Queer is the question

‘Queer’ is not something that ever stays still; it is transient and, in that sense, in a constant state of becoming.

I had always identified as bisexual. Well, actually, that's not strictly true. I started calling myself bisexual when I was 11, learning the word from a girl who courageously came out during our first year of secondary school. Throughout my adolescence, the “I’m bi” statement served me well, feeling edgy and rebellious when I said it, encapsulating my budding sexual identity succinctly. But by 18, as I grew sick of feeling like I had to constantly balance my desires between male and female attraction, the words began to sound like a broken record. For the next two years, questions about my sexuality left me vacant; ‘straight’ was simply a lie, and ‘lesbian’ an identity I couldn't claim because I was attracted to male identified people. ‘Bisexual’ had started coming of my mouth like a dress that no longer fit me properly, feeling uncomfortable and clumsy when I put it on.

These were, at the time, the only three terms that existed to described sexual identity. Though I would have called myself an open-minded feminist, in retrospect my ignorance seems blinding; as far as I was aware asexuality didn’t even exist, and the concept of  a trans* identity left me feeling confused. As for ‘queer’ -  that was something I had only encountered within the context of queer theory, while geekily reading James Baldwin and critical essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As far as eighteen year old me was concerned, ‘queer’ belonged in books, as an exclusively academic term for pop culture that challenged gender roles or had LGB characters. 

At 20 I went backpacking in California, the birth place of the term “queer”, and eventually spent a year studying abroad at the University of California San Diego. True to my contrary teenage mind-set, I decided that my friends on campus would be the "alternate" kids. I quickly joined the LGBTQIA society, with little knowledge of what this gargantuan acronym meant.

Among student organisations, I discovered a cocktail non-normative sexual and gender identities, other students were lesbian, gay, and bisexual - but also trans*, queer, pansexual, intersex, asexual, or allies. In meetings, whilst learning what these terms meant, I became aware of the levels of privilege within the LGBTQIA community. The ways in which the more mainstream identities I had exclusively heard of benefited from societal acceptance. How trans* rights were often silenced in favour of more populist civil rights issues, such as same sex marriage. I also developed an understanding of intersectionality, in terms of the individual experience of  sexuality, impacted by gender, race, class, ability, and other nuances.

My initial attraction to ‘queer’ was that it allowed me to make a tangible connection between my feminist identity and non-straight sexuality. Basically, I was able to bridge the gap between my non-normative identity and position on gender politics. Looking back, perhaps it was this piece of the puzzle that I had been missing in my late teens, as I began to make the transition from “girl” to “woman”.

In the states, the racial politics side of queer identification was liberating to watch and experience; on-campus groups such as QPOC (Queer People of Color) addressed immigration, colonisation, and white privilege from a non-straight perspective. Being of Lebanese origin, but born in the UK, I had only fleetingly considered the impact my sexuality had taken on the assimilation to more western ways of thinking. I began seeing my biculturalism from a completely different perspective, and became refreshingly aware of my passing white privilege.

In terms of class, it became clear to me how much less mainstream sexuality is often viewed as an activity, almost a hobby, enjoyed by society’s more privileged members.  And that, as someone from an upper middle class, background, I have been privileged to  grow up in an area where it was not  implicitly dangerous to be seen kissing another girl, or wearing gender nonconforming clothing.

Ablism was also something I began to recognise; how societal conditioning, based in preconceived ideas of masculinity and power, leads to the othering of those who identify as less/differently able-bodied, or disabled. How there is an overlap between how these communities are treated; both are othered for the sake of affirming a sense of self derived from the myth of normativity. Both were, and sometimes still are, dubbed and treated as ‘freaks’ or ‘degenerates’. After making this connection I was struck by how, in terms of feminist politics, a women’s ability to have children is placed on a pedestal, mutually effecting trans* and FAAB (female assigned at birth) women who are unable to conceive.

Moving back to London two years ago, and calling myself queer, I was shocked at some of the reactions I got within what I had always thought was a liberal city. To this day, I have been given a range of responses; from that ‘queer’ simply doesn't exist, to that it is offensive, to that I am just a "bi curious straight girl", by less open minded members of the LGB community.  Surprisingly, it is often the same every time.

“What do you mean queer?", is how I usually get asked, while the inquirer of my sexual preferences narrows their eyes slightly, over pronouncing it… queer. As though they suspect me of turning my sexuality/gender identity into some sort of hipster accessory. That's not what ‘queer’ is to me though; it's a necessary framework that I choose to live my life by. Though in the last two years I have noticed a change, with more and more Londoners calling themselves queer, and queer night life becoming increasingly popular, the reactions I receive show the gap between non straight politics in the UK and in the US. Sadly, it seems we have a lot of catching up to do.

In a textbook sense, ‘queer’ has been defined as a noun, a verb (queering) and an adjective that encompasses all non-straight, non normative, sexual and gender identities. ‘Queer’ is not something that ever stays still; it is transient and, in that sense, in a constant state of becoming. It is no more less essential than a lesbian, bisexual, or trans* identity – however ‘queer’ does exist by itself, as well as being an umbrella term for all identities that aren’t “straight”.

I identify as queer out of solidarity with the trans* community, and also to approach my gender identity from a differing position. By calling myself queer I can express my attraction to people of all genders, politicise my sexuality, and be wilfully non-normative. When I discovered queer it was not the answer. The answer was something I had been experiencing for as long as I can remember. For me, queer is the question.

 

'Queer' is so much more than what's found in the theory books.
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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?