It may be too late to prevent recession

George Osborne's policies have failed. He talked down the economy -- and now it is sinking.

The data releases this week have all been bad for the coalition. It started in the United States, which matters because generally what happens there is repeated in the UK a few months later.

First, the Conference Board published data on consumer confidence that showed a much greater collapse than had been expected, especially in relation to the respondents' expectations for the future.

Second, the Case-Shiller house price index -- the leading measure of US home prices -- shows that the US National Home Price Index declined by 4.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2011, after having fallen 3.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2010. The National Index hit a new recession low with the first quarter's data and posted an annual decline of 5.1 per cent versus the first quarter of 2010. Nationally, home prices are back to their mid-2002 levels. As of March 2011, 19 of the 20 MSAs covered the index were down compared to March 2010.

Third, ahead of the official release of employment data on Friday, an ADP Employment Services report suggests that private-sector payroll growth slowed sharply in May, falling to the lowest level in eight months. This prompted some economists to lower their forecasts for job growth in Friday's data release. It looks as if the US is slowing.

In Europe, the final Markit eurozone manufacturing PMI fell sharply to a seven-month low of 54.6 in May, down from 58.0 in April and below the flash estimate of 54.8. The fall in the index was the largest since November 2008, as manufacturers reported slower rates of increase in output, new orders, employment and inventory accumulation. China is also slowing. Economic output in Australia shrank by 1.2 per cent in the three months to March -- the worst quarterly slide since 1991 -- the national accounts of the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed yesterday.

The data releases for the UK today were truly awful. They follow from the public finance data that shows that, far from paying off the debt, Osborne is increasing it. Plus such growth as there wasn't -­ GDP grew by zero over the past six months -- was driven by government spending. Then, today, the PMI for manufacturing in May was worse than the market expected.

According to Capital Economics, on past form, that leaves the balance consistent with quarterly falls in manufacturing output of around 1 per cent. Some of this fall, it argues, is likely to have been driven by the temporary disruption to supply chains caused by the Japanese earthquake. But Capital Economics points out that the new orders balance also fell from 50.8 to 48.3, which, it argues, suggests that "beneath the monthly volatility, a sharp underlying slowdown in demand is taking place".

There were also a number of statistical releases from the Bank of England, which added to the bleak picture. It appears that banks are simply not lending enough to get the economy moving. This suggests the poorly named Merlin project -- which should be renamed the Mickey Mouse project -- has not worked any magic. First, the money-supply growth was weak. Second, the stock of lending to UK businesses overall contracted in the three months to February, as did the stock of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. Third, the number of loans approved for house purchases fell by 4 per cent to a four-month low of 45,166 in April ­- the lowest figure for April since records began in 1992.

This inept Chancellor has talked the economy down by falsely claiming it was bankrupt when it wasn't, which has decimated animal spirits among both businesses and consumers. He has also tried to blame a once-in-a-hundred-year global financial crisis on the previous government, which was clearly also untrue and hyperbolic. Osborne has implemented toothless regulation over the banks and has demonstrably failed to get them to lend. He also has no interest in controlling bankers' bonuses, despite his absurd claims to the contrary when he was shadow chancellor. And all of this before the public spending cuts hit: currently it is the public sector that is the driver for growth but that is all about to change. The public finances are worsening, not improving.

The government's economic policy is in total disarray and the economy is sinking. Osborne has been hoisted by his own petard; his numerous false claims were inevitably going to catch up with him and now they have. The coalition's austerity programme was never based on sound economics and was simply a political move to shrink the state. Interestingly, the claims that the economics profession supported his actions have turned out to be false. In my NS column in the issue out tomorrow, I make clear that one of the initial signatories to the letter to the Times that Osborne touted as supporting him ­- the 2010 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Chris Pissarides -­ has now, embarrassingly for Osborne, turned against him and now opposes the ill-conceived and wreckless austerity programme of cuts and tax increases.

It is hard to find any economists outside the City of London that do support the government's strategy, other than a few of the usual right-wing hangers-on.

It is time for Osborne to explain to the British people why his economic policies have failed and what he intends to do about it. My fear is that Slasher has inflicted so much damage on the British economy that it is too late to prevent us slipping back into recession.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.