Are we catching the US disease?

The average American household has failed to benefit from the recent era of economic growth and risi

In the 1970s, the policy and political elite obsessed about the 'British disease' -- the failure of our system of industrial relations, and its impact on UK prosperity relative to our competitors, above all the US. Forty years on, their concern should be whether we have caught the 'US disease': the failure of the broad mass of US households on low to middle incomes, the middle-class in American parlance, to benefit from the recent era of economic growth and rising productivity. Typical US family incomes today are at the same level as they were in the late 1980s, and median wages have flat-lined for an even longer period.

As the chart shows, the US has long had a problem with sharing -- that is, sharing out the proceeds of growth.

Source: Machin, Centre for Economic Performance

The question is: are we catching their bug? Over the last decade the UK (as well as other countries like Germany) has started to show more US-like tendencies, as the relationship between economic growth and the pay rises going to the ordinary worker has weakened.


Source: Resolution Foundation

There's no consensus as to what explains this great American stagnation. The easy bit is to point the finger at US policy mistakes that have certainly made matters much worse. Regressive tax policy, motivated by trickle-down theories; together with weak regulation motivated by a belief in the infallibility of markets, undermined their fiscal position, fuelled inequality and magnified economic instability. And the nature of the US political system itself poses a barrier to economic progress, with the efforts of President Obama -- like those of other Presidents -- being thwarted by deep and intractable political gridlock.

But to appreciate the deeper causes of the problem, we also need to consider the longer term hollowing out of the US jobs market. Leading US economist Jared Bernstein, who is in the UK this week to speak to a major conference on how the UK can avoid the US fate, puts it this way:

The developments that have hurt the US middle class -- and they are related -- are high levels of inequality and weak employment growth. Together, they have created a wedge between growth and broadly shared prosperity. UK policy makers take note: pushback on these forces or be prepared for a prolonged middle income squeeze.

The chart below demonstrates Bernstein's point. Each decade since World War II has seen fast employment growth (usually consisting of a dip during a downturn followed by strong growth as the economic cycle picks up). But prior to the recent recession, there was almost no employment growth: the jobs market was already flat-lining before it went into freefall.

graph 3

There are plenty of potential reasons for this decline -- the rise of an ever sharper focus on shareholder value, and more intense competition from China and India are both regularly blamed.

But the most likely villain is the changing relationship between technology and the jobs market. A leading view is that the rate of technological change has slowed down since the 1970s, and the new innovations which have occurred, particularly in ICT, are far less job-rich than was the case in previous waves of technological change (an argument advocated by US economist Tyler Cowen in his Great Stagnation). Another argument, set out in the latest zeitgeist e-book from the US, Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfees, is that digital technology is changing faster than many workers can keep up with, rapidly encroaching into new sectors of the economy, leaving many workers economically displaced and disadvantaged (read this to see where these two perspectives converge and diverge).

If either of these are an accurate diagnosis, it's more than a bit worrying for the UK. We are of course exposed to precisely the same technological trends as the US; and prior to the recession we were already exhibiting many of the symptoms of a polarising labour market. Worse still, these long-term and underlying challenges are being made worse by short-term policy mistakes.

For now, our focus is rightly on injecting life into an economy with chronically weak domestic demand, whose main export market is in crisis. Beyond this, we need to contemplate how to avoid the US disease which, if caught, could mean that living standards for much of the country could be divorced from any future growth for a generation to come.


Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.