Leader: A decade of stagnation looms if the Chancellor won’t act

Osborne has learned that unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts.

When George Osborne delivered his autumn statement to MPs last year, he boasted: "The plan is working." But there was no room for triumphalism this year. The New Statesman consistently warned that the Chancellor's decision to embark on the most dramatic austerity programme of any major economy would lead to lower growth, higher unemployment and consequently a slower pace of deficit reduction. So it has proved.

For the fourth time since it was created, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has downgraded its growth forecasts, predicting growth of just 0.9 per cent this year and 0.7 per cent next year. As a result, Mr Osborne will be forced to borrow £158bn more than he planned last November and £19bn more than Labour was projected to. The national debt is now forecast to be higher under the coalition (78 per cent of GDP in 2014-2015) than it would have been under Labour (75 per cent). The Chancellor claimed, "Unless we deal with our debts, there will be no growth." Yet he has learned that the reverse is true. Unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts.

As so often in the past, the political and media consensus was disastrously wrong. Those who warned that too fast a pace of austerity would prove self-defeating - such as our economics editor, David Blanchflower - were denounced as "deficit deniers". However, almost every one of their predictions has come true.

The near disappearance of growth has prompted Mr Osborne to belatedly recognise the value of active government. The £5bn increase in capital spending and the £1bn youth jobs fund attest to this. While we welcome these measures, they remain profoundly inadequate, given the scale of the crisis. The Chancellor should have been far bolder and reversed his damaging VAT rise, as well as offering a tax holiday on employer and employee National Insurance contributions for anyone under the age of 25. These were just two of the pro-growth measures put forward by nine of the world's leading economists in our Plan B special in October. But Mr Osborne's political and rhetorical commitment to his plan means that he is unwilling to change course.

The Chancellor's sole remaining boast is that his deficit-reduction programme is responsible for Britain's record low bond yields and its alleged status as a "safe haven". The truth is that yields have plunged because the economy is so fragile that the Bank of England will be unable to raise interest rates until at least 2013. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has quipped: "The wolf is at the door and Osborne thinks it's the confidence fairy." After all, the major economy with the lowest bond yields is Japan, whose "lost decade" of stagnation the UK is in danger of emulating.

The OBR predicts that Britain will just avoid a double-dip recession next year (growth of -0.1 per cent in the fourth quarter and 0.1 per cent in the first) but warns that its forecasts rest on the assumption that "the euro area finds a way through its current crisis". Should this prove mistaken, the UK will almost certainly be plunged back into recession.

Yet, despite this severe risk, the country remains locked into Mr Osborne's austerity programme. As a result of his pledge to ensure that the national debt is falling as a percentage of GDP by 2015-2016, he will be forced to implement further spending cuts and tax rises if growth disappoints. In other words, at the very moment that the economy is in greatest need of stimulus, Mr Osborne will depress it.

The Chancellor's obstinacy will do little to reassure a population facing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. Indeed, rather than offering tax cuts at the next election, Mr Osborne will now warn of further pain to come. The public-sector workers who took strike action were denounced as "militants itching for a fight" by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove - but the coalition's plan to cut 710,000 public-sector jobs (310,000 more than forecast in March) and to cap pay rises at 1 per cent shows why many sympathise with their cause. Unemployment is now forecast to reach 2.8 million (8.7 per cent) as private-sector job creation fails to compensate for public-sector job losses.

The failure of Mr Osborne's plan offers Labour an opportunity to redefine the terms of debate. While it would have borrowed more to stimulate growth, Mr Osborne is borrowing more to meet the cost of higher unemployment payments. That is the new dividing line. With the country at risk of a double-dip recession or worse, Labour must finally win the argument for an economic alternative.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.