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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.