Alf Young: If economics won't answer, try art

IN AN early scene in Lee Hall's inspirational The Pitmen Painters, on stage at Glasgow's Theatre Royal until this evening, Harry scolds a group of 1930s Northumberland miners for trying to exclude a young local lad from their art appreciation class.

Harry never made it down the Woodhorn pit that, in real life, spawned the remarkable Ashington Group of painters. Gassed at the Somme, he ended up a dental technician. In the wake of the Great Depression, the unnamed lad can't even find a pit that will take him on.

But Harry, the Marxist, prevails in his efforts to keep the jobless youngster in the class. He pays the lad's sixpence subscription with a rebuke to the others about "the cyclical nature of capitalism" being to blame. Then adds: "I still think we should be doing economics."

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Were Harry Wilson alive today, would he still be advocating studying economics over art? I hope not. We've come a long way from the quality of life experienced then. Decades of growth have, as they say, lifted all boats.

But now we are back in an almighty economic fix that, in some respects, looks even more daunting. Economic analysis is struggling to keep up.

Washington is in a stand-off over lifting the US debt ceiling, with the Republican Tea Party faction refusing to back their own House Speaker on what to do next. Revised growth in the US economy in the first half of this year looks very fragile. Failure to reach a deal by Tuesday could trigger an American default, what former treasury secretary Larry Summers warns would become a "Lehman on steroids" for the global economy.

China, the largest guarantor of American indebtedness through its holdings of dollar securities and the source of much of the world's low-cost, mass-produced goods, is publicly showing its displeasure. But Beijing has to contend with some intractable challenges of its own.

The latest crash on China's proliferating high-speed rail system claimed 39 dead and 200 injured last Saturday. It lifted another, unwelcome lid on the shoddy construction short-cuts and widespread corruption that, again and again, have defaced that country's rise to economic super-powerdom. If its secretive governing bureaucracy persists in trying to shut down public discussion of such disasters, who knows how its own people and the wider world might eventually respond?

Last week in Brussels we had that "exceptional" eurozone bail-out for Greece. This week Cyprus said it might need one too, yields at the latest Italian government bond auction hit an 11-year high and one of the ratings agencies, Moody's, threatened Spain with a downgrade.Clearly the eurozone, the UK's main export market, is not secure yet.

And here in the UK we had some dismal growth figures for the April-June quarter, figures that suggest our recovery from the banking crash and recession that followed will take quite a bit longer than even the one Harry Wilson and those Ashington miners lived through in the 1930s.

On current trends, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research calculates the time it will take the UK economy to recover all the output lost from the start of this downturn at 61 months. It took 47 months to recover in both the 1930-34 and 1979-83 recessions. In the UK, this now promises to be the slowest recovery in nearly a century.

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We won't, on this analysis, be back where we started in output terms until near the end of 2013, less than 18 months from the promised date of the next UK general election. That's precious little time to conjure up a belated feel-good factor. But loads of time for a hard-pressed public to get very restless and for tensions within the current coalition to reach breaking point.

I'm not talking about whether there should be a Plan A, a Plan B or, as Will Hutton would have it, a Plan Asian. In Britain, there never was a comprehensive plan to start with. There was an explicit plan to bear down harder on the UK's deficit than Labour would have done, purportedly to save the UK's sovereign credit rating.

There was no clear plan for growth. There was an assumption, in the Treasury's fiscal projections and in the new Office for Budget Responsibility's serially-downgraded growth forecasts, that a rapid return to trend growth would generate the tax revenues needed to deliver the lion's share of clearing the deficit.

That growth was to come, we were told, from a major rebalancing of our economy. Public spending and household consumption would shrink. And, as if by magic, the gap left behind would be filled to over-flowing by a private investment boom and an export-led manufacturing recovery. Didn't George Osborne promise a "march of the makers"?

Public spending and household consumption are certainly in retreat. However, in a world as uncertain as this one, private investors are cautious. Companies generating healthy profits are sitting on the cash or, as in the case of BSkyB yesterday, buying back their own shares. UK manufacturers, after a good run, are now much more gloomy about prospects ahead.

With growth anaemic and that hoped-for rebalancing of the economy seriously out of kilter, is the coalition falling over itself to reassure? Patently not.The day before those gloomy growth numbers were published, guidance to Whitehall departments from the head of the civil service suggested parents and children should think less about acquiring more stuff and more about helping others.

"We need to teach children about wellbeing and that there is more to life than material goods," wrote Sir Gus O'Donnell, as he urged "a culture change" on departmental policymaking, emphasising altruism and pointing to studies showing that people often feel better off when they spend money on others, not themselves.

I'm sure the Ashington miners would have raised their caps to that. One of them, Oliver Kilbourn, said no to an offer from a shipping heiress of 2 10s a week, more than he could earn down the pit, so he could paint full-time and fulfil his talent. He couldn't find it in himself to break the ties that bound miners together in their pit communities.

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There is plenty to like about this new focus on wellbeing. It need not be at the expense of conventional economic objectives. For instance, on the issue of economic wellbeing, the Office for National Statistics notes that home production - from doing our own ironing to growing our own vegetables - is "around the same size as conventional GDP" but never appears in any economic statistics.

However, the timing of Sir Gus's intervention - just as the march of the makers has come to a halt - points to a profound confusion in coalition thinking about how to nurture recovery. That sense of disarray is compounded by leaks of the wilder blue skies ideas being promoted by David Cameron's policy guru, Steve Hilton.

Perhaps they should all take a lead from the Ashington miners. Find a hut. Forget economics. Try art.