ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Milo Yiannopoulos: the chameleon who enthralled the alt right

How a former tech blogger broke America – and became a hero to angry young white men.

Who is Milo Yiannopoulos? This is both a journalistic and a philosophical question. The first answer is that he is an editor of the fringe right-wing website Breitbart – formerly led by Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon – who was banned from Twitter for his involvement in the harassment of an actor in the Ghostbusters reboot. When he was booked to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on 1 February, a demonstration against him led to smashed windows and to Donald Trump tweeting: “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence [sic] on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Publicity such as this is nectar to Yiannopoulos. His forthcoming book, Dangerous, has done brisk business as a result of the tweet and is now at the top of Amazon’s political humour chart.

Yiannopoulos has emerged as the “alt-right” movement’s thirstiest self-promoter, carefully flirting with bigotry for clicks. When “Gamergate” began, he appointed himself the king of an online vigilante army, defending video games from feminists who wanted plausible storylines and better underwiring for female characters. This was despite his frank admission that he didn’t play them himself. There was, however, some mysterious quality that made him more of a “gamer” than women who had spent their whole career in the industry. (My mistake: it wasn’t a mysterious quality. It was the ownership of a penis.)

Getting the attention of Trump – to whom he refers as “Daddy” – was probably the highlight of Yiannopoulos’s life. The Gamergate episode shows just how well adapted he is for success in our media ecosystem. To paraphrase the US journalist Matt Taibbi, he is a vampire squid, relentlessly jamming his blood-funnel into anything that smells of notoriety.

He is also unhindered by principles, shame or the desire to be consistent. He has said almost uncountable appalling things, then insisted either that he did not mean them or that some aspect of his identity made them OK. For example, he once wrote about how “preening poofs in public life” made it harder for “regular young gay people”. But he is gay, so what’s the harm?

Similarly, when a blogger suggested that he was anti-Semitic, he referred to being Jewish himself. (He has also claimed to be Catholic.) He has been the subject of magazine profiles mixing the ostensible condemnation of his views with the titillation of being so close to a “bad boy”. He’s the easiest baddie that a journalist will ever nail because he plays up to it, revelling in his pantomime villain persona. Before it was suspended, his Twitter handle was @nero (he also maintained a secret account, @caligula). And why not? All this calculated offensiveness brings in more money, more fame, more armies of fans. Critics get wrapped up in whether he means what he says, when it doesn’t matter: the effect does.

However, there is a reason why Yiannopoulos – educated at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent until he was expelled – is now plying his trade in the US. A large number of British journalists remember his previous incarnation. Before he was a “provocateur”, he was a failed tech blogger with a vindictive streak and a poor record with money.

Yiannopoulos got his first break as Bianca Jagger’s speechwriter and was part of the Telegraph blogs squad put together by Damian Thompson, now the editorial director of the Catholic Herald, which also included James Delingpole and Dan Hodges.

He is an adept chameleon and has had three names already. Born Milo Hanrahan, he briefly traded under “Milo Andreas Wagner” before settling on a surname taken from his Greek grandmother. (As Wagner, he wrote a 2007 book of poetry called Eskimo Papoose, featuring lines such as “I shall not be your passive victim/Buggering my way to freedom/On white linen wings”. He now describes it as a work of satire. Of what, it’s hard to say.)

His reputation in Britain was sustained by pettiness. When the tech site that he founded, the Kernel, racked up thousands of pounds in unpaid bills, he told one contributor that she was “behaving like a common prostitute” in wanting to be paid. Another, Jason Hesse, won a high court order for unpaid wages in 2013. (After the Kernel was sold to German investors, others were also paid.) And when the Guardian’s Charles Arthur complained that the Kernel was using his photo without permission, Yiannopoulos sent over an intern with £60 in pennies.

After that incident, James Ball – now at BuzzFeed – wrote, “People in both tech and the media are frightened of Milo: he’s a man they discuss in DMs [direct messages], not open Twitter (or open anything).” That is still true. Everyone who criticises him knows that they risk a backlash from his fans, and that oh-so-postmodern ironic harassment feels just like the real thing.

So perhaps it’s time to say: sorry, America. We gave you the Beatles, but not all of our exports can work out. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

Getty
Show Hide image

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?