Cameron's housing benefit proposals are part of an ongoing redefinition of adulthood

PM continuing is a trend of assuming people in their twenties are still basically teenagers.

This isn't just about welfare. It isn't just about saving public money. It certainly isn't just about the feckless and workshy breeding on the state. David Cameron's desire to remove housing benefit from (almost) everyone below the age of 25 might be evidence – depending on where you're coming from politically – of populism, of the re-emergence of the "Nasty Party" or of some long-overdue tough love. But I would put it in a wider social context. I would ask: why it is happening now?

Cameron says that he wants to tackle a culture of dependence upon the state. What he seems to want to replace it with is dependence of children upon their parents well into what most would consider adulthood. He praises the couples who live (usually apart) in the family home until they can afford to put down a deposit on a house, a dream which may be forever beyond many of today's young people. He damns those who start their families early, before they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their offspring through their wages alone.

Of course, the rhetoric contrasts the feckless unemployed "scrounger" with the "responsible" twentysomething (or perhaps even thirtysomething) who works all day and then comes home to Mum and Dad. As the prime minister must be well aware, however, the majority of housing benefit claimants are in work. And that includes those who are under the age of 25. The benefit bill has mushroomed because rising house prices and rent levels have prevented an increasing number of working people from affording homes without help, whether that help comes from the state, from parental loans or from the ability to live in the parental home effectively rent-free.

In such a generationally skewed market, housing benefit might well be seen more as an aid to achieving independence and adulthood than as a form of dependence upon the state. To be able to leave the family home is a prerequisite to being able to travel to find work. It thus encourages self-reliance, self-esteem and a spirit of positive engagement with the world. Conversely, being forced to stay at home in adult life risks inculcating fatalism, depression and social as well as geographical immobility. Not to mention social friction, embarrassment, sexual frustration (not all parents are happy for even their adult children to sleep with partners in the family home), resentment and a sense of failure.

The true purpose of a safety net is not just to catch people when they fall, but to give them the confidence to jump. 

Of course it's unfair that some young families are accommodated with the help of the state while other young people cannot afford to leave home and start families of their own. I can see how this can lead to resentment. But it's hard to see how unfairness is eliminated by making things unfair for everyone. What is needed is a properly thought-out strategy for putting housing within the reach of younger people who don't work for investment banks or have trust funds to fall back on.

As I suggested at the beginning, though, this is about more than just housing benefit. To propose 25 as a qualifying age for help with rent is to imply that, whatever their circumstances, anyone below that age is not really an adult. In effect, it is to extend the concept of adolescence into the mid-twenties. It is to say that under-25s are too young for responsibility, too young to have lives and children of their own. Twentysomething pregnancy is the new teenage pregnancy and poorly-paid young workers are the new NEETs. Cameron's latest proposal does not exist in a vacuum. Recent years have seen such nonsenses as "Challenge 25", a draconian response to the declining "problem" of underage drinking that subjects people of clearly legal age to the ritual humiliation of producing ID at supermarket checkouts. One might note the demographic category of 18-25 itself, originally a marketing tool that assumes that people in their twenties are still basically teenagers. Indeed, it has increasingly been supplanted an 18-34 demographic, truly an ominous sign.

A society in which mass higher education is the norm is going to think rather differently about growing up than one in which most children leave school at 16 and enter the labour market. But the biggest contributory factor to delayed-onset adulthood is surely economic: the accumulation of capital in the older generation. The middle aged and the elderly have all the money and most of the power. This is not necessarily good news for them. The flip-side of extended adolescence is extended parenthood. To force younger people to live at home is also to force middle-aged people to continue to fund and support their offspring. If adult children are unable to begin their independent lives, their parents are equally unable to resume theirs.

 

The changes to housing benefit will see children move back in with parents. Photograph: Getty Images
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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?