Every silver lining has a cloud

In economics, there's nothing fully good.

From the department of counterintuitive findings come two findings showing the downsides of good news.

First up, the Washington Post reports on a new explanation for why it is that people start to die when the economy gets better. For every percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate, there is a 0.004 per cent increase in the number of deaths (a low, but statistically significant amount), which corresponds to about 6,700 dead people.

Suzy Khimm writes:

In a new paper, researchers argue that economic boom times create a scarcity of caregivers in nursing homes, raising the mortality rate through a disproportionately high numbers of deaths among the elderly.

The Center for Retirement Research explains that a strong job market creates “greater scarcity in front-line caregivers in nursing homes, which may cause more deaths among the elderly.” When the overall unemployment rate goes down, for instance, employment declines are particularly noticeable among certified aides and nurses in these facilities.

Meanwhile, in Investors Chronicle, Chris Dillow addresses the upside of a downside (so to speak).

Since 2007, labour productivity has fallen in the UK, meaning that the one hour of work now produces less output than it did five years ago – 3.4 per cent less, to be specific. This is pretty bad news. Historically, a lot of growth has come from population growth. A more populous country can make more stuff than a smaller one, after all. But now that much of the west appears to have a stable population, we need productivity to grow if we are to have any growth at all. If we can't have more people making stuff, we need to have each person making more stuff.

But this prductivity slump isn't entirely bad news:

If the relationship between GDP and employment in the last four years had been the same as it was in the previous 20, there would now (mathematically speaking) be 3.1 million fewer people in work. If all these had registered as unemployed, there'd be 5.8 million out of work - an unemployment rate of 18.2 per cent. Imagine the political effects of that.

On his personal blog, Dillow elaborates:

You might think that the very fact that workers are more productive in this alternative universe would cause firms to hire more of them. But things aren’t so simple. Firms only hire if they anticipate sufficient demand for the additional output. And where would this demand come from? The tendency for higher unemploymentwould depress consumer spending. On the other hand, it’s likely that business investment would be higher - not least because a world of growing productivity is a world in which there are more investment opportunities and easier access to finance.  But as business investment is only 8.3% of GDP, it’s unlikely that it would be so much higher as to create three million jobs.

Sometimes, good news can be bad news, and bad news can be good.

We may not be getting more productive, but there's an upside to that. (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.