First they came for the porn stars: the problem with an online filter

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times.

A few days ago, Conservatives received an email from David Cameron Himself, boasting of his new porn filter, a filter that will “protect childhood itself”. Underneath his signature, written in teeny-tiny text, was the message: “Blocked by your spam filter? Add bulletin@news.conservatives.com” to your address book.” Even the best filters still catch out the morally pure. 

The Co-op supermarket have implemented a filter of their own, demanding that lads’ mags be delivered in opaque modesty bags. The move comes after pressure from campaigns like “Lose the Lads’ Mags” run by Object and Feminista, who would prefer it if the Co-op would stop selling such titles altogether. Their spokesperson referred to the bags as ‘misogyny bags’, which is the point where the logic of their campaign falls apart.

Let’s take two examples, and in the comments below you can tell readers which you think is more misogynistic, more objectifying.  In the first example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She has travelled there to work consensually with a photographer and editor on a professional collaboration, producing pictures on her terms that she likes. One of the pictures is printed on the front cover of FHM with a caption saying that Kelly Brook competes with the desert to see who’s hottest. It is obvious that she is looking at the camera, interacting consensually with the photographer.

In the second example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She is on holiday. A paparazzi photographer takes pictures of her from an unflattering angle. They find their way to the desk of Heat magazine, who publish the picture on the front cover with the headline: “Does Kelly Brook look fat to you? Readers give their verdict.” Doubtless Heat would argue that they were joining the debate in Brook’s support, highlighting the absurdity of calling an obviously beautiful and healthy woman "fat". But if Heat really wanted to tackle the vile culture of body-policing that pervades modern media, they could simply choose not to participate in it.

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times. The digital version of drug prohibition, it is a gesture to traditional values that allows politicians to give the impression of action without addressing the root issues. For all their talk about misogyny, campaigners seem more interested in tackling sexuality. For all their talk about the safety of porn stars, campaigners seem more interested in driving them out of their jobs than reforming the industry.

That’s the other effect of filters – they censor. Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian, sees no problem with censorship. But then why should she? Orr is middle-class, and has regular access to a newspaper column in which to express her opinions. Her voice is safe, and if others aren’t that’s their problem. Her writing treats such people with contempt - women who enjoy "violent" porn are, to Orr’s eyes, picking up “useful tips on fictional rape”. But it’s precisely that sort of bigoted attitude to minority sexual preferences that inspires unease about the increasing efforts to censor the internet in accordance with "mainstream" tastes.

Of course for Deborah Orr there is no censorship, because Deborah Orr is a privileged middle-class woman with considerable personal agency – she can simply press the button at any time and have the filter deactivated. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that not everybody is in the same position. If you don’t own a house, if your landlord, partner (or abusive partner), parent, flatmate or university owns the connection, you may not have the same choice that Orr does. Anyone can choose not to seek out porn, not everyone can choose to have access to it.

And of course it won’t just be porn. It can’t be, because filters simply aren’t good enough to make a clear distinction. As Wired reported over the weekend, all other kinds of "objectionable" content could be included too. “As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course.”

To date, advocates of a porn filter have failed even to adequately define porn, let alone demonstrate that it causes significant harm in our society, or that a filter will have any impact in reducing that harm. Meanwhile the negative consequences of a filter are demonstrable. Thousands of people will be barred from legitimate exploration of their sexuality, and have their access to advice on sexual health, sexuality, and mental health issues removed. The most vulnerable people in society will be the least able to circumvent the block.

But that’s okay, because Daily Mail readers will be able to sleep soundly in the belief that they have made an import contribution in the war on misogyny.

1955: A model leaves a photography studio after posing for pornographic shots, and walks out of the building into the light. Photo: Pryor/Three Lions/Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

Getty
Show Hide image

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?