The Marriage Tax Allowance is an expensive way of harnessing resentment and feelings of superiority

David Cameron's proposed tax break for married couples is an expensive way of saying that some people's lives are better than others.

Marriage is not about church bells and white dresses. It’s not even about love. It’s a public statement and a political act, regardless of whether you stage a five-star blow-out wedding reception or settle for the registry office, two witnesses and a bus ride home.

You don’t have to wear a ring. You don’t have to change your name. You don’t have to swear to honour and obey. In fact, if you’ve been living together before you married, there’s basically nothing you have to do that’s any different to before. If you’re a woman, you can carry on using the title Ms and get precisely the same level of half-hearted derision that you got before. You don’t even need to use the words “husband” and “wife” (although people will then think that in using the word “partner” you’re practising some ill-defined form of deception). Life goes on as it did before. Relationships don’t become harder or more morally edifying. Nevertheless, what you think you’ve got – legal formalisation of a union – and what you’ve actually got – involuntary membership of the Superior Relationships Club – are two different things. You and the rest of your family unit will be co-opted into the next Tory Party Conference speech as statistical proof of “what works”  before the registry ink’s gone dry.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has demonstrated the passion with which certain groups view marriage not just as a personal commitment, but as an endorsement of one very particular type of family unit. Their circular argument (man + woman = marriage because marriage = man + woman) is both mind-numbing and deeply dishonest. Bigoted value judgments shouldn’t hide behind claims to linguistic purity. Yet even those who are not opposed to same-sex marriage can end up privileging an institution which is exclusive and culturally oppressive. The same circularity that governs same-sex marriage opposition governs pro-marriage rhetoric (married people are more likely to stay together because people who are more likely to stay together get married). All the same, it’s got to be worth it for an extra £150 a year, right?

Before we all rush to the altar perhaps the most important thing to remember about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples is that they’re not actually for married couples. Transferable tax breaks work for a certain type of married couple, in which one person – ooh, let’s say he’s the man – earns more than the other – hey, she could be the woman, possibly at home with the kids. I’m not suggesting this type of couple is worse than any other, nor that it’s not possible for a couple with a different domestic set-up to still benefit from the proposal. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a benefit for married couples, it’s a message, and an expensive one at that. It says “married couples are better, and especially these ones”. It has little to do with care or need, still less with supporting children. It’s another way of harnessing resentment, disapproval and feelings of superiority. This government might be woeful at managing the economy but they’re masters at manipulating the worst impulses of our lesser selves.

Last week George Osborne announced that lone parents with children aged three or four would be obliged to “prepare for work”. On the face of it it’s confusing. Stay-at-home parents rock as long as they are married to working spouses. Working parents deserve tax breaks as long as they have stay-at-home spouses. Parents who are both earning, married or unmarried, won’t get tax breaks but will get frog-marched into the “hardworking families” category (where you’re allowed to feel bitter, as long as you remember to blame the poor). Single parents, meanwhile, regardless of whether or not they’ve been married – regardless of their beliefs about marriage, and regardless of the consequences they may have otherwise suffered by staying in a damaging relationship – are left to struggle alone. I don’t know, perhaps if the rest of us concentrate hard enough the sheer force of our disapproval will raise up wonder spouses from the mystic reals of 1950s Conservatoria. But then again maybe we shouldn’t try too hard. After all, who would we be able to feel superior to then?

Now find out why Eleanor Margolis wants "a gigantic, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love".

 

Not everyone's marriage looks like this. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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?