A spooky costume can be a work of art. Don’t waste the opportunity. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty
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Feminists, it’s time to reclaim Halloween as a night to be scary

At that moment it hit me. From puberty onwards, I had lost Halloween. It had somehow ceased to be about bobbing for apples and warty witch masks, and had become all about sex. But no more.

Halloween has always been my favourite holiday. Is holiday is quite the right word, though? In our house, it was always more of a festival. When I was a child, preparations started early, with pumpkin-carving, the purchase of apples for bobbing, and costume preparations sometimes weeks in advance. Despite yearly accusations from media commentators of Halloween becoming increasingly Americanised, as a festival it always felt homely, comforting, non-commercial and, yes, British. It’s only natural that, as the British nights draw in and the crackles of the autumn leaves start to sound like the eerie, rasping whispers of corpses, that talk turns to ghosts and monsters and all things dark and unknown; those old, Pagan fears that have been recounted around fires for centuries.

My mother came from what could be described as a rather Halloween-y family. As a child, she carved faces into turnips, and had a wealth of ghost stories from which to draw on for inspiration (on her side of the family, it’s perhaps more unusual for someone not to have ever made some kind of contact with the “spirit world” than it is to have seen a ghost, but that’s another story). And so she always threw herself into Halloween with enthusiasm, helping me decorate the log shed, turning it into a haunted house complete with gunge box and eerie soundtrack, and playing old English parlour games with us, one of which involved playing a fortune teller who urges the children to draw strange patterns on their faces by candlelight, only for her victims to emerge from the room covered in soot. Her friends loved it, too, and would produce finger sandwiches that looked like actual fingers, glazed with bloody ketchup and with an almond on the top for a pointed nail.

For a child fascinated by all things spooky and weird, Halloween was a vehicle for my love for Meg and Mog, Scooby Doo, the Worst Witch, and later, Harry Potter. It could be that I was slightly odd – my favourite toy was a glow-in-the-dark rubber skeleton called Mary, who had been banned by my Christian nursery for reasons of religious sensitivity. I also had an imaginary friend called Russell the Witch, with whom I would concoct mud pies in the garden. Later, aged five, my fascination with witches would get me into trouble with the Methodist parents of my best friend Sally. “Please don’t let them play witches anymore,” her mother said to my mother, one day after school. “We actually believe in witches and are very frightened of them.”

When my mother told me this, I nodded solemnly, directing Russell towards the alleyway at the bottom of the garden, and we said no more about it.

The next week, my mother picked me up from school. “Did you play with Sally today?” she asked. I nodded to confirm that yes; I had indeed played with Sally.

“What did you play?” asked my mother (I imagine somewhat nervously).

“Car crashes,” I said.

“Oh,” said my mother. “Were you the doctors and nurses who made everyone better?”

“No,” I said. “We were the witches who made it happen.”

Over a decade later, when we were about 15 and after we had moved far, far away, Sally sent me a letter saying that she had converted to Paganism. She was now an actual, fully blown witch, and there’s a lesson there for those who attempt to suppress the passions stirring in the minds of children. “So you’re scared of witches, mum? Well, get a load of this!”

But let’s consign Sally, her pentagrams and her disappointed mother to the mists of history and consider how much of our Halloween experience is told through costumes. Every year, the media machine (which has included, at times, myself) churns out commentary on Halloween costumes – which ones are offensive? Which ones are feminist, or anti-feminist? Which baby-dressed-as-a-lobster-in-a-pot looks cutest? Which ones are topical and offensive? (The accolade this year goes to the “Sexy Ebola Suit”, only £49.99.) Which celebrity had the best costume? And on, and on, and on – we love it, and I’m no different.

But this year, a webpage called “The Evolution of Women and Halloween” really got to me. In fact, I’d say it almost broke my heart. Its premise was simple: it showed a variety of themed costumes created for girls of various ages. The witch costume, for instance, starts out innocent enough for a five year old, with its pointy hat and its big belt buckle, but by the time you get to the full adult woman, the suggested costume has turned into full-blown stripper-with-a-cursory-nod-in-the-form-of-a-hat. If you look at that page, the same is true of the nurse costume, the pirate costume and, disturbingly, the Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz costume. I know that “sexy Halloween costumes” have been a matter for public discussion ever since the infamous Mean Girls scene in which it is said that “Halloween is the only night a year that a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”, but nothing else I had seen had ever really hammered home the societal sexualisation experienced by young women, as expressed through Halloween costumes, before. And it was at that moment that it hit me that, from puberty onwards, I had lost Halloween. No more soot-coated faces or ghost stories or late night sleepovers where I ruined everyone’s fun by threatening to tell on them if they turned on the TV to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No more pumpkin carving or apple bobbing or hastily abandoned Ouija boards. It had all of it, all of it, become about sex.

From the age of about three or four, my Halloween costumes were usually either your workaday sheet ghost, with holes for eyes, or your classic fairytale witch, complete with warty nose and broomstick. The gendering of children’s Halloween costumes wasn’t really an issue: the boys would dress as witches too, and the girls would happily channel male vampires, complete with widow’s peaks. It was the scarier the better, and by the age of ten or eleven, I had graduated to ghouls and serial killers (Scream was big at the time and I had a knock-off mask from the cornershop). But, around my early teens, something strange yet predictable started to happen. Suddenly, the girls weren’t playing Dracula, we were playing the brides of Dracula. We weren’t the evil Satan, but Satan’s sluttish consorts in stockings and suspenders, or sexy Witches or sexy Cats and sometimes even a sexy-something-that-isn’t-even-that-scary (“duh, I’m a mouse”). No longer could we be serial killers, but the serial killers’ blood-soaked victims, in fishnets and short skirts, and the only bobbing we aspired to do was on some guy from the club’s naked crotch after several tequila slammers. And with that shift from scary to sexy, all that excitement, that innocent, spooky joy that Halloween had meant for us dissolved faster than the Junior Disprols our mothers had dispensed to us after too many trick-or-treat gummy bears. Now, when I look back on the “sexy costume” years from the other side of a feminist epiphany, all I feel is sadness. Not because I believe in “slut-shaming” or think that women shouldn’t wear what they want whenever they want, but because the pressure to be sexy to men was so intense that we lost all sense of the fun, or the creative. In attempting to appear sexually adventurous, we became as unadventurous as Sally’s parents. Do not pass here, here be scary witches.

But after years of raunchy takes on traditional costumes, it seems like things might be changing. The first year that I started running feminist blog The Vagenda, my costume of choice was a full dinosaur suit. And I went out and danced harder that I’d danced for many Halloween moons, liberated but sweaty in the knowledge that nobody could see, nor cared, about the shape of my body beneath all those layers of padding and fleece. No one was after my tail, because there was an actual tail in the way. It was the best Halloween I had had in years.

Then, last year, I was a spider. We went to Passing Clouds in Dalston, and around me were all these incredible creative, otherworldly costumes, some of which may have looked extremely cumbersome from a dancing perspective but which were, nonetheless, works of art. You just haven’t had fun until you’ve danced to Gypsy swing with a load of people in plague masks. And this year, people’s costume plans sound even better: Madam Vastra from Doctor Who, the Incredible Hulk, the dancer from The Red Shoes, a Tory-Ukip Coalition, Russell Brand. And, thanks perhaps to an enduring fascination with zombies, it seems there’ll be more than enough scary too. It’s hard to express in words how happy this makes me. I don’t know if it’s because of a sense of competitiveness brought on by the internet, with people wanting to see whose costume can “go viral” the quickest, or if it’s this new wave of feminism. It might just be that my generation are growing up and rediscovering the fun of not worrying too much about validation from men, but either way, Halloween is starting to feel like a festival again, and it’s about time. This week, I’m making amputated finger sandwiches for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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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?