All I want for Christmas is… presents that aren’t bloody pink

The rigid gender division of toys is a problem for both boys and girls.

Many things terrify me about having children -- no day that involves an episiotomy can be a good day, I feel -- but there is one which stands out. If I had a daughter, what would I dress her in? What toys would I buy her? What would I do if she turned to me and said: "Mummy, when I grow up, I want to be a pwetty pwincess"?

I got a preview of that future when buying a present for my four-year-old niece this Christmas. My sister had vaguely suggested I get something for her doll Baby, but I find Baby deeply sinister. (Its eyes roll back into its head as if it's had an overdose, and there's something about the plastic toenails which tips it into the Uncanny Valley.) What else is there that she would like, then? The answer is: pink. Yards of it, stretching off as far as the eye can see.

Now, if you've been following Pink Stinks -- the campaign which raises awareness of the limited range of toys marketed to girls -- you'll know why I have a problem with pink. The "pinkification" of toys has led to such horrors as these "Science Kits for Girls" (will it be the beauty salon or the perfume lab?). Because, you know, girls don't do "proper" science, only girly science: even though a good proportion of those in the cosmetics industry, and perfumiers, are men.

And it's not just a problem for girls: one mother on Twitter told me recently that her son would love a diary and a craft kit this Christmas, but the only ones she can find are pink. Male child, know your place! Feelings are for women! Also macramé!

OK, how about some Lego, the beautiful construction toy of my childhood, and the creator of possibly the sweetest advert ever created? My niece happily plays with her brother's collection, after all. (Don't worry, I'm not spoiling her Christmas: she prefers to read the Spectator.)

But even Lego has let me down, launching a special "girl-friendly" range of figurines, with big dopey eyes and delicate blush skin, instead of the yellow heads and dot pupils I remember strewing round my bedroom as a child.

It seems like a backwards step for the company, which has largely resisted the rigid gender divisions that affect other toy brands. (Yes, there have been previous girly ranges, but a search for "LEGO for Girls" on its website yields pirates, zoos and camper vans.)

According to the Stylist's report, "Researchers for the company found that girls aren't massive fans of the traditional yellow faced 'boy' figurines". I'm going to call bullshit here, for two reasons. The first is that the yellow-faced figurines aren't unarguably male: with those snap-on bowl cuts, they remind me heavily of myself as a nine-year-old. That's just a bad haircut, not a statement of gender. The second is that -- and I don't know if anyone has pointed this out before -- children are malleable, responding to the stimuli they are exposed to and the cues they are given. If they truly don't like the yellow figurines, it's unlikely to be an immutable facet of having a second X chromosome.

There's always an attempt with these stories about toys to come back to an essentialist view of gender: "look, boys just like trucks, OK? And blue. And girls like pink and dolls. That's NATURE!" The trouble is that the picture is a lot more complicated than that. As smartarse QI-loving types like me never tire of pointing out, the association between pink and the feminine is, in the history of humanity, an incredibly recent one: it arose within the last century. Cordelia Fine and others have made a convincing case that many other supposedly "hard-wired" differences between male and female brains have been overstated, or are heavily affected by social pressures.

This last point explains why many anti-feminists are so keen for toys to remain gendered: because if it's not really "natural" for boys to play with soldiers and girls to play dollies, then what other "natural" differences between the sexes (and the iniquities which arise from them) are no longer supportable? Perhaps it's not really "natural" for women to be under-represented on boards, or get paid less, or do more domestic chores even when they work the same hours as their male partners.

You can see this tactic at work, if you can bear it, in the comments on the Telegraph's report of Hamleys' decision to scrap having a blue boys' floor and a pink girls' floor, and instead order toys by type (dolls, computers, traditional etc).

Although a feminist blogger, Laura Nelson, claimed this was down to her writing letters to the chief executive, a Hamleys spokesperson said at the time: "The changes to our signage were not due to any campaign." And I believe them: it seems a sensible commercial decision not to stigmatise your customers. If a girl wants a construction set, how is making her feel abnormal going to encourage her -- and her parents -- to spend money at your store?

The majority of the Telegraph commenters, however, thought differently, and many engaged in that angry two-step that feminists should be familiar with: "Why are people bothered about this -- it isn't important! I'm going to boycott Hamleys!" It's a classic tactic: get fumingly angry in support of your own position, while calling your opponents pathetic for asking for a debate at all.

Amid a fiesta of insults and hatred directed personally at Nelson for daring to voice an opinion, and the usual "WHY DID THEY BAN GOLLYWOGS?!? WE CAN'T SING BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP NOW" nonsense, there were some real corkers. Two classics of the genre: "The woman who caused this is a disgrace to mankind. Wait, can I say mankind? That might be too sexist" and "When Tampax will be sold in chewing gum section, the mission will be accomplished". (Nope, me neither.)

Clearly, it matters a great deal to lots of people what toys are given to children. Let's not deny it. It matters to feminists because many "girly" toys give the impression that life is about being, not doing, which does nothing to create the next generation of Rebecca Adlingtons and Angela Merkels and Zadie Smiths and Jane Goodalls. And it matters to those who want to keep the status quo because if they win the battle of the toys, they can tell us it's our fault we're not succeeding. Because women are just built that way. Pass the pink sick bucket.

This blog also appears on the f word

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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?