Does a technical recession really matter?

We are balancing on a knife-edge, but it doesn't matter where we fall.

Today, NIESR release their growth estimates. They will either chime with the OECD's figures from last week, and show us narrowly entering a technical recession (defined as two straight quarters of negative growth), or they will be more like this week's vaguely positive PMIs (for construction, services and manufacturing) and show us narrowly avoiding one.

As we approach the release of the official figures – on 25 April – more and more estimates get released, and the same story will come again and again (we won't be immune, either), until finally the ONS finishes the whole thing off in a quivering mass of statistics.

The problem is, distinction doesn't really matter. Actually, that's not quite true; to the political realm, it matters a great deal. It's the difference between Labour being able to tar Osborne as the chancellor who brought us back into recession, and the chancellor who just dampened the recovery. One might be remembered come the election, the other will probably be forgotten.

But in terms of what the figures actually mean, rather than how they can be spun, the most important thing to remember is that neither 0.1 per cent shrinkage or 0.1 per cent growth are actually very good. In fact, they are both abysmal.

The Touchstone bloggers have three good posts addressing just this; Duncan Weldon, quoting Paul Krugman quoting George Bush, calls it "the soft bigotry of low growth expectations." He writes:

We find ourselves in a ludicrous situation whereby the success or failure of the government’s economic policy is being measured, by many, almost entirely in terms of whether we have two back-to-back quarters of negative growth or not.

The BCC releases a quite gloomy forecast and many are prepared to call it ‘good news’.  

I’ve pointed out before that even if the economy grew by 1.5% in 2012 – twice as much as the OBR have predicted – this would still be a bad result. But expectations are so diminished that the Government might get away with hailing this as a success.

There is also the worry that, by redefining success to mean "not in recession", we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people think that growth is naturally low, they plan for and create low growth. Weldon quotes from Krugman's book The Return of Depression Economics (addressing Japan):

Analysts tended to assume that because the economy grew so slowly for so long, it couldn’t grow any faster.

Richard Exell adds that the PMI figures, although positive, are also well below what was normal before the recession (and the ONS figures, released as I write this, are even worse than that).

Jonathan Portes pointed out another pernicious side-effect of this rhetoric in March, after the budget. If the narrative that "the path of recovery is likely to be arduous, long and uneven" is accepted uncritically, then there will be a huge amount of unnecessary pain. It's not just that we won't grow fast enough. It's that measures to boost employment, invest in infrastructure and fix our broken housing situation are being wrongly dismissed as too expensive for a slow growth economy, when it is precisly those measures which will speed up the recovery.

Andrew Sentance proposes one solution: stop focusing on the technical definition of recession. It creates confusion, hides some problems and exaggerates others. By focusing on more important indicators, like unemployment, business activity, and a less volatile measure of GDP, success can no longer be defined as merely not failing. If that were the case, we would all benefit.

Could the fuel panic have pushed us out of recession? Does it matter? (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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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