Italy’s elections and the European “misunderstanding”

Does the political return of Berlusconi represent a realistic danger for Western democracy?

Will Italy’s parties be able to establish a proper government? How long will this last before calling for elections again? These are hectic times for European politics. A weak leadership is evidently part of a European landscape characterised by an inability to cope with the economic crisis and, in some cases, a popular disillusionment with the same process of European integration. Anti-EU propaganda is unsurprisingly getting stronger across the old continent. Socially and politically, all this may generate an increasingly painful impact. Along with a group of other southern countries such as Greece and Spain, Italy is one of the main areas where the future of the same Euro-project, and of western economy too, is being played out. 

The Italian peninsula is in a state of agitation following an election where political coalitions were unable to get a realistic parliamentary majority. In truth, the electoral result showed not only the (now “historic”) inability of the centre-left to deal with Silvio Berlusconi, but also the massive victory of the Five Stars movement, the under-funded and recent group led by comedian Beppe Grillo. These elections demonstrated the impressive endurance of Berlusconism, and dealt a tremendous blow to Mario Monti, as well as the European Central Bank and other overseas political and economic actors (including Germany), which fully supported him.

International eyes across the Atlantic are therefore focusing again, and with some preoccupation, on Italian affairs. In particular, there are questions about the endurance of the Italian economy with a non-technocratic governmental phase and poor government stability. Another concern is whether the political return of Berlusconi represents a realistic danger for Western democracy at large. Given this, and for a number of other reasons, many world leaders and international institutions hoped and, implicitly or explicitly, backed another Monti’s leadership. Yet, they showed only a very limited knowledge of the Italian context (and Monti’s electoral strength), and  of people’s disillusionment and the country’s moral crisis.

International pressures on national politics might, at times, lead to tricky outcomes too. The Cold War years are, moreover, well behind us. Where is the democratic legitimacy of these often perceived “intrusions” in domestic affairs? Would this pressure be acceptable or well received in countries such as, for example, Britain or Denmark? In some cases, the missing real political unity of the EU would suggest using diplomacy and international relations more proficiently. Numbers (and votes) are numbers after all, and they are supposed to be weighted similarly in all western nations. It is true that international elites were, for example, rightly worried about the overtly anti-EU and anti-Merkel rhetoric of Berlusconi. However, what have they done to stop this? Did they pay the same attention when world-leading economists criticise austerity plans and EU policies? 

Foreign politicians who offer suggestions to Italians on how to vote, or who overtly criticise the media tycoon, are and will be seen suspiciously by some sectors of the electorate – and it is now clear that this is not only an Italian trend. Instead, they gave vigor to Berlusconi’s extremist discourse: portraying himself as the champion of Italy’s freedom against the plot orchestrated by financial markets, the European Central Bank, the EU, German banks, the US administration, and a (nebulous) international technocracy. In truth, intercontinental preoccupations with the current state of democracy in a major Mediterranean nation are – at least partially – welcome and accurate. Smart observers may, however, wonder where is the “novel story” here, or why the leading political and financial global institutions have not acted before. Berlusconi led his first government with the presence of a neo-fascist party and the promoters of a sort of autonomy for the northern Italian regions in the early 1990s. This idea of “bad” EU, Germany, and banks, similarly contributed to an overall picture which helped Grillo’s propaganda (though this is far from being the only reason for his success).

Monti’s semi-technocratic and serious platform certainly offered, in other words, a better electoral option to voters, but this proved not to be enough. Without any form of violence and street riots (like in other southern European democracies), this vote represented, in many ways, the Italian response to these peculiar European socio-economic (and political) times. However, to avoid the recurrence of these types of democratic emergencies in Italian history, it would now be time to promote a genuine transformation in national and popular culture to overthrow some obsolete principles and ideas – like the one promoted by Berlusconism. It is, nonetheless, too early to say if the “common people” elected by Grillo will be the best answer to all this. International elites cannot, however, really do a lot about it.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge). He has also been a commentator on the far right, Italian politics, and other European affairs, for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Observer, BBC, and Voice of America, among others.

A woman walks passed an electoral information banner at a polling station in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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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?