In the slow lane

New economic forecasts from the OECD show how bad austerity has been for growth.

The OECD's latest interim assessment of the outlook for the G7 economies, published on 29 March, suggests the UK economy is back in recession (usually defined by economists as two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP). A day earlier the Office for National Statistics published revised national accounts data showing real GDP contracted by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011. In its report, the OECD says it thinks this will be followed by a 0.1 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 2012.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) takes a more optimistic view in its latest forecast, published alongside the budget. It thinks the economy will grow by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter.

Differences in opinion between groups of economists over the outlook for the economy are not unknown, but it is a little surprising that two essentially consensual bodies like the OECD and the OBR have come up with such different forecasts for the current quarter, particularly when we are already at the end of March.

Typically, when trying to forecast very recent developments in the economy, economists look at surveys of business confidence. These have been shown to be the most reliable indicators of short-term fluctuations in activity (measures of consumer confidence are much less useful) and they support the OBR's forecast over the OECD's. Indeed, the OBR cite an improvement in survey evidence to justify their optimism that the economy will expanded in the first quarter.

Unfortunately, the OECD is less forthcoming about the reasons for its pessimism. It does, though, also forecast a recession in the three largest euro zone countries, taken together, and it may be that its economists believe this will cause a recession in the UK too.

What the OECD forecasts do show, however, is that even if the OBR are right about the outlook for the UK in coming quarters, the UK is experiencing a relatively slow economic recovery. Four years after the economy went into recession, real GDP will still be almost 4 per cent lower than at its peak. This makes the recovery slower than any economic recovery in the UK in the last century; it also means that the UK recovery is slower than those of all the other G7 economies bar Italy.

Why is this the case? In a recent speech, Adam Posen, one of the external members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, analysed the gap between the recovery in the US and the recovery in the UK. He concluded that it was largely the result of differences in fiscal policy. The more aggressive fiscal tightening in the UK led to weaker consumer spending growth, which in turn helped explain why investment had failed to recover in the UK as fast as in the US.

When it came to power, the coalition argued that it had no choice but to increase taxes and make substantial cuts in public spending to eliminate the fiscal deficit over the course of four years (a timetable that has now been extended to six years). It also argued that this would not be bad for growth because private sector activity would expand to fill the gap left by the public sector.

The first proposition is still open to debate - and without a counterfactual we will never know for sure whether the government was right or not. But the second proposition has been shown to be false. Whether the OECD or the OBR are proved to be right about growth in the first quarter of 2012, by any measure the economic recovery in the UK has been hugely disappointing since the coalition took office.

Rather than stimulate activity in the private sector, austerity in the public sector has made it less willing to invest and recruit. Fiscal tightening has been bad for growth.

Tony Dolphin is the senior economist at ippr

Chancellor George Osborne. Photo: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.