My zero tolerance for these politicised police chiefs

They have forgotten their most important directive: they police with our consent.

It's always ironic to misuse the word "ironic", and I may be about to do so. But isn't there something ironic in the sight of police "leaders" decrying the Tory insight (that what we partly need is some citizen-directed political control over policing priorities, via elected commissioners), by taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere to indulge in, ah, politics? The officers' officer corp has been anything but apolitical since last Monday.

The inverted commas around "leaders" is at least partially deserved, I think. Last Monday, the police held back and didn't use force to quell the rioters. On Tuesday, they behaved like a police force again, and within 36 hours the riots were extinguished. When the PM made this point -- I don't claim its undeniable truth, but he spoke for many of us in the boroughs affected -- he didn't receive an apology or explanation from the acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin; instead, he received political abuse.

Supporting the use of sufficient force in the face of violent looting, as an aside, does not equate to a requirement to turn a blind eye to outrages such as the assault on Ian Tomlinson, as the Mayor of London appeared to hint in his Telegraph article on Monday.

It's not hard, in my mind at least, to differentiate between the two, and I was disappointed at the normally eloquent Boris' apparent conflation of them.

It shouldn't require saying that criticism of police leaders does not imply criticism of rank-and-file officers (my brother-in-law is a serving officer), but equally, honest appreciation of the calibre of men such as he does not translate into a blank Tory cheque for whatever words issue from Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who also saw fit to attack the Prime Minister, as well as taking the opportunity to insert a stiletto into the candidacy of the American Bill Bratton, putative applicant for Met Commissioner. What is ACPO for? What use is it? Sir Hugh had a distinguished career. It's a shame to tarnish it through association with this top cops' trade union.

The PM touched on an important point in his impressive speech yesterday, about the need for cultural, as well as legislative and operational, changes. The Lib Dems may be substantively irrelevant to any discussion about, well, certainly this topic. ("Oh let's not be knee-jerk," wails Simon Hughes. Sometimes, Simon, a jerk of the knee is exactly the right response to a threat). Unfortunately we require them for our anti-Labour majority in parliament. The question I suspect I'm not the only Tory to ponder, however, is: even if we weren't bound up with the Liberals, and could remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book, would much change?

Or have both the attitudes, and the litigious culture it has engendered, made concrete the cultural reflexes of the leaders of our institutions, those reflexes which Tories abhor?

I worry about the answer to that when the police have spokesmen like this superintendent, who spoke thus over Twitter:

Political talk of 'Zero tolerance policing' is a bit like wearing flares, comes in to fashion once every 20 years, then gets forgotten about.

If my Tory fear is right, then it underlines the need to reconnect police leaders with the public they serve, via elected Commissioners. I doubt the superintendent I quoted would forget about zero-tolerance, were his boss directly elected by people who demanded it. (He's probably an excellent officer, and it's unfair to lift one tweet from his timeline without also recording that the many others suggest a dedicated man. But he should not be twittering such political opposition to the will of the Prime Minister).

In London the situation is murkier than elsewhere, since both the Mayor (for whom we vote) and the Home Secretary (for whom we do not) have some weird joint accountability for the leader of the Met. Accountability, like a problem, is halved when it is shared. Take the counter-terrorism duty from the Met and place it directly under the aegis of the Home Office, and thus parliament. Give the Mayor clear accountability to Londoners for what happens on our streets.

And what of Sir Hugh, with his elegant put-down of an American? Is it impossible to imagine the Met having any better leadership than that which it's enjoyed the last ten years or so?

We've had Brian Paddick declare his fondness for anarchy, preside over a disastrous experiment with drugs policing in Lambeth, then give up on his police career in order to cavort in a jungle and run as a joke candidate for mayor. We've watched several of the recent top officers being humiliated in the Commons over their approach to phone-hacking.

We had a Commissioner who was in place for a ridiculously short space of time, before (needlessly, in my opinion) resigning over some trivia about post-operative recuperation. The woman who was in direct command the day that Jean Charles de Menezes was executed (sorry: not an execution; the Met were eventually prosecuted under Health and Safety laws) has been rewarded with control of the specialist crime division.

And who could forget Ian Blair, Tony's special little enforcer -- the trail-blazer, in many ways, of this politicised pack -- ever eager to make the dubious case that what the Met really needed was the ability to lock us all up, without charge, for months. These are recent Met leaders who spring to mind. Is Sir Hugh so sure that no outsider could improve upon them? Or that, by extension, we shouldn't be directly involved in setting their priorities?

Whether Mr Bratton is the answer or not isn't quite my point (though I think he may well be a good answer). The leadership of the police may have forgotten their most important directive: that they police with our consent. Our consent: not that of the barristers at the Matrix chambers. Consent, in the UK, is best expressed through the medium of election; however unsatisfactory that may seem to ACPO.

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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?