An unashamedly ideological new book surveys recessions over the last century and how governments respond to them. It is a question of the politics of life and death, according to David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, the authors of The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. Stuckler, an American teaching at Oxford, and Basu, a Stanford researcher, are great polemicists: they have a case to make and they make it well, using a combination of data, anecdote and qualitative research.
This is a work of persuasion so Stuckler and Basu do not trouble themselves too much with the practical difficulties faced by governments in an economic meltdown. It is, they say, simple: the Obama administration used stimulus; David Cameron’s UK government opted for austerity. Americans have lived better and longer while the British have suffered more and died earlier. Their position got some support this week from figures showing an unexplained rise in the number of deaths in the UK, particularly among the elderly.
Things are not, of course, quite so simple. For example, the US has a unique ability to borrow: it has the world’s only reserve currency so jittery markets can only have a limited impact on government’s capacity. Could the UK have sustained a similar level of borrowing? The UK health system is, by any reckoning, far better value than the US system but both are undergoing radical change — might it be the changes, not the volume of spending, that has influenced outcomes? These mundane doubts do not trouble two elite academics with a theory. Basu has many other theories too: a plan for a global social protection fund, for example.
It is, though, a relief to find health academics who want to write books that ordinary people can read. We should encourage them even if we don’t buy every sweeping conclusion.