The age of the social sonogram - where does the oversharing end?

The only way to cure the "too much information" epidemic is... too much information.

We all have different ways of breaking special news. Some of us get straight on the phone to our mums; some of us go for civilised dinners with other halves and best friends; some of us crack out the city’s best cornershop cava. However you want to share the news of that promotion, pregnancy or personal pride, you can be sure that the big bad world now offers a million and one ways to do it - and by the big bad world, we mean the internet.

There’s no denying that the internet is more real than reality these days: Facebook has more photos of you than your parents’ baby albums; hundreds of people on Twitter who you can socialise with daily will only ever exist for you in cyberspace; and the power of Skype has meant that many a long distance relationship has been brought closer by high-definition wanking. Problem is, what if the nature of your social network changes? Nothing illustrated this more than when reports started coming in that Facebook was showing private messages sent between friends from 2007 and 2008, prompting an (online) uproar about privacy. In fact, the issue was just that we’d all forgotten how candid we used to be when Facebook was merely a fledgling chick rather than a huge, gold-plated turkey. Back when you only had 15 friends, "got laid last night, lol" seemed totes fine to post on your best mate’s wall. But now your friend list is pushing 500, your relationship status links back to your boyfriend, and you’re applying for that ultra prestigious civil service job, that one night of WKD-fuelled passion (yep, you drank that back then) doesn’t feel like something you want recorded anymore. Reality bites.

We’ve found out about more than our fair share of weddings and baby-makings through social media, in increasingly crass ways (3D sonogram as a profile pic, anyone?) We were even fortunate to come across a T-shirt in a shop window the other day, surely a strong contender for "creepiest piece of attire in the world" (alongside lederhosen) which showed a blurry sonogram reproduction with the caption "Daddy’s little girl". We hadn’t realised that it was possible to act pervy about a foetus, but there you go.

So in this age of social sonograms and pregnancy apps, we come to the inevitable question: how much have we fucked up the kids this time? Jezebel concurred with the New York Times this week that we should take fewer pictures of our children, after journalist and psychologist David Zweig noticed that his 3-year-old daughter requested nonstop photos and was becoming constantly aware of her looks. By school age, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that she’ll be pinning her own first paintings on a Pinterest board. Which would all be totally cool, if we weren’t using most of our imagery in the media nowadays for evil.

"Celebrity mag" culture has led us all to comment on K-Middy’s breasts, Lady Gaga’s arse in fishnets and Kylie’s sweat patches with startling regularity. And while men undoubtedly suffer from this scrutiny too, women are usually in the front line for a spraying of spite-filled glossy pink bullets. Constant awareness, a la Zweig’s 3-year-old, is necessary to survive in a world where an iPhone might be whipped out and used against you at any moment. Meanwhile, you must guard your online persona fiercely: as your finger hovers over a more truthful "like" on the page ("Lily likes Canesten" - the lifesaver of your Saturday thrush!), you turn regretfully towards something that will set you up for a bit more online kudos and social media approval ("Lily likes Neutral Milk Hotel.")

And yet, the rigidly guarded social media persona is giving way to a new kind of internet twattery: what the kids call TMI, or Too Much Information. It has to be a dystopian mash-up of celebrity culture and reality TV that’s done it - there is now an assumption that people give a toss about the insignificant minutiae of your everyday life: what you had for breakfast, and, by extension, the contents of your womb. In other words, Facebook has become like Heat magazine, the trash rag in which nothing is sacred, except now it’s comprised entirely of your mates, former colleagues, and people you once shared a fag with outside Revolution in Manchester, all telling you about their hangover poo.

What’s terrifying is that the TMI is getting worse. The vogue for scanned sonograms has by now given way to iPhone photos of pregnancy tests showing a positive result, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace to upload a birthing video or live tweet your girlfriend’s labour: "Stacey is 4cm dilated and just shat herself #epidural?"

We stand on the brink of this terrifying potential and there is only one solution. We have to beat these internet bellends at their own game. Whether it’s uploading a picture of your diaphragm alongside a winky emoticon ("getting lucky tonight!"), or posting the status update "not pregnant AGAIN! Woo!" alongside a smartphone photo of your Tampax Ultra, we need it to be (genital) warts and all oversharing. Just opened your clap clinic results? Get that chlamydia reaction video on YouTube, pronto. Recently had a colonoscopy? Excellent, whack it up there. Only once your online friends are confronted by the realities of your parasitic bowel will they take a step back and realise the implications of their behaviour. Before you know it you’ll be Mayor of the BPAS clinic on FourSquare, your repeat custom having ousted ring-wing fundamentalist nutjobs Fortydaysforlife, and your vagina will have its own Twitter account ("Just saw some tortellini shaped like Naomi Wolf and don’t think I’ll ever write again").

Meanwhile, your dullard acquaintances will resist papping their brunch and consign their baby photos to where they belong: offline, meaning the children of the future can be raised happy and free from constant monitoring. It’s high time their idiot parents learned their lessons - and only you, dear reader, can be the one to teach them.

Photograph: Geoff Livingston on Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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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?