of Political Economy.” (link will not be activated until Monday)
okay, so how about “surplus labor” as a means for keeping wages low?
Sure, maybe in the real world that might happen. But in the self-adjusting mechanism of the purrfectly competitive system of natural liberty, demand for goods is insatiable so there can be no general glut. Who you going to believe the textbook or yr lying eyes?
well, i wrote my above comment before my computer decided to show me the rest of Sandwichman’s essay.
I may not be enough of an intellectual for this argument. Are we concerned that people who call themselves economists cite a “fallacy” (straw man?) that no one seems to hold?
or are we concerned with policies that make it harder for workers to find jobs in less than “the long run.”?
my own starting point (easily changed by coherent argument) is that on any given day the number of jobs on offer is essentially “fixed.”
my finishing point might be that given the material wealth and overwealth in at least this country, perhaps there might be some actual good that could come from developing policies of fewer hours, with perhaps slightly lower average wage but not wages below a reasonable standard of living for even people who aren’t intellectuals, with more “jobs” for people who want or need to work.
In collective bargaining terminology, the strawman fallacy claim is equivalent to refusal to bargain in good faith — just like if an employer refuses to recognize a duly constituted union as legitimate bargaining agent for the workers. Well, you can talk about “policies” all you want but if the other party is going to stonewall negotiations, you can’t implement them unilaterally.
In a sense, yes, on a “given day” there is a given number of jobs. Also an arrow flying through the air has to “occupy” each point on its trajectory. But it occupies that point in passing. From that perspective the economists’ point is true but trivial. It is a distinction without a difference. What the straw man fallacy claim asserts is that THEY have a unique insight into the “economic law” than YOU don’t, therefore you have no standing to speak about the matter, so shut up.
If economists, as a profession, had any shame about this kind of nonsense, it would have stopped about a hundred years ago — or a hundred and thirty. But clearly a great many of them don’t. They therefore need to be shamed and shunned for their participation in a fraud.
People need to know that when an “expert” invokes the lump-of-labor fallacy to silence his critics, he’s a huckster, not an expert.
well, since it sounds like you are agreeing with me or letting me agree with you, i can only point out that for an arrow the essence is moving, not occupying “points.” for the man out of work the essence is sitting all day or several months waiting for a job.
i don’t quite know how to say this without offending honest economists or their friends, but “economics” in the public space is not honest
or whatever “academic kerfuffle” means.
I’m really having a problem with the semantics used and how to interpret it.
My understanding is that there is an assertion that there is only so much work to be done… which assertion is also referred to as there being a “lump of labor [required].”
My understanding is thus that the “lump of labor fallacy” is that the assertion is false — e.g. it is not true that there is only so much work to be done.
Thus the following statement means that Portes supported the belief that there was indeed a “lump of labor” and that it was thus not a fallacy at all…. where archaic is a synonym in this case for the “lump of labor” belief.
“Portes thus prided himself on his acumen in persuading Labour cabinet secretaries “to go out and defend policies that were consistent with” an archaic, reactionary view of the labour market.
If my interpretation is correct, then what you are arguing in your note is that the Leave Vote having had the majority was NOT due to or as a resultant of Portes’ published articles or his having (attempting to) persuade other Labor Secretaries that there was indeed a “lump of labor” (e.g. limited number of jobs required).
I fail to see what your extended discussion between Portes’ statement “…go out and defend…” and your reasoning for the Leave vote having had the majority have to do with one another. Your reasoning was that Portes’ public writing or persuasions of other labor secretary’s had no real effect on the Brexit vote’s outcome… and you cite the other plausible reasons for the vote coming out the way it did.
First, I agree with your reasoning that whatever Portes did had virtually nothing to do with how the vote turned out, though it is not as clear that Portes failure (not) to do something might have made a difference — but one cannot prove a negative in any event, so that’s a mute point.
Second, I understand the intermediate information about the lump of labor assertion and why it’s a fallacy (the arrow analogy is relatively apt) when taken over the context of the passage of some time period (though that time period has rarely been quantified or perhaps just not adequately analyzed), but I do not understand why you are providing the intermediate information IF it is indeed your purpose to absolve Portes of responsibility in the outcome of the Brexit vote. Logically it has no bearing.
To make it as simple as I can there are TWO things at stake in the allegation of a false belief:
1. that it is false; and
2. that someone believes it.
I stated that the lump of labor is 1. FALSE but 2. no one believes it. Therefore the allegation is FALSE.
Portes does not believe that the amount of work is fixed. He CLAIMS that others believe the amount of work is fixed. His allegation is false.
“I do not understand why you are providing the intermediate information IF it is indeed your purpose to absolve Portes of responsibility”
One problem with satire is that it is hard to understand if you don’t realize it is satire. What you call the “intermediate information” is the substance of the post. The question about whether Portes caused Brexit and my absolving him of responsibility is the satire. I framed this post as a satire because of Portes’s “adorable” sarcasm in his email reply about the lack of evidence. Notice the term “adorable” in the last sentence was sarcasm.
You know, Longtooth, sometimes when you don’t understand everything it is O.K. because you weren’t really the audience for it. In this case, the audience is Mr. Portes, Mr. Goodhart, Larry Elliott of the Guardian Kwasi Kwarteng and a few others. I posted it here so that Angry Bears could eavesdrop but mainly as a teaser for my main post on this matter, which is upcoming on labor day and contains more detail.
to tell you the truth in all the excitement i lost count myself
but sammich is talking about the lump of labor fallacy fallacy which Portes commits by debunking the lump of labor fallacy
and… i presume… by teaching other serious people to reject the lump of labor fallacy led them to pursue policies that caused british workers to vote to leave the European union.
On the ” lump of labor fallacy” —
Let the assertion that there is a “Lump of Labor (required)” = assertion A. NOT A is the assertion that A is false.
I am not persuaded that at any given moment in time and of place that A is false. The empirical evidence over sufficient elapsed time, in a given place however, is that A is false, thus that NOT A is true.
If that is indeed the case, then the entire set of arguments related to these assertions rests with the magnitude of the variable of “elapsed time” in a given place..
If labor is sufficiently physically mobile… by which I mean that it is culturally, economically viable, and legal for labor to move from one place to another, then the variable “place” ceases to have any constraint in the argument… leaving “elapsed time” as the only variable.
But “sufficiently” mobile must necessarily also include the variable “elapsed time” since the act of moving from one place to another is not instantaneous for many reasons of course. Among these reasons are distance to move (commuting an additional 2 miles to obtain a job might be considered 0 elapsed time, but an additional 100 miles might have other constraints in mobility).; costs of moving and thus availability of funds required to move which have a time element involved in acquiring those funds; language differences; legal barriers (such national borders or “economic zones”). to name a few.
Other elements of mobility “elapsed time” constraints can be due to racial or ethnicity differences — the availability of jobs may be constrained by racial / ethnic bias which clearly affects “elapsed time” for labor’s mobility to find work.
The other mobility factor is related to wage rates. It is often ignored since there may be more very low wage jobs available but which wages are insufficient to support the family, mortgage, etc. which means that labor mobility has other constraints in “elapsed time”… e.g. locating jobs that pay a sufficient wage to maintain one’s standards of living, or in the alternative, to reduce the standards of living which may be constrained by family (wife threatens divorce, children’s health issues at stake, etc.)
So the “elapsed time” variable comes into play in two forms… both in the overall labor market (increasing employment growth v decreasing employment), and in mobility itself.
The macro-economic theory negate the variable “time” as a relevant variable as well as “place” which is fundamentally “labor mobility” and which thus is also a function of “elapsed time”. Thus the arguments regard “lump of labor” seem to me to dance around or ignore the “elapsed time” variable which only means that there must be some finite elapsed time period for which labor is directly affected in the composite as well as in specific place (towns, cities, county’s, regions, states, and nations) such that the effect on labor (e.g. population employment ratios) is at each increment of “elapsed time” real and measurable.
Thus to the extent that labor law and labor policy is a function of elected officials, and that elections occur at variable but finite points in time, then labor policies are necessarily also a function of time and hence effect the outcome of elections related to the issues of “lump of labor”…
Which is to say only that the “lump of labor” arguments have, at least as near as I’ve read, ignored the dependent variable of elapsed time.
I think there’s a reason for ignoring time as a variable —- in the longer run, employment opportunities increase with increasing population — assuming availability of resources is unconstrained, but there is the issue of how long it takes (time) for those opportunities to develop and be filled which necessarily induces disruptions in employment and thus labor’s dissatisfactions with those disruptions over the shorter term.
To deal with labor’s dissatisfactions over the shorter term requires some type of and magnitude of government interventions to mitigate or eliminate those shorter term dissatisfactions. And that then becomes the issue since there are always two factions in governments — one faction desires policies to mitigate and / or eliminate the effects of those disruptions, while the other contends that it will cost too much (or more than taxpayers or private enterprises are willing to fork over). This is basically always an argument between gov’t involvement in economic affairs and a more “laissez-faire” gov’t involvement — in the extreme no gov’t involvement at all.
Addressing the time variable in the lump of labor issues then immediately and necessarily invokes the arguments between the two very basic views of gov’t’s purpose of being. .. e.g. political belief systems. Since economists (as economists rather than as political advocates) want to remain politically agnostic, they therefore must avoid the arguing the time element aspects of “lump of labor”… doing so would necessarily then require invoking whether and to what degree gov’ts should or should not get involved.
I’m having trouble with your statement … perhaps my misunderstanding of how the semantics you use.
“To make it as simple as I can there are TWO things at stake in the allegation of a false belief:
1. that it is false; and
2. that someone believes it.
An “allegation of a false belief” means to me, that there is an assertion of a belief, which belief is in truth not true, thus false. Call this assertion A.
Then you say there are two “things at stake” with regard to assertion A. I would interpret this to mean there are two issues with assertion A.
You say one issue is:
1. That assertion A is false. But since assertion A = false belief, then issue 1 = a false belief is false, which means logically issue 1 = the belief is true.
You say the other issue is:
2. Someone believes assertion A is true. Thus issue 2 = Someone believes a false belief is true which means, logically, that someone believes the belief is false.
So we have 2 issues with respect to some specific belief item:
1. the belief is true
2. the belief is false
I submit that for any single stated belief there can only be two possible beliefs regards the single stated belief: a belief that the belief is true or that it is false. So your first statement is rather pedantic or stated differently logically self evident and thus I fail to see it’s relevance..
Your second statement is
“I stated that the lump of labor is 1. FALSE but 2. no one believes it.
Therefore the allegation is FALSE.”
If I don’t misunderstand, you said 1) the belief that there is a “lump of labor (required)” is false. I cannot discern from your statement whether you are asserting your own belief that there a “lump of labor (required)” is false (not true), or whether your are asserting a truth that a “lump of labor (required)” is false (not true). Can you be more explicit?
You also asserted 2) which is EITHER that “no one believes” it [e.g. that the “lump of labor (required)” is true] OR that “no one believes” it [e.g. that the “lump of labor (required)” is false].
If by “it” you are referring your prior statement 1) that the “lump of labor (required)” is false as your belief or as a truth, then 2) means that “no one believes” the “lump of labor (required)” is false, which also means, logically that everybody believes the “lump of labor (required)” is true.
But since you have stated in 1) that you believe the “lump of labor (required)” is false, then not everybody believes the “lump of labor (required) is true, hence your statement 2) is not supported by your own statement 1). Or an alternate interpretation of your statement 2) is that everybody but you believes the “lump of labor (required)” is true.
So your statements leave me quite confused since you cannot possibly know “everybody’s” beliefs (unless you’re also asserting that you’re an Omni-present god … which I don’t think you’re asserting), and hence your statement 2) is completely ambiguous in terms of who you mean by “everybody” or is negated by your statement in 1).
Finally then you stated, as a conclusion based on your statements 1) and 2) that
“Therefore the allegation is FALSE.”
Your statement 1) is that you believe or assert a truth that the “lump of labor (required)” is false (not true) — not sure which of these two possible interpretations of the statement 1) is the case, and 2) , assuming by “it” you mean that everybody but you believes the “lump of labor (required)” is true, and thus the conclusion, logically I presume, is that “the allegation” is False…
But I’m not sure at all what “the allegation” you are referring to is.
1) Your belief or assertion of truth that “lump of labor (required)” is false isn’t an allegation but simply your statement of a belief or assertion of a truth. 2) Your 2nd statement is that everybody but you believes the “lump of labor (required) is true. This can be interpreted as your own allegation however, but then your conclusion that “the allegation” is false can only mean you conclude that your own belief / assertion that everybody but you believes the “lump of labor (required)” is true is false (not true).
In other words, your concluding that your own belief is false.
Therefore I have submit that you’re EITHER logically incoherent OR you have used a very round-about way of telling me / us that you find that your own belief is not true.
More than likely however, I think you aren’t at all very careful in saying what you think or else you haven’t given what you think very much careful thought.
One of the problems I think is that you and others as well… you’re not the only one by a long shot… conflate the phrases “lump of labor” and “lump of labor fallacy” even though in your (and others) definitions they are distinct.
A belief in the “lump of labor fallacy” means that the assertion that a lump of labor exists is false.. i.e. the belief, based on empirics that there’s no limit to the demand for labor in the long run at least.
A belief in the “lump of labor” means that the assertion that there’s a limit to the demand for labor is true… e.g. a belief that labor demand is limited.
But I often see the statement “lump of labor fallacy” used as if it means the same thing as “lump of labor” being asserted as a truth .. which may be shorthand for the “lump of labor fallacy” being a truth… that is to say that the truth is that there is no limit on labor required.
Yes, I think you are being too obtuse. I gave a simple explanation and you are trying to “interpret” it by making it infinitely more complex. There are links on the OP. If you are curious about what this is all about, you can find out more by following the links. Alternatively, if you find my writing confusing you are welcome to ignore it. I don’t mind if people disagree with me. I don’t mind if people don’t like my writing. But I lose patience with people who try to tell me how to write or what I should have written instead of what I have written.
Sandwichman — you are correct in that I didn’t see the satire you attempted to convey. I know/knew that the bulk of your article was your primary reason for the post.. e.g. that it was more about lump of labor and how politician’s worked the issue than about whether Portes’ writings or influences did or didn’t have a significant relation to the Brexit vote outcome.
Never the less, by posting to Angry Bear you necessarily also are writing to a larger audience and as such then perhaps it would be advised to draft your post such that your intent is somewhat, a little bit at least, more obvious than it was in this case.
Or maybe I’m just too obtuse but I’ve followed the Brexit with respect to the Labor party allegations somewhat — mostly the allegations that Labor didn’t make a strong or good or widely disseminated or clear case for the Remain vote to prevail. I happen to believe however that what-ever labor did or didn’t do is immaterial in this case. My take on that is pretty much the same though as it is in the US —- to wit: people don’t vote their rational self interests, but rather their irrational emotional attachments to the propaganda (emotionally based) by the opposition. Race & ethnicity is a powerful propaganda tool — clearly so as it’s always been used in history of human conflicts to promote popular support for the conflicts which have an entirely different objective in fact..
It seems to me that the ‘Lump of Labour’ fallacy refers to the idea that if you have a country with a population of 60 million and there are 1 million immigrants who all get jobs then they will displace 1 million natives. I can accept the possibility that this is false and that the additional economic activity will add enough jobs so that everyone will be employed.
However I cannot see how if there are 600,000 skilled tradesmen brought into a country of 60 million that there will be enough of an increase in economic activity for the total demand specifically for skilled tradesmen to increase enough so that no native skilled tradesmen are displaced. In particular the demand for less skilled or higher paid would decrease. Unless, of course, there was an existing labour shortage.
Finally, I would expect that bringing in a large number of qualified and experienced tradesmen would drastically decrease the number of apprenticeships and entry level positions.
This seems to be the case in the statistics for apprenticeships in the years after 2004 when immigration rate of (largely tradesmen) from Poland was at its peak. The total number of apprenticeships appears to be roughly 500,000 less than if the historical trend had continued.
See http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06113.pdf page 6.