Alan White's Olympic diary: Can the Olympics put an end to our terrible treatment of female athletes?

Team GB's fantastically successful female Olympians mean we surely can't ignore women's sport any longer.

British female athletes have bossed these games. They don’t quite have the numbers (at the time of writing eight of our 22 gold medals and six of our 13 silvers have been won by women or teams containing them),  but it may well be the female performances that live longest in the memory.

Think of Gemma Gibbons and the cathartic salutation to her mother against the crowd’s roar, as she secured a place in the judo final. Think of the staggering bravery of Laura Trott (of whom Jeremy Vine said: “It is impossible to believe there is cruelty in the world when you have heard [her] giggle”), born prematurely with a collapsed lung, and liable to vomit after every race. Think of the envy-inducing combination of athletic perfection and sheer bloody niceness that is Jessica Ennis.

Watching these women hasn’t just encouraged us to engage with affable, compelling characters. It’s been thrilling viewing: edge-of-the-seat, high-octane sport delivered by ferociously talented athletes at the peak of their powers. Things couldn’t be better, could they?

And yet only a few days ago, there was a dissenting voice in the form of Lizzie Armitstead, silver medalist in the women’s road race. She took the opportunity of her increased exposure to speak out: “Sexism is a big issue in women sport - salary, media coverage, general things you have to cope with in your career. If you focus too much on that you get disheartened."

It was quickly forgotten amid the joyous bonhomie. But let’s rewind a few months – to the announcement of the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011. You might not remember this, but not a single woman was named. There was an outcry, and the broadcaster was quick to blame the sports editors that made the selections. It didn’t quite have time to explain why those editors were drawn from, among others, the likes of such publications as Nuts and Zoo.

Now admittedly these magazines do encourage one form of exercise that’s improved the cardiovascular systems of many a 14-year-old, but as the ever-excellent Andy Bull has pointed out, are their editors really more clued-up than those of, say, sportsister or womensportreport? 2011 wasn’t a vintage year for British women’s sport, but it was certainly good enough for a couple of names to make the shortlist. Worth noting some of those in Team GB that are now household names had successful seasons – in particular Katherine Grainger.

Maybe the problem was less their achievements than the lack of exposure they received. It was this suspicion that prompted Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, to ask the BBC about its coverage of women’s sport. She tells me: “The fact the BBC gives more coverage to darts alone than women's sport in total is so surprising and frustrating - the debacle over Sports Personality of the Year was a symptom of a broader problem where women's events aren't covered, so aren't on the radar for those voting. The interest in watching and ability of those involved merits a fundamental rethink by all concerned.”

The coverage question feeds into something else. This report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has received the square root of bugger all interest until now, but maybe people will start to take a little more. You see, it points out that between January 2010 and August 2011, men’s sport received 61.1 per cent of commercial sponsorship. How much do you think women got? You're wrong, probably. The answer would be half a per cent. You can moan at me about how women should take a pay cut or play five sets in professional tennis (and I’ll listen, at least), but there’s no way on earth you can justify a figure like that.

And I’m trying to confine the issue to Britain here. It’s great to see female Saudi Arabian athletes, but how much pressure has the IOC brought to bear on the kingdom to let them train in their own country? In fact the more you look around the world the worse the treatment of female athletes seems, and before you know it you’re doing a passable impression of Germaine Greer watching Top Gear.

Why the bloody hell should America’s strongest woman have to live in poverty? What in the name of God is this all about? And this? Back in Britain, isn’t this just a bit disrespectful, come to think of it? Do we perhaps think this lady should have received more sponsorship? And sod this for a game of soldiers: it’s all just insidious, isn’t it? I could keep going with this stuff – for some time, actually – but at this rate I’ll end up burning all my partner’s bras on her behalf or something.

So let me conclude on a more upbeat note. Here’s Dr Creasy again: “The idea people don't want to watch women's sport has been blown apart by the audiences for our Olympians - whether on the football or hockey pitch, in the Velodrome, the swimming pool, indoors or on the track, Britain's female sporting talent is big news. I just hope the Games will finally win the case many of us have been trying to highlight with broadcasters, to change their ways."

 

Odds and Ends

 

How to lift 247kg over your head – and win Olympic Gold.

Nice little Alistair Brownlee story.

I love Aliya Mustafina, so this is the site for me.

Bryony Gordon was with Victoria Pendleton’s family for her last hurrah.

Speaking of Pendleton, here she is with Laura Trott, a few years ago. And here is Laura Trott is with Wiggo. The interviews linked to on that first picture are worth watching as well.

John Inverdale’s Wikipedia page: hacked again.

Possibly the worst Olympics headline you’ll ever read.

Boris playing the fool again.

Are you a conflicted lefty watching the Olympics? Then here’s the site for you.

Jessica Ennis and Bradley Wiggins went to see the Stone Roses.

Chris Hoy’s mum can’t look.

So going forward, that’s all good.

This will be one of the defining moments of the Games.
 

British cyclists Dani King, Laura Trott, and Joanna Rowsell with their gold medals. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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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?