The Minister of Magic isn’t even elected! Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
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Can wizards vote in Muggle elections? Plus other questions about wizarding democracy

As Rufus Scrimgeour put it: “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today.”

During one of the most complex and unpredictable elections of recent years, our democratic process seems shrouded in darkness. Phrases like “no-confidence”, “caretaker convention”, “minority coalition” and “purdah” command a sense of mystery and bafflement. Citizens whisper in the streets of “vote swapping”, a “legitimacy crisis”, even a “second election”. Nick Clegg weeps softly into his pillow at night, clutching the 2011 alternative vote referendum.

In times of moral uncertainty, I often turn to J K Rowling. Feeling like a failure? She’s here for you, babe. Can’t quite suss your boss? Hear her wisdom. But when it comes to solving massive issues of structural inequality and bureaucratic obscurity, the Harry Potter books make our electoral system seem like an Eden of political transparency. If you’re reading this, Jo – I, for one, have a lot of questions.

The magical world, at least in Britain, is not a democracy. Rowling repeatedly refers to the “appointment” of the Minister for Magic: Fudge, Scrimgeour and Shacklebolt all secure the post with seemingly no approval at all from the Wizarding Community at large. Unusually for a community with a stated preference for segregating people into groups based on fairly arbitrary aspects of their personality, there seem to be no political parties, leadership candidates, or elections. Dumbledore casually refers to the fact that he has been “offered” the top job in wizarding society “three times on the last count, actually.” That ol’ Albus merely shrugs off the minor issue that an elusive person or persons has the power to randomly appoint a magical totalitarian overlord shows how deeply entrenched this approach to government is in wizarding society. It might also explain Dumbledore’s paternalistic and secretive approach to both teaching and magical warfare. (“Hey Harry! How about fighting the world’s most dangerous wizard with minimal help and no information at all from me, the closest thing to a guardian you have? I swear, it’s for your own good!”).

This becomes all the more troubling when Rowling hints at the full extent of the Minister’s control over the whole Ministry. The MoM appears to be a sprawling civil service, and a worryingly large percentage of adult wizards are employed by it, perhaps due to the lack of any functional economy (turns out, when you can do MAGIC, you don’t need to pay people to do much). Within the ministry, individuals have little say in their own career trajectories: witches and wizards seem to be moved sideways between departments against their will like pawns in a bureaucratic chess game. The personal preferences of the Minister play a large part in moves, promotions and demotions: Cornelius Fudge is able to freeze Arthur Weasley’s progress in the Ministry purely because he’s friends with Dumbledore. Even more extreme is the Minister’s ability to create and abolish departments, laws and offices at will. In short, the Minister exclusively commands the entire system of government, and the magical population has no control over his or her appointment. Say what you like about Voldemort, but at least he had something vaguely resembling a party, and a solid number of supporters.

Just as the Minister has unnervingly sweeping control of the Ministry, the Ministry guides all areas of wizarding life. The Magical Law Enforcement Office and the Auror Office are subsections of the Ministry with seemingly no operational independence, making them a potentially dangerous and powerful force for subjugation and control. The high court, the Wizengamot, is headed by the Minister, and its cloudy selection process and physical location within the MoM suggest it is utterly under ministerial control. This allows for the regular detaining of persons in Azkaban without trial indefinitely: Sirius Black never received a trial, yet remained wrongly imprisoned, then wanted, for over twelve years, because it was considered better for Ministry PR. The knowledge that laws surrounding imprisonment are often manipulated for political gain is widespread, as is an awareness that Ministry control of the soul-sucking Dementors is weak. The Ministry have intentionally created an unstable palace of mental and physical torture to frighten its population into subservience. In general, people seem pretty cool with that.

It gets worse: the Department of Mysteries essentially allows the Ministry to collect and analyse the private thoughts (they literally collect BRAINS), memories and potential futures of the population without their knowledge or consent. Want to know what this elusive department of government is up to? Sorry, it’s a mystery! There is no free press: the Ministry gains control of the Daily Prophet, seemingly the only respected news outlet. The Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures allows the Ministry to systematically oppress all non-human magical persons (including Beasts, Beings, Spirits, Goblins and Centaurs), enabling a society which depends on the slave labour of House Elves. The Ministry has an unusual level of influence over education: the Minister can appoint the Hogwarts headmaster, and controls the syllabus, pushing forward subjects which inevitably end in Ministry careers. At the same time, basic Muggle subjects like literature and maths are off-limits, essentially making it impossible for young wizards to leave the wizarding community. Muggle-borns are thereby encouraged to distance themselves from their non-magical homes and families, and commit themselves to the wizarding state.

Despite this disregard for the Muggle population as a whole, the Ministry, not content with total domination of magical society, extends its all-powerful grasp over the Muggle parliament, too. The bewitchment and confunding of Muggles is commonplace, structurally validated by the 1689 International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, which prioritises the invisibilty of the wizarding community over, say, human rights. (The statute, a pillar of wizarding government, declares the primary purpose of the MoM to be concealment, and goes some way to explaining why transparency appears to be utterly disregarded by wizards and witches both within and outside the Ministry.) It remains unconfirmed whether wizards are able to vote in Muggle elections, but the extent to which the Minister for Magic interferes with the business of the Prime Minister suggests that a select group of wizards have unlimited control over any Muggle matters that concern them.

The most worrying thing of all, though, is that after the Second Wizarding War, not a huge amount seems to change. Rowling has since given tidbits of information about life after the war. Yes, our dear friend Kinsley Shacklebolt is now Minister, Harry has "revolutionised" the Auror Office, Hermione is a progressive trailblazer in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. But the flawed system that oppressed and endangered so many is largely still in place.

My fellow Muggles: I understand your discontent, your frustration, your apathy. Our political system is inherently flawed. But remember, it could always be worse. You could be a wizard.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at 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?