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If men got pregnant, abortion would be legal everywhere

The concept of women deciding when, whether and how to have children, is still a threat to the status quo.

The seahorse is a fascinating creature. Aside from being evidence that whatever god of creation may have existed was on some truly excellent hallucinogens, seahorses –Hippocampus hippocampus – are a species where the male gets pregnant. Life would be a lot more interesting if human beings had to breed like seahorses. For a start, I highly suspect that the right to terminate a pregnancy would not be under violent attack across the western world.

This past week, an armed misogynist broke into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and killed three people after a stand-off with police. PP is the biggest organisation offering abortion, contraception and sexual health services in the US, and it has been under sustained attack from conservative activists and politicians who will not rest until abortion is illegal.

This week, a high court judge in Belfast ruled that abortion might just be permissible in cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality, which is a huge step forward, considering that women across Ireland are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term in all circumstances. Those who commit the grievous sin of having consensual sex, however, are still on their own, unless they have the funds to travel to England.

There is a pattern here. The concept of women having actual goddamned agency over their lives and bodies, the idea that we might get to decide when, whether and how to have children, is still a threat to the status quo. We grudgingly allow women to make decisions related to sex and reproduction as long as they feel an appropriate degree of guilt, and hoard that guilt away in private. Have an abortion? You’d better be sorry about it for the rest of your life. Get pregnant without a partner? Be prepared to spend 18 years explaining yourself. Leave paid work to have a child? You’re lazy, spoiled and frivolous. Carry on working after your kids are born? You’re cold, selfish. Get sterilised? You’re an unfeeling, unnatural monster. Whoever you are, if you have a uterus and dare to make a decision about what comes out of it, shame on you. Shame is the overarching theme here, shame and scorn for anyone with the temerity to behave as if their own humanity is important.

I am sick of explaining to misogynists that women are people whose choices and autonomy matter. Instead, let’s go back to considering the seahorse. Consider how different the world would be if the people with the capacity to bear children were the people society already considered fully human. Consider what would happen if men got pregnant.

If men got pregnant, abortion would be available free of charge and without restriction in every town and city on earth. No man would be expected to justify his decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. It would be enough for him to say, “I don’t want to have this baby.”

If men got pregnant, then pregnancy, ­labour and childcare would immediately be recognised as work and compensated as such. The entire economic basis of global capitalism would be upended overnight. After the ensuing bloodless revolution, the phrase “work-life balance” would disappear from the lexicon, along with the line, “I don’t do condoms, babe.”

If men got pregnant, “pro-life activists” would be called “forced-birth extremists”, and reviled as such by liberals, libertarians and every political movement with a claim on human freedom.

If men got pregnant, they would be considered not mere vessels for potential human life, but human beings whose agency ought to be inviolable. Men would not stand for having their basic rights to sexual freedom and personal autonomy confiscated, even if in some people’s opinion they might be committing murder. Men are often prepared to commit murder for reasons far less egregious than the occupation of their bodies by a foreign invader. There is a sizeable lobby in the United States right now that believes that people should have the right to slaughter anyone who breaks into their home, or looks the wrong way at a police officer, or does almost anything that might conceivably be considered suspicious while also being black.

If men got pregnant, they would never be told that if they did not want to conceive, they should not have sex. Major world religions would rush to reinterpret their scripture; any verses appearing to ­condemn abortion or contraception would be considered in the same light as those dooming wearers of mixed fabrics to fiery damnation eternal.

If men got pregnant, nobody would consider a man’s choice to have or not have children the defining feature of his adult life. There would be no shame in seeking sterilisation, just as there is no shame today for a man seeking a vasectomy. When a man made a decision about when and whether to have children, he would be able to count on having that decision respected, rather than being called selfish, lazy and slutty, or warned that he would “regret it some day”.

If men got pregnant, somebody would have already invented a breast pump that was fit for purpose.

If men got pregnant, they would not be forcibly penetrated with cameras and obliged to look at an ultrasound of the foetus before getting an abortion. Instead, sports channels and video games would be available in the procedure room, plus a free beer with every procedure.

If men got pregnant, pregnancy and childbirth would not be dismissed as “natural”, but treated as heroic acts of sacrifice. Forcing a man to go through either against his will would be considered the equivalent of the military draft and protested as such.

If men got pregnant, having a 'baby belly' would not be a source of shame. Men would show off their stretch marks and Caesarian scars like battle wounds.

If men got pregnant, pregnancy and childbirth would not be dismissed as 'natural', but treated as heroic acts of sacrifice. Forcing a man to go through either against his will would be considered the equivalent of military drafting and protested as such.

In point of fact, some men do get pregnant. Transsexual men have borne children, but their experience is not part of the popular understanding of reproductive rights - because people don’t get pregnant, women get pregnant, and when you get down to it, women aren’t really people. The structure of modern misogyny is still grounded on the fear that women might one day regain control of the means of reproduction and actually get to make their own decisions about the future of the human race- but you cannot force a person to give birth against their will and consider them fully human.

If men got pregnant, we would not be having this conversation. The fact that we still are shows how far we’ve got to go before equality becomes reality.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war

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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?