Agony aunts are relics from another time - it's time to kick them to the kerb

Advice columnists are almost always female, but they really don’t seem all that feminist. It's time to consign this Victorian phenomenon permanently to the past.

You’d think it would have been an open and shut case. An expectant mother writes in to the advice columnist of a broadsheet newspaper revealing that she has just been offered a job. ‘Friends say that I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband,’ writes the pregnant Jill. Jill’s husband is freelance and doesn’t have much work on at the moment, while Jill is clearly extremely tempted at the job offer, so the decision to go back to work would not only make financial sense but is also seems to be in line with the wishes of the baby’s parents. And yet, the agony aunt Virginia Ironside’s written response was so unexpected that it not only had people composing the kind of ragey tweets usually reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift, but has led us to question the continued relevance of agony aunts in general. We’re wondering, is it time we give them the boot?

Virginia Ironside’s advice to Jill has to be read in its entirety to be believed, but some choice excerpts include ‘it would be madness to accept this job’; ‘Having a baby is a job. You’ve already been headhunted – by your child’ (strangely, Jill won’t recall an interview); and ‘A househusband recently spoke of his experiences with his baby daughter. What he found, to his distress, was that the child was incredibly backward in her speech as she grew older.’ Such kneejerk fifties backwash (‘backward’? Really?) seems incredible in this day and age. In fact, we hazard that Ironside’s advice might be even more ‘backward’ than that toddler.

Agony aunts haven’t always had a reputation for giving bad advice. In Victorian times (when comments such as Virginia Ironside’s would not have seemed anachronistic), advice columnists appeared to have carried all the sharp tongued, terrifyingly formidable authority of Lady Bracknell. In fact, there’s a whole book, called Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe (good advice, we feel), devoted to such responses as ‘do give up all that nonsense and be a sensible girl’ and ‘a nice, new bonnet might be acceptable in the form of a peace offering’, not to mention ‘no wife should have a soul above buttons’. The problem is that things have moved on quite a bit from then. But the Agony Aunts? Not so much.

Virginia Ironside’s ticking off of the pregnant Jill (‘you clearly have no idea what a huge responsibility it is to bring a baby into the world’) is by no means an isolated example. A few months ago, a young woman of 29 wrote into the Times (£) concerned that the fact that she had slept with 25 people might alarm her new boyfriend. Assuming the woman in question lost her virginity at sixteen, this number amounts to under two sexual partners a year. A pretty normal figure, then, and, actually, probably the bare minimum number of sexual partners required for anyone who’s been single for a long time and is keen to avoid contracting repetitive strain injury from frenzied masturbation. And yet the agony aunt’s response? ‘I don’t wish to alarm you but that is more than four times the national average for a woman of your age!’

Now, we’re aware that those with problems often look to agony aunts for some hard truths which their friends, what with their empathy and their desire to stay on your good side because you’re the only one not on 5:2 and thus still have a sunny personality and pizza in your fridge, might not be keen on troubling you with. We know that. But essentially calling a lass a slag in the pages of a national newspaper, or indeed a bad mother, is not exactly modern (and in addition, massively unhelpful). Nor was telling a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse ‘less of the drama’, as Mariella Frostrup did at the end of last year when the woman wrote to her lamenting how her friends refused to believe her account of what had happened to her. Or, indeed, advising a woman whose boyfriend had described her vagina as ‘repulsive’ to give her boyfriend an ‘educational DVD’, when really what she should have given him is an educational dumping of his ass and a DVD of the sort which might allow him to deduce if his sexual tastes might not lie nearer the other end of the rainbow (props to Pamela Stevenson Connolly for that one).

Yep, the bad advice just keeps on coming, and ‘quality newspapers’ are apparently as bad as dishing out advice as Cosmopolitan, a publication which we regard as the Cheeky Girl of the magazine world, because it once responded to a reader’s concerned question as to what to do about her boyfriend’s persistence in attempting to get her to touch his bum with advice that she should. . .  er, touch his bum. (The mag also deserves a special mention for its superior knowledge of anatomy - having somehow placed the pituitary gland within a stone’s throw from the ‘anal wall’.)

And this month’s Cosmo isn’t much better, with ‘sex psychotherapist’ Rachel Morris telling a young woman upset at the fact that men ignore her after sex to ‘close your legs and open your eyes.’ ‘Learn to talk to men rather than flirt with them’, she orders, having somehow made the assumption that henceforth her correspondent has been too busy hypnotising men with her vagina to engage them in conversation. Meanwhile, a woman who is finding her lovers sexually dissatisfying is coldly told that one can’t expect good sex from ‘random lovers’. ‘You will have great sex again- with the next guy you spend some time getting to know’, Morris blindly predicts.

With such terrible advice abounding, it’s no wonder we’re questioning just how good these columns are for women. They so often house an archaic agenda, inhabiting a world where casual sex is off limits and women are expected to submit to the caprices of their male partners. After all, how different is putting up with a boyfriend who describes your vagina as ‘repulsive’ from having ‘no soul above buttons’? At their heart, both notions place a man’s contentment before the wellbeing of the woman seeking advice. If we had a pound for the number of times we saw a young woman who has written in upset that her boyfriend went to a strip joint dismissed out of hand and told to accept these ‘laddish antics’ we’d have, well, at least fifty quid. Even worse, we know that teenage girls read these advice columns and take them seriously (take the teen magazines of the nineties’ obsession with toxic shock syndrome, rendering some of our generation of young women absolutely terrified of tampons for months, if not years, afterwards). With internet advice forums that allow the reader to see a mass of perspectives becoming more and more popular, perhaps it’s time we kicked these agony aunties, these vestiges of another time, directly to the kerb. Because, while they’re almost always female, they really don’t seem all that feminist.  

 

Women are bored of this sort of thing. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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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?