The manliness of fracking, bad intelligence, and English Test cricket’s selection problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Do you care that David Miranda, the partner of an investigative journalist, was held and questioned for nearly nine hours at Heathrow? Enough to take to the streets about it? Or contact your MP? Miranda lives with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance, thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. You are not an investigative journalist, nor do you live with one. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be ferrying materials, as Miranda was, between your partner and a film-maker. Do you, come to that, really care that some geeks in a windowless room in Maryland can read your emails? After all, they contain nothing of the smallest interest to the security authorities.
 
As ministers repeat ad nauseam, you need fear nothing if you aren’t doing anything wrong. On the other hand, you have much to fear from terrorist attacks, though I am not aware of any calculations of the respective risks of being detained as a suspect and of being around when a bomb goes off. Even if you unluckily suffer the former, you probably won’t be killed or maimed – though if you are Brazilian, like Miranda and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on the London Underground in 2005, it seems you risk particularly rough treatment.
 
So, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Support the authorities in their exhaustive attempts to keep you safe, even if they sometimes go too far. Remember, however, what the chairman of a long-forgotten inquiry into intelligence agency abuses, Senator Frank Church (quoted in the current New York Review of Books), said in 1975 when the agencies’ powers were a fraction of what they are now: “If a dictator ever took charge . . . there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know . . . That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 
One of the boys
 
I try to get my head around the pros and cons of fracking. Like many current issues, it strikes me as highly technical, requiring PhDs in physics, chemistry, geology and economics to get a full grasp of the subject. It certainly sounds nasty, because it involves drilling, splitting rocks and injecting water (which I had understood to be in short supply) underground.
 
I don’t want to be a knee-jerk lefty and, now that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has explained that support for fracking marks you out as “one of the boys”, I shall keep my counsel for fear of being thought effeminate. Yet one thing puzzles me. Why are the people outraged by protesters who oppose fracking because it (allegedly) ruins the countryside also outraged by the spread of wind turbines because they (allegedly) ruin the countryside? As Adam Smith nearly said, there’s a lot of ruin in the countryside.
 
Citizens’ advice
 
Browsing the internet, I stumbled across the website of Democracy 2015, a movement set up last year by Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the Independent. Launched with fanfare in that paper, it invited “likeminded citizens” from “demanding careers” to contest every constituency at the next election in the expectation of forming a one-term government to set the country to rights. Now Whittam Smith reports: “Our first public meetings were not as successful as we expected . . . A period of careful reflection is necessary.” In the Corby by-election last November, Democracy 2015 received 35 votes, 64 fewer than the Church of the Militant Elvis.
 
Whittam Smith may be better advised to find people who have pursued undemanding careers in the constituencies they seek to represent. They would be MPs for just one term, with no ambitions except to serve their constituents, scrutinise government actions, vote for legislation only if convinced of its merits and decline freebies or consultancies. Such a group could get 50 seats and transform parliament.
 
Full Monty
 
The spin bowler Monty Panesar has been left out of England’s latest Test squad because he pissed on nightclub bouncers. Perhaps, as recommended by Sir Michael Parkinson, he was testing himself for prostate cancer. How the incident affects his ability to spin a cricket ball isn’t explained. Nor is the failure of Panesar and other talented non-white cricketers – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad – to establish themselves in the England team, often for reasons only partly to do with on-field performance.
 
I do not accuse selectors and coaches of racism but some inquiry into this persistent underachievement is surely necessary.
 
In vino veritas
 
Each day, I take five tablets: three in the morning, two at night. I have no idea what they’re for. It’s just that, from time to time, my doctor summons me for “tests”, says I have “failed” and prescribes more tablets. Now, some Danish scientists say that all this screening and medication of senior folk may do more harm than good.
 
It’s probably best to hedge your bets. The latest tests, which involve answering an interminable government questionnaire about “lifestyle”, rule that, being “moderately inactive”, I must drink less wine and take more vigorous exercise.
 
I think I’ll give that a miss. 
Lawyer Gwendolen Morgan, acting for David Miranda, emerges from the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Getty
Show Hide image

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?