I've changed my mind. Let the EDL march

I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. A willingness to show compassion and understanding to friend and foe alike.

I possess none of these qualities. The world is black and white. I am right, you are wrong. If you are my opponent I must crush, not merely beat you.

That is how I have always conducted my politics. It has not been wholly successful. But it has got me as far as this web site, so I must have done something right.

None of us, though, have a monopoly on wisdom. Nor are our life choices set in stone. Occasionally one should listen to the views of others. Turn over a new leaf. Reach out.

You may have read in other places my criticism of the English Defence League [EDL]. I have used harsh, even coarse language against them. Most recently I have insisted their boots should not set foot on the streets of Tower Hamlets, and been critical of those who have adopted a different stance.

Here, today, I would like to make amends. I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism, and those others who, on a point of principle, have spoken out for their right to free assembly and protest.

Let us compromise. Why don't we put aside our differences, and find a middle path.

Here is my offering. The EDL should be allowed to march. But with pre-conditions. One or two safeguards that will enable those of us who have been sceptical of their methods and motives to be reassured of their good faith.

My first offer is this. The EDL can demonstrate. But with a commitment that for the 24 hours proceeding and following their protest, none of those participating consumes alcohol. Not a drop. None of those strange alcopop type drinks favoured by EDL leader Tommy Robinson. Not even a small dry sherry. Abstinence is the price they should pay to demonstrate their passion for freedom of expression and the rule of law. Oh, and they should agree to be breath tested in advance of the march. Not that I don't trust the boys you understand. But as I said, it's a sign of good faith.

If this seems too draconian, I have a second offer. Again, they can march. But it must be in fancy dress. A certain percentage of the EDL's followers must embark on their demo wearing nun's habits. A further percentage in those weird Emu like costumes Bernie Clifton wears to run the London marathon. And so on. Oh, and there's one final control order. Tommy Robinson himself must wear a tutu. Not just a tutu, obviously. That would make him look ridiculous. And slightly obscene. He can still wear his jeans and black puffer, or his EDL hoodie. Actually, wer'e banning hoodies these days aren't we, so that's probably out.

And there you have it. The EDL nuns and emus can march proudly through streets of East London, and the rest of us can take our sandwiches and watch. The kids would love it.

Or if that doesn't work, perhaps because they can't get enough habits and tutus in such a short space of time, I have a third suggestion.

Much has been made of the fact that other marches have been proscribed by the Home Secretary. That is indeed troubling. So I propose this.

Instead of banning the marches, we merge them. The EDL, Unite Against Fascism [UAF], and East End gay pride should march together. As one. Divided by ideology, yes. But united in their commitment to free political expression.

Of course, and you knew this was coming didn't you, there's one further catch. They must hold hands. Not in one long line of solidarity. That would be impractical; Brick Lane is very narrow. But two by two.

I'd love it if we could manage boy-girl, boy-girl, but I'm not sure the EDL have enough female members. So it would have to be by group. EDL member/gay pride member, UAF supporter/EDL member, etc.

To add another nice twist, they should intersperse their chants. Though I find the regular protest chats of all three groups a bit dull. So we should spice it up a bit. The UAF should sing some rousing patriotic anthems. Land of Hope and Glory. Jerusalem of course. The odd rendition of "Five one, even Heskey scored". Meanwhile, the EDL could try a few show tunes. "I am what I am", "I'm gonn'a wash that man right out of my hair", "Gee, Officer Krupke". And Pride could have a go at some of the hits from the most recent Love Music Hate Racism gig; a bit of Captain Dale, Petrichor and Shredded Lives.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. Understanding.

You know what, it's actually quite fun. Anyone got Tommy Robinson's phone number?

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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?