Is it over for Obama and the Democrats?

It might just be too soon to write off the president and his party.

It's not about him -- it's what he stands for. Two thirds of Americans don't have an issue with President Obama as a person -- it's not that they really think he's aloof, or too remote, or any of the other stuff which is supposed to be behind his fall in the polls.

It's just that the vast numbers of middle-of-the-road voters across the country are proving more centre-right than centre-left. Health care was one thing - but what's not going down well, it seems, is the President's handling of the economy - from the banking bail out to the still-rising numbers out of work.

When the economy is doing badly - history shows people tend to blame the party in power. And the latest survey show just one third of Americans think Barack Obama has been a "very good" or a "good" president: the rest consider him merely average, or downright "poor".

It's useful ammunition for the GOP, of course: House minority leader John Boehner is making his first major speech of the campaign in Ohio, where he'll focus on jobs: as an aide put it - "the November election will be a referendum on President Obama and Washington Democrats' job killing record." And RNC chairman Michael Steele bashed out an instant response to the jobless figures: "President Obama and his left wing allies on Capitol Hill have spent trillions of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it but a mountain of crippling debt and chronic joblessness."

So just over three weeks before the midterms - how should the Democrats fight back? The good news for the party is that barely anyone (just 22%, apparently) - thinks Sarah Palin would make an effective president.

And key election strategist David Plouffe, who's back running Obama's "Organising for America" campaign, has insisted voters are still open to the arguments - claiming large numbers are being put off the Republicans by the success of Tea party candidates.

President Obama himself - and the First Lady, Michelle (now officially the "World's Most Powerful Woman"...whey-hey...) - are out there whipping up enthusiasm on the campaign trail. Even Joe Biden's been sent out on the road, campaigning for 18 candidates in 23 cities across the country - with 18 more events in his busy diary before election day.

And there's a decidely populist tone coming from many Democrats - a direct pitch to working families - hitting Republicans by bashing corporate America, outsourcing of jobs, and the minimum wage.

Yesterday President Obama used his veto to block a bill that sneaked through Congress last week - which critics say would have made it easier for lenders to evict people who missed their mortgage payments. There are legal moves going on in at least ten states to extend a voluntary freeze on foreclosures - with calls for a moratorium across the country.

Union officials from the AFL-CIO have put out literature in Illinois, Oregon and Minnesota, accusing Republican gubernatorial candidates of opposing an increase in the minimum wage - while highlighting other Republican candidates who've proposed doing away with federal minimum wage regulations altogether.

And Democrats in many districts are pushing the message that they're on the side of ordinary workers - a message that pollsters say has been going down well with focus groups. In at least six close-fought Senatorial contests, like California and Indiana - they're putting out campaign ads attacking the Republicans over their record on outsourcing - like this, from Barbara Boxer: "Carly Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers. Fiorina shipped jobs to China."

Not that the Republicans are taking this quietly: a collection of lobbyists from big business called Club Fox Growth is splurging millions on ads in toss-up states which depict Democrats as "out of touch with the financial plight of average Americans." Look at the level of campaign spending, in fact, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the recession never happened...television spending by outside interest groups, says the New York Times, has more than doubled the amount spent at this stage in the 2006 midterms.

But is any of this - from hard cash to populist ads - galvanising people to the polls, and overcoming that much-documented 'enthusisasm gap' among those voters who so optimistically swept Barack Obama into power?

The most recent survey by Pew Research at first looks alarmist - under its banner headline 'Lagging Youth Enthusiasm Could Hurt Democrats in 2010'. But read a little closer - and the numbers are rather more hopeful for the party. Younger voters, it says, are far more supportive of the President than any other age group. 58% of the so called 'Millennial' generation still approve of how he's doing. Of course optimism is the preserve of the young. And three weeks isn't long to turn things around. But still - it might just be too soon to write off Obama - and those "left wing allies on Capitol Hill" - just yet.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and American politics expert for Channel 4 News.

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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?