Obama should give Cameron an economics lesson

Only one of the two leaders is stimulating the global recovery.

No meeting between Barack Obama and David Cameron is now complete without a joint article lauding the "special" (or, in this case, the "essential") relationship and recalling the two countries' past triumphs. The Washington Post is the venue for today's op-ed and the first sentence hasn't even elapsed before the obligatory reference to Churchill.

Rather than the sections on Afghanistan, Iran and Syria (where there is consensus between the two men), the most intriguing passage is on the economy (where there is not). Obama and Cameron write:

As leading world economies, we are coordinating closely with our G-8 and G-20 partners to put people back to work, sustain the global recovery, stand with our European friends as they resolve their debt crisis and curb the reckless financial practices that have cost our taxpayers dearly. We're committed to expanding the trade and investment that support millions of jobs in our two countries.

That's sufficiently bland to avoid any controversy. But it disguises the fact that while one country (the US) is stimulating "the global recovery", another (the UK) is acting as a drag anchor on it. George Osborne was once fond of boasting that the UK had grown faster than the US, "despite fiscal stimulus in the former and fiscal consolidation in the latter, showing that the problem is not too much fiscal responsibility."

But that's not a claim he can make now. The final figures for 2011 showed that the US grew by 1.7 per cent, while the UK grew by just 0.8 per cent (see graph) - one of the worst growth rates in the EU. On employment, the picture is a similar one. While Obama is putting people back to work, Cameron is putting them on the dole. US unemployment is now at its lowest level since the recession, while UK unemployment is at its highest level since 1996.

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What explains the contrasting data? Well, while Obama chose to stimulate growth, Cameron chose to strangle it. Obama introduced an extended payroll tax cut, Cameron raised VAT to a record high of 20 per cent. As the ippr's Eric Beinhocker notes in today's Times (£), the US President's tax cut injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the US economy, with the result that consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain.

When Obama visited Britain last year he refused, to the despair of the Tories, to endorse Cameron's deficit reduction plan. Noting that the pair come from "different political traditions", he added that the "sequencing and pace" of fiscal contraction would be different in each country.

If and when the subject of the economy arises during Cameron's visit, it will be worth watching the two leaders' language. Having been vindicted by the data, Obama has every reason to offer some free economics tuition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.