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Laurie Penny: Caster Semenya’s pink T-shirt

The fashion statement couldn’t have been clearer.

I've never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink T-shirt has me fascinated. The T-shirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and had a longer, more feminine hairstyle.

The fashion statement couldn't have been clearer: I'm a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.

With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. She has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her "masculine" appearance at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin led to her being withdrawn from professional athletics while her gender was being determined and as the world watched and gossiped.

The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded "more like abuse than science":

She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not "drink poison" and end it all.

Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, part of South Africa's attempt to prove that speculation over the young athlete's gender were sexist and racist -- by kitting her out in western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover.

Now she's been declared fit to run, it's clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks. So here she is, in her pretty pink get-up, hoping to placate a global media that has no time whatsoever for women who don't look how women are supposed to look.

This week, Senator David Vitter attacked the left-wing talk-show host Rachel Maddow for "not looking like a woman" on a radio station in the United States. When he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow "did not deserve" what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.

More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That's part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested. And, in an atmosphere of competition which demands that people fit rigidly into boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable.

That Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, that she clocked up one of the quickest 800m times in the world in 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs.

I do not wish to contribute in any way to further speculation over Semenya's gender. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; and the insistence by the IAAF and the international community that Semenya "prove" her female identity before being allowed to compete would have been sexist on every level, even if there were any foolproof way of doing such a thing, in a world where there are more than two human genders, where there is a whole host of gender identities and physical arrangements, and where 0.2 per cent of the population is intersex.

Semenya's physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us, but I remain disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-achieving woman who is not stereotypically "feminine" is an aberration, and must therefore actually be a man.

For the sake of argument, however, let's suppose just for one minute that Semenya had, in fact, been found and declared to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Suppose that this wonderful athlete -- who says that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and who expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women's sports, as a female and feminine physical feat -- happens to be among the 0.1 per cent of women without an XX genotype. Why would that be such a huge problem? And why should that have threatened to disqualify her from women's sports? What, were sports officials going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others?

Or could they have been planning to continue to ignore and belittle any contribution to human progress and prowess not made by people who conform personally, biologically and physiotypically to western notions of the two-gender binary?

Back to that pink T-shirt, the colour of corporate femininity, of brand woman, stretched provocatively over Semenya's chest in a statement of submission and conformity -- as if anyone could blame her after what she's been through.

If, indeed, Caster Semenya had been found to have any sort of genetic "advantage" over other women, the simplest solution might have been to force her to run in a miniskirt and tottering high heels to even the odds. Her talent is such that she would probably have won anyway. And, more importantly, she'd have proved to the world that she's a proper girl -- which is what really matters.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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?