Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls launches new assault on Osborne's "extreme" cuts

The shadow chancellor will unveil a full analysis of how the Tories' plans would hit public services. 

George Osborne's last Autumn Statement gifted Labour a new attack line after the OBR calculated that the Chancellor's plans would mean public spending falling to its lowest level as a share of GDP since the 1930s (35.2 per cent). Today, nine days ahead of Osborne's pre-election Budget, Ed Balls will launch a new assault on his opponent. In a speech at the RSA, the shadow chancellor will unveil a full analysis of what spending reductions of this size would mean for public services. 

David Cameron has frequently sought to give the impression that most of the cuts have already been made. But as Balls will say in his speech, the Tories' plans mean "spending cuts larger in the next four years than in the last five years. We are not even halfway through the cuts the Tories are planning. Spending cuts which are larger than any time in post-war history -  a bigger fall in spending as a share of GDP in any four year period since demobilisation at the end of the Second World War. Spending cuts which are larger than any other advanced economy in the world. More extreme than in this Parliament, the most extreme in post-war history and the most extreme internationally."

Labour's number crunchers have found that Osborne's cuts would mean the equivalent to over a third of the older people in social care losing their entitlement. "This would mean eligibility to care services further restricted, meaning hundreds of thousands of vulnerable older people missing out. It would mean even more elderly people trapped in expensive hospital beds when they don’t need to be. And it would mean even more elderly people turning to A&E because they are unable to access the care and support they need." 

Balls will also warn that "at a time when the terror threat is increasing and child protection under great pressure", the Tories' plans would result in dramatic cuts to the Home Office budget: the equivalent of 29,900 police officers and 6,700 community support officers lost. The cumulative outcome would be to reduce the total number of police to below 100,000 - the smallest force since comparable records began. Balls will say: "It’s no wonder that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said these cuts are ‘colossal’ and questioned whether they could be delivered without 'a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state'. These are extreme, risky and unprecedented cuts to policing and social care which many will see as totally undeliverable, even by this Chancellor." 

For Labour, the political challenge is attacking Osborne's austerity programme while remaining committed to cuts of its own. The Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru will all charge the party with following the Tories' agenda. But as I've noted before, there is a significant fiscal gap between Osborne's plans and Balls's. The IFS estimates that Labour's programme would require cuts of around £7bn, compared to £33bn under the Tories'. By promising to introduce new tax rises (a 50p rate, a mansion tax, a bankers' bonus tax, a steeper bank levy), to leave room to borrow to invest and to only eliminate the current account deficit (rejecting the Tories' target of an absolute surplus), Balls has avoided the need for reductions on the scale proposed by Osborne. 

He will say: "While the Tories have extreme and risky plans – an ideological second-term Conservative project to shrink the state which go far beyond the necessary task of deficit reduction. And while some other parties say we do not need to get the deficit down. Labour has a better, different, fairer and more balanced plan which means we are the centre-ground party in British politics today. 

"We will cut the deficit every year and balance the books – with a surplus on the current budget and national debt as a share of GDP falling, as soon as possible in the next Parliament. And unlike the Tories we will make no unfunded commitments.

"There will need to be sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas. But we will also make fairer choices including reversing this government's £3 billion a year tax cut for the top one per cent of earners. And our plan will deliver the rising living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books.

"The choice for the British people is now clear. A tough, but balanced and fair plan to deliver rising living standards and get the deficit down with Labour. Or an extreme and risky plan under the Tories for bigger spending cuts in the next five years than the last five years, which would cause huge damage to our vital public services."

By vowing to continue cutting even after the deficit has been eliminated, Osborne has enabled Labour to depict him as a dangerous ideologue. Balls's claim that his party now owns the "centre ground" was supported by a recent ComRes/Independent survey showing that 66 per cent do not believe that cuts should continue until the deficit has been eradicated with just 30 per cent in favour. Polls have also long shown backing for the party's pledge to impose higher taxes on the rich, such as a 50p rate of income tax and a mansion tax. 

The question now is whether Osborne will do anything to neutralise Labour's attack when he rises to his feet at 12:30pm on Wednesday 18 March. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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?