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Economic recovery: either have a servant – or be a servant

That business leaders and right-wing economists are celebrating a minuscule shift in deeply flawed economic statistics without considering what lies beneath the statistics is just a continuation of what got us here. Meanwhile, the rest of us are supposed to celebrate getting a job as a housemaid.

Again today you need to read across different news stories if you want to get some kind of picture of what is actually going on. In this case the stories are “everything is looking up for the Scottish economy” and “one in four families have servants” (I’m slightly paraphrasing). These stories in parallel reveal the giant problem with how the media covers the economy and how the bulk of politicians understand it – from the perspective of wealthy business leaders not struggling families.

In today’s coverage you’ll find various business leaders boasting about how a bit of an upturn in Scotland’s perilous economic position shows that Scotland’s private sector visionaries are saving us all via their impeccable skills in creating jobs and wealth. You’ll also find analysis from various commentators virtually all drawn from the distinctly right wing of the political spectrum. All have got together and agreed that a few headline indicators which are now not as far behind the level they were at at the time of the start of the economic crisis is a vote of confidence in – well, themselves.

But this is the odd thing – what the economic crisis has shown perhaps above everything else is the that very indicators they are now pinning their self-congratulation on are the very indicators that failed to alert us to the very approach of the crisis. They showed the nominal returns from financial speculation embedded somewhere in a global GDP figure which looked unbeatable. They didn’t show the lack of liquidity and instability of the speculative activity. They showed house price increases, increases in first time buyers and all the other indicators of a healthy housing market. They failed to show the extent to which it was pushing families to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford on the back of unsound marketing strategies. They showed an upward trend in average earnings but didn’t properly take into account that the upward trend was masking inequality – those at the top were indeed getting income growth, most of the rest were seeing little or none.

So when we learn that employment is rising and that at the same time the employment of domestic help is rising, we might conclude that this ‘recovery’ is one shared by only a proportion of the population. Every indicator is taken to show that the old order not only worked then but will work again. So our increase in manufacturing output means our manufacturing industry has crawled its way from a pitiful share of the economy to, well, still a pitiful share of the economy. And the employment figures show that mass unemployment can be overlooked if it is eight-point-something percent of the population rather than nine percent.

This is just the people largely responsible for the crisis (neoliberal economists and the business leader class) being allowed to adjudicate on their own mistakes. (They find themselves not guilty, by the way.) The crisis revealed that under the cloak of shining capitalism was to be found a decaying mess. Now all those complicit are quickly trying to throw a makeshift cover back over the mess.

We need more than this. The lesson is that it’s not just jobs but the value of jobs that counts. And the big mission is not to get out of the crisis but to get to somewhere better. I want to repeat that point which most politicians and political commentators have not paid attention to: the big economic task facing Scotland is not recovery but reform. If we ‘recover’ on the basis that a few at the top protect their own wealth and use it to pay (often black market wages) for servants, they personally may have ‘recovered’ (although they never lost out) but society has not.

Why aren’t we talking about the structure of the labour market? Why do we still take headline figures as the whole picture? Why do we not look at the kind of economy that is emerging from the ruins of the old one? Are we really so glad to receive ‘good news’ that we choose to believe it even when we know its not true? And are we still going to allow the same group that caused or completely failed to foresee the current crisis to commentate on how well they are succeeding in getting us out of it? Is there some sort of D-notice that means journalise will never phone the STUC to ask it to analyse these kids of figures? After all, the economic analytic capacity of the STUC over recent years has been seen to be streets ahead of that of the right-wing economists (if accuracy is any measure). If business leaders are to claim that slight recovery from disaster shows how good they are, will they finally accept that the corollary is also true – the disaster itself shows just how weak they were?

And above all, is the economy going to be come a human issue again and not just an institutional one. What kind of ‘recovery’ is this if the spare financial capacity is all at the top and its being used to hire servants. I’ve seen what this looks like up close. My partner is Mexican and my observation from my visits there is fairly straightforward – in Mexico (certainly urban Mexico) you either have a maid or you are a maid. If that is the economy we are ‘recovering’ then something is wrong. And if the statistics keep showing that this kind of recovery is ‘good’ then we need to rethink the statistics.

But we all know this really. It’s just the convenience of a rare bit of good news. Like the man falling of a tower block we can keep saying ‘so far so good, so far so good’. But not forever.

Robin McAlpine