Monday, June 27, 2016

June 27, 2016--Brexit

From two conversations--

The first, Friday evening at a party where I was approached by a neighbor who formerly owned a number of local businesses and who now spends nearly half a year in Africa working with Doctors Without Borders.

"It may surprise you to know that I supported Brexit. That the UK should withdraw from the European Union."

"I don't know you well enough to be surprised," I said, being sure to smile so he wouldn't think I was giving him attitude. In truth, I suppose if I were a Brit, I would have voted to stay so perhaps I was sending some attitude his way. Trying to sound neutral, I asked, "Why's that?"

"The EU government in Brussels is controlled by Europe's ruling elites and represents corporate and financial institutions' interests more than what might be good for average citizens. It's not so different from what Bernie's been saying about the banks and the establishment. I'm a Bernie person, by the way."

"And do you see any similarities between what many people are saying about the EU in other European countries and what Donald Trump is saying about us?"

He waved that off. "Trump's a jerk and maybe even a fascist."

Not wanting to talk about Trump, I said, "To tell you the truth, I'm embarrassed to say I don't really know that much about the EU, especially the Brussels-situated government. I've been trying to learn more the past few days and it does look as if that government has real power over the lives of all people and institutions in the 28 EU countries."

"And not unlike with our business-dominated government very little good trickles down to hard working people."

"But what about the immigrant issue? Isn't that similar to what many people here are all agitated about?"

"That is a huge compounding factor in the generalized anger and fear. Worse, to be sure, because none of the EU countries have really welcomed immigrants. Temporary workers have been needed since the birth rates have gone way down across Europe and places like Germany need to import workers. Remember the Turkish 'guest workers' that the Germans welcomed but expected would go back to Turkey after a year or two?"

"I do remember that."

"How did that work out?"

"I suppose not that well. I mean, from a German perspective. So many stayed."

"But the immigrant situation there, like here, is a distraction from more fundamental issues. People are not feeling they are doing well and rather than blame the system itself look for scapegoats. Immigrants front and center."

"I get your point about Trump."

"There's also something interesting going on that is best understand through the lens of developmental economics--how emotions affect economic behavior."

"Go on."

"Millions of people in the UK, a majority, knowing there would likely be personal downside consequences from bringing about Brexit still voted for it. One might say, against their own economic self-interest. Classic developmental economics on a huge scale."

"I have been thinking that too."

"Here's one more thing--and I think it's also true for the US."

"What's that?"

"People who are struggling to get by and feel their governments and institutions are not taking care of or responding to their needs and feeling are fed up to here," he gestured, "with how they are looked down upon and simultaneously pandered to be all sorts of so-called 'experts,' especially those who proclaim themselves to be experts who know better than the people themselves what's good for them. How would that make you feel?"

"No good," I said, and with that he caught the eye of another neighbor and moved on.

*   *   *

The second conversation was at the Bristol Diner Sunday morning with a very skilled and highly sought after expert about railroad systems and supply chains. He does consulting all over the world, especially until recently in Brazil. When not on the road he works from his Victorian-era farmhouse and barn in Bristol.

He came over to our booth to talk. After an exchange of the usual pleasantries, he said, "We just were skyping with friends from Aberdeen. Aberdeen Scotland."

"After what just happened there, that must have been interesting."

"It was, but also surprising."

"In what ways?"

"That unlike the vast majority of other Scots they voted to leave the EU. Demographically I would have thought they would have voted to remain. They're highly educated, successful professionally, and financially in good shape. From that alone one would expect they would have voted to stay in the EU."

"From what I have been reading, I agree. So what's their story? Did they talk about it?"

"Indeed they did. Lynne, the wife, is a senior hospital administrator and told me about something that really got under her skin that she feels represents the nature of the EU problem. She was gathering patient data and noted on one form that there were a series of EU-required question about how patients prepare and drink tea."


"Things like do they use a teabag and if so how long do they let it steep. Or if they use loose tealeaves what kind of kettle and tea brewer do they use. Do they put milk in their tea and if so, hot or cold. Sugar. Artificial sweetener."

"Maybe this was for some epidemiological study like the relationship between tea drinking and esophageal cancer."

"I guess that's possible but not from what Lynne reported. It was more like asking if a patient has any food preferences or allergies. From her perspective it was not part of a careful study but just arbitrary information gathering. Totally unnecessary EU-intrusive bureaucratic work. Again, this specific thing is not why she voted to exit but for her was a way of emphasizing how out of control the EU government is and how hundreds of things of this kind that impinge on people's lives in the aggregate have made many clearly feel disenfranchised and controlled by external, not-voted-for officials and institutions."

*   *   *

I need to do more reading about what just happened in the UK and what the underlying issues are and how widespread they are in Europe and, for that matter, here. I know some feel what happened helps Trump. Others, that it hurts his chances. I think more the former.

But in the meantime, something tectonic and under-anticipated is happened in Europe and of course here--who would have thought that Trump would have a chance to be elected president. And in France Marine Le Pen?

One thing is certain--those of us who are or feel we are part of the elite (better educated, more professionally successful, affluent, travelled, highly regarded) need to take a close look at our behavior to make as sure as we can that we are not feeling superior to the Brexit and Trump people and thus looking down our noses at them. From what we just witnessed, we are being identified by them to be part of the problem.

Above all else, we need to realize we do not know what is best for other people.

Another thing is certain--borders throughout the world--especially in Europe and the Middle East--are being redrawn. Mainly not elegantly or comfortably. One hundred years from now, people will be pointing to these massive forces in the West and the former colonial world as responsible for the new world in which they will then be living.

What we are witnessing then may be one of history's periodic, messy, but necessary cataclysms.

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