It's not burdening our children with debt that should worry us

Leaving our children without assets is a far greater problem than "saddling" them with debt.

It is irresponsible to saddle our children with debt.

One of the most compelling, at least superficially, arguments for austerity. It is used globally; it resonates powerfully. After all, it appeals to the very best facets of human nature – the instinct to nurture; the wish to leave things better for future generations – and is, therefore, almost irresistible. But there are few things more dangerous than rhetoric designed to entangle the heart, while bypassing the brain.

Let us suppose that I knew, tomorrow I would be no more. The appointment has been made; the plane tickets to Geneva have been booked. If I were leaving behind my house to my child, encumbered as it is with a mortgage, would I worry? It is a huge amount of debt, but the house is worth almost double its mortgage. The interest is low. To look at that scenario and arrive at the conclusion I am “saddling my child with debt” would be highly irrational. I would have left them with positive equity.

It is illogical to assess the legacy we bequeath to the next generation, solely in terms of debt. Assets should form part of the equation.

This was precisely what our parents’ generation decided to do. And their parents’ before them. National debt, as a percentage of GDP, was much higher from the 20s to the 70s than it is now. But they made the positive choice of bequeathing it to us, as well as a world-class National Health Service, free education, thriving industry, bright prospects and a system of welfare which provided a safety net for the less fortunate.

Had they looked at debt in isolation, they would never have achieved any of these things. Luckily, they did not. They left us with positive equity.

The proposition put forward by the coalition government in support of their programme of cuts, is the bequest of a clean slate. In the current economic climate, however, a clean slate means clean of assets, not clear of debt.

With the economy stagnant or shrinking, the reality is that this government will fail to make a dent in the deficit and actually increase debt. According to the OBR our annual deficit is falling at exactly the same rate it was projected to do before any of these cuts. The national debt is projected to rise by a staggering half a trillion pounds, even by the most lenient of estimates. The OBR now admits that austerity is hurting the economy. The IMF now admits that austerity is hurting the economy.

On the other hand, there is another, even gloomier forecast. By squeezing ordinary people, by forcing them to remortgage, to use credit cards, to run to the nearest payday lender, private household debt is predicted to balloon by an additional half a trillion pounds.

So, forget this insidious idea that we might leave our children with a clean slate. It is fantasy. In fact, under this government, we will leave our children with at least one trillion more debt than we had in 2010. The only intelligent conversation to be had, is whether we leave our children with the assets, skills, environment and tools to manage that debt or not.

Not all asset stripping is fiscally responsible in the long term. Not every expense incurred results in debt. Off-the-cuff, misconceived policies to try and regulate a rampant energy industry are ample demonstration of that truth; a conservative government flailing in a futile attempt to control the profiteering which resulted from another conservative government’s privatisation programme.

We are paying through the nose, both in terms of tickets, subsidies and maintenance, for a rail network franchise system which is manifestly failing. Meanwhile, the part of the network which has been state-run for the last few years (as a result of the last botched franchise), is better and cheaper than it was in private hands and turning a profit.

We pay to bail out private banks, then complain that they are not lending to SMEs, when we actually part-own two of the biggest. Nationalisation is both a rational solution and a dirty word.

Meanwhile, we are allowing these failed experiments to go on, to expand even; the self-interested privatisation of the NHS, the cut-price sale of local council assets and social housing, the dismantling of the welfare state, the farming out of police and prison services, the poisonous influence of profit on our schools. Within five years, the UK will be spending less on public services than any developed nation.

Make no mistake. What is actually being proposed, is leaving our children with negative equity. The debt will still be there, but the assets will be gone. Important assets at that, the absence of which will translate into higher living costs, in perpetuity. The sale of state housing inflates rents. Lack of a welfare system deflates wages. Tuition fees enslave the next generation to financial institutions which we know to be corrupt. Healthcare bills are the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in the US.

Maybe this is the future that we genuinely want. But let us consider all the arguments, instead of wielding an axe at any expense with no thought of whether it is necessary or cost-effective. Let us look at debt in conjunction with the assets and values that would also form part of our bequest.

Our current predicament is precarious. Even more critical, then, to make rational, informed and brave choices - rather than terrified, ill-thought ones. For our sake and that of our children.

Demonstrators call for an end to the national debt outside Parliament last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.