How two farm-boys-done-good could change the world

While everyone loves Commander Chris Hadfield, it's Iowan James Hansen who really needs the attention.

One was a farm boy from Ontario, the other the son of itinerant Iowa farmers. Both are now world-renowned scientists and activists with the attention of global leaders. However, the public only listens to one of them. The wrong one.

Commander Chris Hadfield has expanded our horizons, making the International Space Station an accessible place to virtually visit, and giving us wonderful views of our planet photographed from space. When the Canadian astronaut recorded a version of David Bowie's Space Oddity for his departure from the ISS, it was played on national news broadcasts across the globe and has been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube.

It's a stark contrast with the stern-faced Iowan caution of James Hansen. The world's most renowned climate scientist has little joy to bring. Instead of heart-warming photos of electric lights blazing from the surface of Earth, he has dull graphs showing the slow, steady advance of the global warming apocalypse – ironically, caused in part by the electric lights that have made Hadfield's pictures so popular. Hansen doesn't have a song.

He doesn't even have a particularly motivating speaking style. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Hansen was a firebrand. He gets arrested in protests over environment-damaging mining practices and the construction of a pipeline that will bring the world's dirtiest oil to market. NASA has tried to gag him – and he gathered evidence of this and then took it to the New York Times. He has lobbied national leaders the world over. But Hansen is a fact-driven, cautious speaker who is careful not to get emotional over his message.

That is probably why it hasn't made any headway. If you heard the sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth in central London last night [16 May], it was because Hansen was giving a talk. The howling from the LSE lecture hall wasn't outrage over climate change - everyone in the building already appreciated those facts. What became increasingly clear as Hansen spoke was that there is no way to make anyone in power do anything about them.

Being informed is not enough. In April, Hansen retired from his position as director of NASA's Institute of Space Studies in order to be able to sue the federal government (government employees are not allowed to sue their employer) over their lack of action on climate change. The federal government's defence is likely to be, "well, it was all so dull, James."

By Hansen's own admission, the whole subject is "too technical for the public". He has tried to soften the message by framing the issue in terms of the world that we are bequeathing to his descendants. In his book Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen allowed himself "one graph per chapter" he said last night. It was still too much: the book was dismissed as dry. He is currently forcing his message downwards in complexity by working on another book that is composed of a series of letters to his first grandchild, called Sophie's Planet. He's not confident it will make any difference at all. An audience member asked how he would reach the people who mattered: the ones who didn't fancy coming to hear him speak. "I don't really have a good answer to that," he said.

It would be interesting to know what Hadfield's answer would be - if he were allowed to speak. Hansen was in Europe to give testimony to the European Parliament about the folly of using oil from the Canadian tar sands. This is not something a Canadian scientist can do: if they receive government money, they are not allowed to talk about environmental issues without government permission, which is rarely forthcoming. Coverage of government-funded climate change research has dropped by 80 per cent in Canadian media because reporters can't access the researchers.

By now, however, Hadfield surely has the global currency to take off the gag without fear of reprisals from the Harper government. Perhaps he could even write the protest song that Hansen so desperately needs. At the end of the 1960s, the Apollo astronauts' experience and photography of Earth from space kick-started the modern environmental movement: their photographs made us fall in love with Earth. Hadfield has successfully repeated the trick for the age of social media – now he should use his power for good. If he were to join forces with Hansen, it's conceivable that two farm boys might just save the world.

The crew of the ISS, including Commander Chris Hadfield, return to earth. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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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?