Blow for Osborne as economy grows by just 0.2 per cent

The Chancellor hails "positive news" but he's missed his growth target again.

The news is out: the economy grew by just 0.2 per cent in the second quarter of this year. George Osborne will be relieved that it's not a negative figure, as some predicted, but it's still unambiguously bad news for the Chancellor. He needed growth of at least 0.8 per cent to stay on track to meet the OBR's growth forecast for this year (1.7 per cent - a figure that has been downgraded three times) and he's fallen well short. With this in mind, it is risible of him to claim that growth of 0.2 per cent is "positive news".

The Office for National Statistics said that "special factors", including the royal wedding, the Japanese tsunami and the unusually warm weather knocked around 0.5 per cent off GDP, which Osborne will cite in his defence. But the reality is that the economy has now grown by just 0.2 per cent over the last nine months, compared with growth of 2.1 per cent over the previous nine (see graph). As a result, the OBR will now be forced to cut its growth forecast for the fourth time since it was founded last May. Against this backdrop, it's hardly surprising, as the Telegraph reports, that "Downing Street aides [have] become increasingly impatient with a lack of growth".

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We can expect Osborne and his allies to blame all manner of things, from the royal wedding (which we were originally told would "boost the economy"), to the eurozone crisis, to global instability. They're right - up to a point - but that doesn't explain why Britain has performed so much worse than many of its competitors, all of whom face the same "global challenges". Germany grew more in Q1 (1.5 per cent) than the UK will in all of this year.

The truth is that Osborne's policies have exacerbated, rather than diminished, Britain's economic problems. His mythical claim that Britain was "on the brink of bankruptcy" had a chilling effect on consumer confidence as families stopped spending in anticipation of the cuts and tax rises to come. His reckless decision to raise VAT to 20 per cent tightened the squeeze and automatically added 1.5 per cent to inflation.

So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? There is, as I've argued before, a strong a case for a temporary cut in VAT. A VAT cut would boost consumer spending, lower inflation (thus reducing the risk of a premature rate rise), protect retail jobs and increase real wages. When Alistair Darling reduced the tax to 15 per cent during the financial crisis, consumers spent £9bn more than they otherwise would have done. A VAT cut today would be a similarly effective fiscal stimulus. But Osborne and David Cameron have already ruled out such a course of action.

That leaves Vince Cable's call for a "more imaginative" form of quantitative easing - the closest the government has to a plan B. But even another round of QE - the effectiveness of which is doubted by many economists - won't be enough to kick-start the economy. Osborne might have avoided a double dip but an anaemic recovery now looks inevitable.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.