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Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Who is the heroic female super nerd we've been waiting for

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party.

It’s about time. After years of febrile speculation and fan-theory, it’s now official: Doctor Who will soon be played by a woman, and the iconic five-decade-old BBC science fiction behemoth will regenerate into a series with a modern understanding of gender. The paroxysms of delight from the show’s legion of female, queer and progressive viewers have been met by a chorus of horror from people who are outraged at the idea that a fictional time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey could possibly be a woman. The argument that they cast the best actor for the job, and the best actor happened to be Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, fails to convince those for whom the future can never be female, and time can never be rewritten, and unlikely heroes can never win the day, and tradition should always take precedence over justice, equality and fairness It’s just possible that those people have missed the point of Doctor Who.

This is a family show, and the writers always give you plenty of warning so you can hide behind the sofa when a particularly scary apparition stalks onto the screen – like a living statue that can kill you faster than blinking, or a woman playing your favourite character. In the final episode of the last series, The Doctor, in their latest incarnation as Peter Capaldi, explained to his companion that yes, Time Lords are indeed flexible on “the whole man-woman thing”.

“We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”

This is too much for some fans, who have poutily announced that Doctor Who is ruined forever and they won’t watch it any more. They said the same thing ten years ago, when former show runner Russell T Davies made a point of including explicitly gay and bisexual characters in almost every episode. That didn’t hurt viewing figures one bit – and for those of us who were queer teenagers at the time, seeing people like us have adventures in space was like letting out a breath we’d been holding for years.

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party. It’s a mishmash of emotion and tradition bogged down by the pressure of meeting so many clashing expectations, and no matter how magical it turns out, someone’s always going to go home in tears. For the same reason, Doctor Who is by no means the best show on television – it’s something else entirely, a steaming juggernaut of collective cultural storytelling that can’t change course without sirens blaring across the nerdsphere. With so many different fans to disappoint, Doctor Who will never please everyone – but just like at a wedding, gender-swapping the major players still has the power to move an old story in an exhilarating new direction.

When I told my mum that Doctor Who was a woman now, I wasn’t sure how she’d react. In fact, she was remarkably accepting. “After all this time,” she said “I’m just happy for you. I know you’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s practically normal now. I hear they’ve even got female Ghostbusters these days.”

Mum has never really understood my life choices, but she always knew I was different – when other little girls were dreaming of white weddings and handsome princes, I wanted to grow up and go on a quest or save the world from an invading horde of Nazi salt shakers. The millions of other baby weirdos who happened to be women never got to read or watch stories where girls like them could really rewrite the course of history. Even now, female protagonists are still rare enough in popular culture, and most of them tend to win the day by showing up in undersized perfect hair and kicking people in the face. This is the sort of female hero we’ve learned to tolerate, the “fighting fuck-toy”, in Anita Sarkeesian’s immortal words – damaged but sexy, a stock figure for whom “well-rounded” is a strictly physical description.

Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world.

Naysayers have complained that if the Doctor is not male, nerdy young men will lose a key role model – a hero in the lone eccentric genius mode who does not resort to violence to win the day. The loudest dissenting voices come from adult male fans for whom the idea of ever relating to a female hero is a threat to their core sense of self. Children are more malleable. Tell a little boy whose bedroom is covered in posters of daleks that the kindest and cleverest person in the universe is a girl now and he’ll probably be right on board.

The prospect of little girls getting to watch an eccentric genius save the day and see themselves in her is pretty darn gleeful – but the idea that little boys might do the same is just as exciting. Finally, young men will grow up having to accept, as young women have for so long, that the hero might not always look just like you. Finally, little girls won’t have to settle for stories where we can travel in time and space, but only if we are young and pretty and manage to attract the attention of a brilliant older man. Finally, little boys too will grow up watching a different sort of story – one in which anyone can embody interplanetary competence, even a girl.

These are the kind of stories that have been told about men for generations in popular culture, generations which clung relentlessly to the idea that “strong” women would always be token figures, would always have to stand a few paces behind the protagonist, waiting for him to explain the plot, rescue her, or both at once. Time after time, the most iconic and complex female characters on screen have been created when a woman wound up cast in a role originally written for a man. From Alien's Ellen Ripley, to Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck, when writers aren't bogged down by all the cliches about what women can and can't do in a story, characters can breathe and grow. The same rule applies to the real world. We can only become what we can imagine.

Of course, there are infinite ways that this could go horribly wrong. I’m going to have my bingo-card out for blonde jokes, period jokes, offhand comments about women drivers in the Tardis, overplayed romantic subplots and any and all reference to or reliance on “feminine wiles” to save the day. The Doctor does not need feminine wiles. She’s thousands of years old and once brought down an invading alien army with a satsuma. I’d also be grateful, in general terms, if we could call a moratorium on any future planet-eating crises being solved by the power of love. 

I’m certainly not going to give up the international nerd sport of complaining that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be, because that’s part of the point of the show. No matter how much we whinge, most real fans will carry on watching regardless, because we love Doctor Who like you love your obstreperous relative with a lot of madcap schemes for whom, let’s face it, changing gender after fifty years is completely in character.

I suspect that some of the protests are being played up with an ulterior motive in mind. I’ve an inkling that the fans who are yelling the loudest about the casting of Whittaker as political correctness gone mad, as an insult to of the spirit of the show and proof that feminism is poisoning this and every other inhabited planet, are just hoping that the Doctor will notice that they’ve become trapped in a 1950s time warp and show up in the Tardis to save them. They needn’t try so hard. The Doctor will always come and save you, including from your own worst impulses, and if you’re ready to follow her through time and space, there’s no telling where the story will go next. 

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

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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?