If inflation is a bad thing, why is government policy designed to make us want more of it?

Britain is awash with debt, while government policy encourages inflation. But theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out, while actual inflation will hurt.

So, you want to buy your first house. Let's assume (I know, I know, cloud cuckoo land, but let's go with it) you've scraped together a deposit and have persuaded someone to give you a mortgage. You'll be borrowing, on average, around £117,000. Oh, but that's assuming you're not in London. If you are, you're looking at more like £193,000 instead.

You've probably got some other debt outstanding too; most of us have. Last May, the average consumer borrowing - credit cards, overdrafts, car loans and so on - stood at around £3,207. That's an average, mind, so for a lot of us it's a lot more. Oh, and it had, by June, risen - only by £4, admittedly, but still, every little hurts.

Then there are student loans. In 2011, the Push university guide reckoned these averaged out at around £5,680 per student per year. That was before the new tuition fee regime, of course, and now you're probably looking at somewhere closer to £12,000 to cover fees plus maintenance. The resulting hole in your finances isn't really debt - even the government doesn't expect most of it to be paid back - but is more like an extra tax levied on those foolish enough to be born after 1993 (serves ‘em right). Nonetheless, it does mean yet another big red stain on the finances of those starting out in life.

The point, in case it's not quite sledgehammer enough for you, is that Britain is awash with debt - and the younger you are, the more likely you are to be drowning in it. Coalition ministers have spent a lot of time talking about how immoral it is to run up the nation's credit card and leave our children to pay it off. But they've seemed surprisingly blasé about running up our children's actual credit cards, and have cheerfully gone around loading them up with tuition fees and inflating the housing bubble all over again. Reports from the Office of Budget Responsibility, indeed, have been pretty explicit in their expectation that cuts to the deficit would be matched by a vast increase in personal debt.

All this is obviously horrible for those who'll have to pay those debts. But I wonder if it could have a more profound effect on the nation's attitude to its finances.

We're still living in an economic consensus defined, broadly, by the Thatcher government. For much of the seventies, inflation had run at over 10 per cent, which was commonly thought A Bad Thing. Thatcher's economic policies - monetarism, deindustrialisation, a strong pound - were all intended to get inflation down to the sort of level which didn't scare the bejesus out of investors, and keeping inflation low has been one of the main goals of policy ever since.

Now, though, a large and growing chunk of the population would, in the long term, do quite nicely out of spot of inflation. More than that, they're relying on it: some of the mortgages handed out over the last decade haven't got a hope of being repaid unless nominal wages start to spiral.

Think this through for a moment. If you woke up tomorrow to find that wages and prices had both doubled overnight, then the value of whatever debt you're sitting on has effectively halved. More than that, though, the value of the debt the government is sitting on has halved, too. Oh, and with a cheaper pound, suddenly Britain's exports look more competitive too. Halve the value of money in this country, and a lot of our problems suddenly look soluble. (This is economic model that used to work so well for Italy.)

The real world is not so kind, of course, and real inflation would be a lot more painful than that. Interest rates would rise. Holidays would become more expensive. The five or six British people still sitting on savings would see them whittled away, and anyone about to retire gets shafted.

Worst of all, wages are extremely unlikely to move in lockstep with prices, and those that lag most would likely be the ones paid to those with least bargaining power. That means, in all probability, the poorest. Those same people are also the least likely to benefit from an increase in asset prices (houses again, mostly) that'll accompany any inflation.

Oh, and there's the tiny problem that the deficit means we're still dependent on the faith and credit of the international bond markets. Theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out. Actual inflation will hurt.

Nonetheless, though you'll never catch them saying it out loud, this seems to be the plan the government have lumped for. To get out of the mess we're currently in, there are only really three options. One is a sustained and historic boom (unlikely). Another is default (horrible). The third is to try to inflate the debt away and hope nobody notices. If you're young, middle class and sitting on a massive mortgage, this works in your favour. If you're an investor, a pensioner, or, worst of all, poor, it doesn't.

All the reasons inflation was bad in the Seventies still apply. There are many good reasons for wanting to keep it down. But we can't have everything. The larger the share of the population that is sitting on unsustainable debts, the less frightened of inflation the electorate will become. Any monetarist baby boomers out there might want to think about that, next time they're talking gleefully about how much their house is worth.

A boy with a kite made of banknotes in Germany during the depression of 1922 when escalating inflation rendered much of the currency worthless. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage