The entire middle class is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. Photo: Flickr/Tom Page
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Politicians must address the fact that Britain's middle class is rapidly sinking

The idea of middle class decline is too often met with derision, especially among progressives, but all our politicians should be talking about it.

An interesting statistic crept out of the Department for Work and Pensions last week, while the pubs of Britain no doubt buzzed with discussion about Jean-Claude Junker or how someone in Ed Miliband's office may or may not have recognised someone at a FT summer drinks reception.

According to the DWP, the average household income in 2012-13 was £440, unchanged on the year before. It represents the third consecutive year of stagnation or decline (depending on how you cut the figures). As the IFS have noted, in real terms this leaves median household income in roughly the same place as it was in 2002, and comes off the back of painfully slow wage growth from the start of the 2000s.

In the same week the increase in the price of homes reached an all-time high. Add in that a majority of people on typical incomes now have less than one month's income as savings, plus the slow hollowing-out of middle income jobs, and a pretty clear picture emerges. The foundations of middle class life – a decent income, assets, savings, pensions – are getting harder and harder to attain, especially for those just starting out. In many cases, debt has filled the gap.

This goes beyond just failures of the private sector. The welfare safety net has also become residualised. People on reasonable incomes can work their whole life and receive only paltry amounts when they lose their job. When it comes to both work and the state, people in the middle have been putting more in than they've been getting out for a long time.

It should go without saying that working class communities have had it hardest over the last thirty years. But the idea of middle class decline too is too often met with derision, especially among progressives.

Part of this is down to a distorted view of what "middle class" is, a popular association with what is in effect the upper middle classes; the world of piano recitals and Waitrose where "struggle" means difficulty meeting school fees. Of course, the middle class contains many like this too and they are doing more than fine. In fact, the most interesting development that experts have pointed to in recent years is the fracturing and polarisation of the middle class, between the upper echelons and those at the lower end. And previous generations who started out at the lower end of the middle class, bought a house at the right time, settled into a profession and now face retiring near the top may well be the last to make that journey en masse. In short, the bottom is falling out of the British middle class.

There's been a lot of talk about "narratives" recently. There's also been a lot of talk about how Ed Miliband doesn't have "a narrative". But in his defence, he's one of the few at the top of British politics to grasp this phenemenon, whatever his other difficulties. He's not totally alone – some figures on the right, for instance, including the brilliant Peter Franklin at ConHome, have twigged too. But wider interest is otherwise conspicuous by its absence, in Westminster at least.

Instead we get slightly echoey outdated debates about Europe, whether X or Y is "pro-business" or "anti-business", whether a particular view of public services is sufficiently "reforming" and so on and so forth. But surely the shape of that discussion changes in the face of such huge societal shifts? No doubt this failure to catch up is partly because the senior ranks of the commentariat are largely made up of those at the comfortable end of things (themselves probably among the last who can expect to make a good living out of a profession like journalism) - but it's depressing all the same.

To be fair, the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The likes of Resolution Foundation have been fantastic at laying out the problem of stagnating wages and ways to ameloriate it, but no one has come up with a wholesale plan for reversing the trend. Some of this is because it rubs up against global head winds and the modern divorce between power and politics. It probably requires trans-national solutions, or at least a revisiting of the way Britain approaches globalisation – a debate that hasn't even been opened here.

But those who over-play the inability of national government to fix things are also wrong, and usually have a vested ideological interest in doing so (in this sense the argument between those favouring a "bigger" or "shrunken" Labour offer in opposition is mostly phony, and a proxy for a bigger one about what can be achieved in government). Ideas that would be both effective and achievable include wholesale reform of corporate governance to include a significant role for workers; profit-sharing and other ways of spreading wealth; lower-cost routes into home ownership; breaking up and remaking British banking; decentralisation to cities; the prioritisation of vocational "middle skills"; prioritising British industry in procurement; reform of takeovers etc. When it comes to welfare, there is IPPR's National Salary Insurance scheme or SMF's "flexicurity" proposals.

All of this can only start, though, with a recognition that our current journey back to basically the same political economy as we had before the crash is not what success looks like. It wasn't good enough then and it isn't now.

Marx famously wrote:

The lower strata of the middle class... all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.

Things may not be as apocalyptic or revolutionary now, but they are bad, and contradictions within modern British capitalism mean the lower end of the middle class is sinking. The entire middle is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. The result is entire neighbourhoods – which on the face of things look serene – in fact struggling to keep their head above water, facing futures significantly less secure, less stable and less well-off than their parents. This shapes millions of people's everyday lives and influences their political attitudes, and it should influence our political discussion too. At the moment, though, it doesn't seem to be. Future generations will surely look back and wonder what on earth we were talking about instead.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

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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?