Ooh-aah: Eric Cantona in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Maverick or phoney: why Balotelli has nothing in common with Cantona

Ed Smith’s weekly column, Left Field. 

The scientist and inventor James Lovelock likens the act of discovery to catching a cricket ball. Understanding the process is neither possible nor desirable; it relies on intuition and instinct. The inventor is like “the catcher whose brain estimates the trajectory of a fast-moving ball and programmes the movement of their whole body so their hand can intercept the ball’s path”. The mind must be trained by practice but: “The act of catching is never done rationally or consciously; our conscious minds are too slow.”

On the evidence of his provocative new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, Lovelock’s mind is still moving swiftly, even halfway through his tenth decade. Lovelock originated Gaia theory – the notion that Planet Earth is a self-correcting or self-healing system – and invented the electron capture detector, critical to the detection of CFCs and their impact on the ozone layer.

His achievements, though great, may prove less instructive than his temperament. Lovelock is a pre-eminent example of a maverick who made a real and lasting contribution. He now fears that his kind of career is becoming impossible in today’s highly professionalised world. I found the story strangely familiar: Lovelock has witnessed the maverick being squeezed out of science, just as I am watching the maverick being sidelined by professionalism in sport.

When Lovelock began practising science some six decades ago, there was an established tradition of the lone, disinterested scientist. “Now they are as rare as ectoplasm,” he laments. Journals would not publish papers sent from a home address and chemical and radioactive suppliers would not sell to individuals. So Lovelock formed a commercial business, taking on commissions from Nasa and Shell.

He saw the life of a scientist-inventor as being like that of an artist or composer. Aspiring to a state of “autarky”, Lovelock funded his private research by accepting work from four or five providers. He would rather bang out “potboilers” than take one all-consuming job. “To work for a single provider,” he concluded, “is merely to become again a bought man . . . and this is not independence.”

Reading Lovelock’s book reminded me of another autonomous scholar, Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, the oldest comprehensible European writing system. Lovelock was born in 1919 and Ventris in 1922 (he died in a car crash in 1956). Ventris was an architect by training, never went to university and treated Linear B as a kind of hobby. Where his rivals were secretive, Ventris would send them his notes to keep them posted on his progress. Breadth not only helped him to decipher Linear B, it also reinforced his generosity of spirit.

The decline of the independent thinker applies equally to sport. Coaching, like science, has been turned into a strict professional system. It has become suspicious of mavericks, especially autonomous ones who do not need the “system”. Just as science is dominated by the “serious scientist” who masters the bureaucratic apparatus to engineer government grants, sport has allowed the tracksuited official coach to bully the local enthusiast into extinction. Being good is less important than being familiar.

Yet truly outstanding coaches are often not formally trained – their curiosity leads them to proceed by empirical observation. John Inverarity, the former Australian cricketer, enjoyed remarkable success as the coach of Kent and Warwickshire, then more recently as Australia’s chairman of selectors. But his career was in education, as a headmaster. His cricketing posts were usually sabbaticals and he spent much of his time pretending he was “doing little or nothing”. It was a trick to reinforce players’ self-reliance and avoid a dependency culture towards coaches.

Like Lovelock, Inverarity hated the assumption that a professional ought to look and behave in a certain way. Where Lovelock preferred woolly jumpers to lab coats, Inverarity refused to wear a tracksuit. He would wander out for the pre-match “warm-up” in his chinos.

In golf, Jimmy Ballard has arguably helped more major winners than any other coach. But he has, in effect, been hounded out of the professional game. His crime is trying to make golf simple, where many earn a living from making it complicated. Where swing coaches with inferior track records have become celebrities, Ballard remains on the periphery.

Lovelock’s point about the decline of the maverick is that it has been largely an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate purge. In science, the process of peer review and the funding of science by grant agencies prejudice against outsiders. The committees try to be fair but they are inevitably drawn from corporate science. Lovelock does not think all scientists should be like him, just that his type should not be made extinct. He wants curiosity to survive the American trend of turning science into a “team sport played for prizes and recognition”. Ironically, the same process has also depleted actual team sports.

I would add one qualification. In celebrating genuine mavericks, we should be vigilant about phoney ones. The litmus test of a genuine maverick is whether his eccentricity is incidental. The genuine eccentric does not consider himself eccentric; he thinks the rest of the world odd for persevering with its irrationalities. The true maverick feels the overwhelming need to do his work, enjoying moments of recognition along the way. The pseudo-maverick craves constant adulation, resenting the way work interrupts.

As James Lovelock’s book reminded me, Mario Balotelli has nothing in common with Eric Cantona. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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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?