Are Disabled People Dangerous?

The aim of this blog is to tackle some of the issues, both personal and political, faced by disabled

Hi, my name is James Medhurst and I am disabled. However, before you try to visualise me, I should point out that I am not sitting in a wheelchair and nor am I accompanied by a cute yellow Labrador. In fact, I have a high-functioning form of autism which is similar to, but not quite the same as, Asperger Syndrome.

This means that I have a great deal of difficulty with non-verbal communication, especially in social situations, and a few other symptoms, such as very poor motor co-ordination and a little compulsive behaviour.

It may surprise some people to discover that I do not spend most of my time in a state of distress about these circumstances (I have had thirty years to get over it) and I do not harbour an intense desire to be normal, whatever that means.

The aim of this blog is to tackle some of the issues, both personal and political, faced by disabled people in the United Kingdom today. I will not be giving a detailed account of the unusual features of my visual system, fascinating though they are, but rather I shall be looking at the ways in which the structure and practices of society, as well as our bodies, impact upon the lives of disabled people.

Uncomfortable reading?

In many cases, I will have direct experiences of particular situations and I will be happy to share these with you but, given the vast array of different impairments, both physical and psychological, under the general umbrella of disability, it will not always be possible for me to provide such direct examples, and I shall rely instead upon the experiences of others or upon thought experiments. Under no circumstances do I claim to speak for all disabled people on any topic.

A number of the areas discussed will be familiar territory for readers of magazines such as the New Statesman, such as arguments over politically correct language and incapacity benefit. At other times, I hope to show the importance of issues which you may not have previously considered such as the problems of wheelchair users using public transport, deaf people visiting the theatre, and blind people trying to find copies of the latest books.

Some posts could even make uncomfortable reading for those of you on the left - disability rights campaigners have often found themselves allied with the Christian right regarding euthanasia and genetic engineering, while a few of the views expressed may seem very bizarre and unfamiliar indeed. For example, many disabled people are highly ambivalent about the charities supposedly founded for our benefit and are far from comfortable with medical research designed to rid us of our impairments. There is a lot to get through.

However, the first subject that I want to write about concerns the perception of disabled people in society, which is often different from that of ethnic minorities. Recent media reports about Polish immigrants seemed excessively concerned with numbers, treating a large influx of foreigners as inherently scary, regardless of the economic consequences. By contrast, disabled people are often patronised as helpless victims rather than portrayed as a threat. Television dramas rarely depict people with cerebral palsy as gun-toting serial killers or even blind people as scheming adulterous politicians, as though they are too incapable to present any sort of danger.

This strange idea reached its most ludicrous extrapolation when the chief executive of Ryanair questioned the government's policy of searching everyone, including wheelchair users, who was boarding a flight, presumably on the grounds the latter are simply incapable of concealing explosives about their person.

Disfigurement

Nevertheless, there is one curious exception to the rule, the concept of the "evil genius", a disabled person whose rage at the world has created a desire to destroy it, with the classic archetype perhaps being Dr. Strangelove. The latest series of 'Doctor Who' revealed that the Cybermen were created by an embittered wheelchair user played by Trigger from 'Only Fools and Horses', just as the disabled character Davros gave life to the Daleks. It is too great a coincidence that the Doctor's two worst enemies have these origins when he has never had a disabled assistant himself. The message seems to be that we must accept our lowly status lest our chippiness should spiral out of control.

It is not just wheelchair users who are affected, with albinism and facial disfigurements being particularly popular impairments for villains. The latest example is the albino monk Silas from the 'Da Vinci Code'. In this case, the logic appears remarkably similar to that of racism – anyone who looks different is assumed to be morally corrupt in some way. Granted, the most guilty programmes and films are not noted for their high levels of realism or moral engagement but the risk remains that these attitudes will be transferred to unthinking viewers.

If people who look different are viewed with suspicion, people who think differently are regarded as potential enemies of the state, and this is one area in which media stereotypes clearly spill over into public policy.

I marched against the government's proposed Mental Health Bill as long ago as 1999 but, although it has yet to be enacted, it remains possible that something very similar could still be introduced. Briefly, it was intended that people diagnosed with personality disorders could be held for long periods without appeal and forcibly treated, a policy opposed not only by mental health campaigners but also by the psychiatrists required to carry out the treatment.

The concept of the personality disorder itself is highly flawed because the people so diagnosed often experience no distress and it has been suggested that the term reflects social disapproval of their behaviour rather than a health issue. While the perception of criminal risk is usually associated with men, there is also a raft of similar conditions seemingly aimed at regulating the actions of women, a disturbing consequence of the misogyny of modern medicine, and perhaps a bad break-up with a girlfriend for one or two of the psychiatrists involved. It is true that people with personality disorders are at high risk for depression but this may well have more to do with the attitudes that they face than with the inherent features of their personalities.

Norman Tebbit

A new and very worrying development is the proliferation of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders being given to those with conditions such as autism and attention-deficit disorder, more often than not to children rather than adults. Because these matters are dealt with by the civil courts, the children are denied the right to a medical report to which they would be entitled in the juvenile criminal justice system.

In one case, a boy with Tourette's Syndrome was ordered to stop swearing. It is nonsensical that so many resources should be deployed to attempt impossible transformations in people who present little danger, and the rhetoric resembles that of Norman Tebbit's cricket test, the idea that immigrants should assimilate in order to make everyone else feel more comfortable.

Embracing unconventional people may result in tolerance of alternative ways of thinking and these may be hard for some members of the establishment to accept. Perhaps it is this fact which makes the existence of disabled people threatening to mainstream values, in which case I am proud to be so.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?