Memo to Duncan Smith: unlike the UK, the US has recovered from recession

The Work and Pensions Secretary is wrong to criticise the performance of the US economy.

It took some chutzpah for Mitt Romney supporter Iain Duncan Smith to declare on BBC Radio 5 Live last night that it was "very worrying" that the United States hadn't "bounced back from this recession". Unlike the UK, the US has more than recovered from the downturn of 2008-09.

As the graph below shows, while the US has grown consistently since leaving recession in the third quarter of 2009 (with the exception of Q1 2011 when output was flat), Britain has only recently returned to growth after three quarters of contraction. Indeed, by one definition at least, we're still in recession. Unlike the US economy, which is now 2.3 per cent above its pre-recession peak, the UK economy is still 3.1 per cent smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2008. Over the last year, while UK output has remained flat, the US has grown by 2.3 per cent.

The divergence in performance is due in no small part to the decision of the US government to pursue stimulus and the decision of the UK to pursue austerity. Barack Obama's $787bn fiscal stimulus, a mixture of tax cuts, infrastructure projects and increased unemployment benefits, is estimated to have increased real US GDP by around 3.4 per cent and to have created or saved 2.7 million jobs (see this study by Mark Zandi, a former economic adviser to John McCain, and Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve). By contrast, the coalition's (non-expansionary) fiscal contraction is thought to have reduced GDP by 4.3 per cent this year.

Duncan Smith is welcome to invite comparison of the two economies (not least because it aids the case against the government's policies), but he should know that there can only be one winner.

Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear