Vernon's book cover. Photo: Hodder and Stoughton.
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Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist attacks cartoonish, bra-burning caricatures of feminism

Feminists: it’s OK to be hot. But you knew that already, right? 

Last week, I found myself shrinking uncomfortably in my chair as women around me chanted: “I AM HOT”.  I was at the Grazia launch party for Hot Feminist, a book authored by their star columnist Polly Vernon. There was hair-braiding, and questions from the audience about why “women attack other women more than men do”. Vernon was joined by Telegraph journalist Bryony Gordon, who remarked at one point that once the book was released, “I thought the feminists would come and attack you for liking the way you look”.

Both the event, and the book itself, have left me feeling confused. Because back in the Nineties, Naomi Wolf demanded from the patriarchy “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished”. And, now, a mere twenty years later, Vernon is begging the same of feminists, through a book her publishers call a “brave new perspective on feminism” which dismisses the “rules on ‘good’ feminism”. No more bra burning! No more body hair! Let us have pink back!

Are you confused yet? Did you misplace your rulebook? Because I, for one, never got the memo. I’ve never thought very hard about shaving, or about wearing high heels. I don’t think anyone should be forced to wear them, but then I don’t think anyone should be forced not to, either. The collective reaction to the book among women I know was nonplussed: did we miss some feminist-wide missive about body hair? Are there anti-hotness rules we don’t know about?

Vernon clearly did receive the memo, or thinks she did. She starts the book by outlining her passions for fashion and beauty, then remarks:

I know this isn’t strictly in the rules. Classic feminism is a bit ‘whoa’ about all of the above. A bit ‘bleurgh’, and ‘nah’, and ‘tut’ and ‘srsly?’ about looks-oriented thinking.

As you might have guessed, those quotes aren't attributed to anyone. From here on out, the book continues on this theme: it takes on a cartoonish, unattributed, bra-burning caricature of feminism and sets Vernon’s (sometimes silly, but largely commonsensical) points at odds with it. 

The book suffers, too, from inconsistencies in its argument. Vernon is, by her own account, trying to clear out the judginess from feminism and society; to remove the “fear of getting it wrong”. Yet she can’t seem to resist jumping on actions she doesn’t deem feminist or acceptable. Selfies, for example, are bad: “only sadness and madness can possibly result”, she remarks. In fact, almost every other chapter is laid out as a set of rules on fashion, or on what to call your partner (Vernon calls hers the “man in my flat”).

She devotes several pages to poking holes in “whataboutery”, whereby people lambast your focus on Page 3 or rape culture on the basis that people are having a terrible time in Syria, or that wars exist. Yet when I saw her speak, she criticised the Everyday Sexism project for carping on about an issue she sees as unimportant – she’s a fan of catcalling, as long as the man doing it is attractive enough. Then, in the book, she frames the No More Page 3 campaign as a bit silly, compared to her own feminist priorities. Oh, the irony. 

At times, lending an ear to Vernon’s complaints feels charitable, a like nodding along while someone lectures you about men’s rights or the economic struggle of very rich people. Vernon is not a particularly oppressed person: she is a woman with the body, money and choices to conform to a certain stereotype of female appearance, and at some points in her life has felt victimised for it.

To discount her argument on the basis that, for example, feminism’s white privilege is a more pressing problem, would be to fall into the trap of “whataboutery”. I’m happy to believe there are those out there who strongly relate to what Vernon says about feminism’s apparently anti-hot agenda. But the book seems aimed at a very niche group who feel victimised by outdated feminist ideas which are no longer widespread, if they ever were in the first place. 

Beyond that, the book is harmless, and occasionally funny and clever. A section on WAGs, for example, makes the good point that being interested in a group of women for their fashion and lifestyle is no less silly than watching men kicking a ball around. Vernon has a no-nonsense approach to abortion and governmental attempts to limit it, and could effectively take on politicians on issues like this with her sharp tongue.

Yet the endless jibes at what Vernon calls “trad” or “classic” feminism left me exhausted. Her stance implies that we’ll forever ping-pong between Wolfs and Vernons, without ever settling on the idea that people can dress and be a feminist in whichever way they choose.  Vernon and I, and, I think, most feminists, do agree on this – but you don’t sell books by agreeing with people, so it was necessary for Vernon conjure up a snaggle-toothed feminist demon as her opponent.

As we all know by now, there are as many versions of feminism as there are women. But if this is Vernon’s broader point, then she contradicts it in her very form, by calling what would be better written as a straight memoir “Hot Feminist”, a title which squashes a large, amorphous idea about equality into stilettos, and then markets it. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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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?