Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, By David Stuckler & Sanjay Basu

Poverty harms our health, for sure. Try to match policy to mortality, and the figures look fuzzier

The authors of this book make sure the reader knows that their research work has been peer reviewed. Yet they never point out that the work of economists with whose conclusions they disagree is peer reviewed too. This term means that a piece of work reaches a minimum acceptable standard to contribute to an academic journal. It certainly does not mean "correct", but that is what Stuckler and Basu want us to believe: not just that they are right, but that the academic establishment has awarded them a kite mark for truth. By omission, they let unwary readers believe their enemies have no such authority.

Get money off this title at the Independent book store

What The Body Economic offers is not objective truth, but a subjective and flawed polemic. Its argument is that "austerity" directly causes ill health and increases mortality rates; but austerity does not mean simply a recession or depression. Rather, it is a label for specific kinds of policy reaction to an economic crisis. Any reductions in government spending on health care come under this heading, but so do any policies that seem to involve extending markets, from the ending of Prohibition in the US to privatisations in Russia to current IMF reforms in Greece.

The sections that link government spending on health, especially public health measures, to health and mortality outcomes are surely uncontroversial. It would also be hard to find anybody seriously challenging the suggestion that poverty and unemployment are bad for health. However, linking specific economic measures to broad health outcomes is a more tendentious matter, and there are serious gaps and inconsistencies in their arguments.

For example, they claim that economic outcomes are better in the US than the UK now because the US government has adopted stimulus policies and the UK government austerity policies. Many (not all) economists would agree. However, while Britons can all access NHS healthcare, tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance. So which matters more for health outcomes: the overall change in general spending ("fiscal stimulus"), or the level of spending on health (provision of services)? The argument skates between the two without making it clear.

The Body Economic does not display any familiarity with the heated economic debate about "austerity" measures. This would be no great omission if Stuckler and Basu were not making some big economic as well as health claims. And the economics in the book is breathtakingly naïve, for all that one camp of economists might agree with it. Just one piece of evidence is presented to support the assertion that higher public spending boosts GDP growth: a scatter plot showing the change in GDP per capita and government spending per capita in 2009-10 for a mildly random 27 countries. "Instead of spouting ideology," the authors write above it, "We give you facts, explanations, and hard evidence." Needless to say, there is no hard evidence in a correlation for a subset of the relevant countries over one year. This is just sloppy statistics. The whole argument among economists concerns longer-term effects on growth.

The book will do nothing to change the minds of people who believe that the policies labelled here as "austerity" will pay off in the longer term. Equally, people who already believe what it claims will feel vindicated. This is a shame because there is useful evidence buried under the rhetoric here. In these hard times, governments should make sure that spending is directed to where it will bring the greatest benefit, and public health is too often overlooked and underfunded - even in the best of times.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?