The other Hitchens boy

On "Mortality", journalism and Russell Brand.

A review on the cover of Christopher Hitchens’s final, posthumous book "Morality" insists that "there isn’t another Hitchens". I visited the offices of the Mail on Sunday in Kensington to meet the man who stands contrary to that dust-jacket’s praise.

I meet Peter Hitchens in the building’s foyer, and I am politely welcomed, and extended the offer of seeking a coffee shop. Hailed as the most dour and cold of conservatives, I’m alarmed by the warmth and enthusiasm with which he shakes my hand, before leading me on a tour of the nearby Kensington squares and streets.  He expounds on the diplomatic area’s regal housing, winding towards a café that he assures me will be perfect for our conversation.

            When we arrive, the French owner is closing up early to visit the Notting Hill carnival; but he welcomes my host with a smile, and they exchange a couple of edgy jokes about Peter’s controversial stance on immigration. We’re all grinning. The other Hitchens - the man who’s had me nervous all day - is now laughing too. Put mildly: this is not what I was expecting. We eventually bury ourselves in the corner of a different café.

            Born in Malta in 1951, Peter arrived two years after his brother Christopher. Their father Eric - affectionately dubbed ‘The Commander’ - was stationed on the island towards the end of a long career of service in the British Royal Navy: with his wife Yvonne, he had moved the family abroad just after their first son’s birth. This was to be the first of many geographical shifts for the Hitchens clan as they followed the Commander between various work posts.

            By the time he was fourteen, Peter was in Cambridge at the same boarding school as his brother, and from there, he would remove himself to York for university. He graduated with a Politics degree in 1973. As we’d navigated the chess board of Kensington’s pedestrian crossings, he’d laughed about his sloth as a student: time not spent relaxing was consumed with proselytizing about his growing Trotskyism. He flashes me an ironic grin when I ask about his recent 60th birthday.

            "I’d probably been born to be middle-aged. I welcomed its arrival. I’m not one of those people who thought “Oh, no! I’m 40! Life has come to an end!” It’s a time of life I’d always wanted to reach, and I haven’t - so far - found it disappointing."

            He also offers a lament for his teenage years:

            "Being a teenager is awful. I feel great sympathy for anyone going through it. You aren’t what you want to be, you want to be what you can’t be, and you don’t understand it, and you’re not capable of understanding it until it’s over. One of the terrible things now is that you’re free to follow impulses that you really ought to restrain. That’s why being a teenager is so much worse nowadays. Nobody says “stop”."

            I tense a little; here is a glimpse of the staunch conservatism that has won him such notoriety. We discuss his views on education and British society, and above all he mourns the effect of modern life on children.

            "When I see - in some of the poorer suburbs of one of Britain’s larger cities - the children in the push chairs with the dummies crammed into their mouths, or children of ten with that hardened look that they can develop these days, it saddens me. People don’t know what’s good for them at that age. Adult authority is terribly important."

            Sensing a shift towards the topic of lawlessness, I ask him about a recent - and cringe-making - encounter with comedian Russell Brand. Peter and he formed part of a panel about drug addiction on Newsnight. They had dueled before, and Brand had ignored Peter as a "Daily Mail bigot".

            "He started again with the stuff about bigotry. I plainly listen to my opponents and take some care to figure out what it is that they think, and I offer reasoned rejections of their positions. You can call me a reactionary, you can call me anything you like: bigotry is just false. I have to defend myself against this. If you don’t respond, then it sits there. In fact, the logic of Russell Brand actually supports my position. If [heroin] does enslave you for life, then surely almost no effort should be wasted in making sure you never have that first contact."

            Brand had appeared on the show to promote his BBC Three documentary on life as a drug addict, and spoke stridently - if vaguely - about the need for compassionate, non-threatening treatment of users. Peter is having none of it, and insists that preventative measures are the real solution. His new book, "The War We Never Fought" (an attack on the allegedly fictional war on drugs), was released at the start of October.

            "One very effective way of [deterring users] is to make possession of this drug a very serious crime. People who haven’t got the sense to see that it’s a stupid thing to do will at least have the incentive of knowing that their life is seriously damaged if they are caught. Doublethink is incredibly common here, otherwise left wing people couldn’t sustain their belief."

            Russell Brand isn’t the only leftist celebrity with whom Hitchens has brawled intellectually. At the Vanity Fair memorial for his brother, Peter’s biblical reading was praised by the comedian, writer and actor Stephen Fry. Following an almost immediate disagreement, Hitchens told Fry how little he thought of him.

            "It was about him seeking me out. I was trying to avoid him."

            He likens Fry to Bill Clinton: finding the one person in the room who disagrees and trying to woo them.

            "I’ve never liked what I’ve seen or read of him. I didn’t want to make a scene [at the memorial]. But he seemed to be anxious to have the conversation with me. It’s dishonest to pretend friendliness to people you don’t like. We disagreed about religion, and the next thing I knew he’d put something about me on Twitter."

            A tweet which was soon deleted, following criticism from Fry’s followers. It’s not hard to find online; it denounced Peter as inferior to the late Christopher, calling him a "clod".

            "[Fry’s intelligence] is not what you’d call lightly worn. I don’t want him locked up, I just don’t like him. The BBC might benefit from having some other voices, and one of the things they value him for is that he uses [his Cambridge education] to espouse revolutionary views."

            I feel I have him in battle mode, and ask him what gets him writing in his fiery way. Then he’s grinning again, and charming, and I’m disarmed.

            "I just think it’s fun. You get your name in big print, and it has a feeling of not being left out. I’m blessed with some skill at words, so it’s easy for me. I find the idea of doing quite a lot of things - athletic, mechanical, scientific - extremely off-putting. So I want to do the thing that I find easiest."

            Supping his coffee, he quotes the old Ronald Reagan joke:

            "When I was a boy, I was told that hard work never killed anybody, but I didn’t want to find out if it was true or not."

            It was in childhood, too, that he first developed a flair for this written word. The conversation is continually shifting - he can talk with the trademark Hitchens smoothness about almost anything. He holds court on literature, history, politics and philosophy, although he loathes any talk of theology ("I’d rather go to the dentist").

            But I’m fascinated by the brothers as a pair, and I ask him if anything caused two such ardent scribblers.

            "No, I think it’s easy to over-psychologize these things... [My brother] would say, with great generosity, “No, actually, if you tried to work out which one of us was going to be a journalist when we were children, it would have been Peter.” Because that was the thing I was best at."

            He muses about the family newspaper he produced - "unimaginably filled with cricket scores - and assures me that, blood apart, they were always very different people.

            "We got into [journalism] in such completely different ways.

            The brothers both worked at the Daily Express in 1977, but apart from that:

Christopher barely worked for a daily newspaper at any time in his life. We were completely different."

            Nowhere was this more apparent than in their intellectual stances. Peter responded to his brother’s best-selling atheist polemic, ‘"God Is Not Great", with his own book, "The Rage Against God. It covers their initially similar beginnings as Trotskyists and atheists, and describes Peter’s transformation to the Christian right after seeing a haunting portrayal of the Last Judgement. Despite this, the pair did have some contact: the afterword to "Rage" narrates the brothers having dinner in Christopher’s Washington apartment.

            He died in December 2011, and I don’t want to press Peter too much on this recent sorrow. Alarmingly, he seems eager to continue, regaling me with heartwarming family stories, and he jokes about his brother’s seeming lack of physical grace and domestic prowess.

            "There was the late night with the bottle of scotch and the unending conversation, there was the circuit of speech-making, there was the endless hours at the keyboard: but the idea of him roasting a leg of lamb, or taking a child to the playground, or mowing a lawn was just unimaginable."

            Yet these are all things he confesses to having discovered about his brother, some in person, some posthumously. Despite this warm discussion:

            "We didn’t have much to do with each other. He went away to school in Cambridge, and for a year nothing much happened. Then, one Christmas, he came back. And he’d left us to all intents and purposes. He wasn’t interested in being a member of our family any more, he’d found another world. He’d had the horizons of the world opened up for him, and he knew that he had to get out. He’d set his heart: it was going to be Oxford and it was going to be Balliol [College], and he was going to get out."

            He’s suddenly serious.

            "He was consumed with the fear of the suburb. We lost him then, and from then on he was a sort of stranger. When he was home, he was home anxious to be away. Term would come around and he was keen to be at school in the larger life that he’d got. Our father found it completely incomprehensible, our mother not much less so. He’s made this drama out of their contrasting personalities, but it wasn’t quite like that. They were both pretty baffled by him."

            He pauses to gather his thoughts, and drinks more coffee.

            "Because we grew up at boarding school, we didn’t have networks of friends. We were always moving anyway. We were forced on each others’ company, certainly more than he wanted. So [when he left], I felt very much deserted. He’d gone. And when people say to me that it must be terrible to lose your brother, I tell them yes, it was a pretty awful thing: but in reality, I lost him 40 years ago. We could finish each others’ sentences in private language, we knew a lot of the same things, and when we were together it was never awkward. But I wouldn’t claim any great friendliness."

            Then he seems to U-turn.

            "The fact that you’ve known each other longer than anybody else means that there is an irremovable closeness which nobody else can have. That served at the end quite well. It made it a lot more..."

            And he breaks off, and stares past me. Consulting the recording of our conversation, he stops for over ten seconds. When he looks back at me, he isn’t crying - but his eyes aren’t dry either.

            "He didn’t want to be told things, or for people to make references which suggested that he might die. I knew that. The times when I went to see him - when I knew he was dying but he wasn’t admitting it - I managed to contrive them all to be visits for other purposes. Otherwise, I felt, it would be like the bloody angel of death flapping onto your windowsill. There was always an assignment, or a speaking engagement. I never went with the specific purpose of seeing him because I felt that, if I did that, he would feel dispirited."

            He gestures to the copy of Mortality on the table.

            "And then I read in this that that’s exactly how he did feel."

"Mortality" is out now, available from Atlantic Books at £10.99.

"The War We Never Fought" was released on 27/09/12, available from Continuum Books at £16.99.

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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?