Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Adults?

David Cameron's attempt to introduce a porn filter mark the day the Conservative party embraced the nanny state.

If I had to pick one thing that I actually ever liked about the Tory party, the choice would be simple, it would be their libertine streak. You can say what you like about how they seem to like to plunder the country to line their own pockets, how they have gleefully fostered and exploited social divisions and how they tend to treat anybody without at least a knighthood as a parasite fit only for the Workfare gulag, but on issues of personal freedom they were the go-to guys during the Labour years.

The Labour Party, with the best will in the world, has never really been about fun. That Tony Blair actually volunteered to be a Catholic says all you need to know about his proclivities towards enjoying life and Gordon Brown just looked like a man who lived every day of his life with pockets full of piss. The internet knew how to have fun, it still does, and so the Labour Party going after the internet was inevitable. You could sense they were just waiting for a photogenic murder victim to validate their policies, probably with a team of bright eyed interns scouring the papers daily and a focus group on standby the vet the candidates.

Censor the porn, Labour said, because then horrible murders will stop, because apparently there was no murder before the internet. Nobody really believed that of course, but porn is not the easiest cause to fight for.

So to see that the Tories have now embraced the nanny state wholeheartedly is not just shocking, it is deeply worrying. That David Cameron would publicly declare that the internet, the single most significant British contribution to the modern world, needs to be censored should be of great concern. He leads the party that is supposed to let us be grown-ups, the party that lets us smoke, drink and gamble, while taking out ridiculously expensive loans to cover it. Even these guys now subscribe to the idea that we might see too many boobs online and be ruined for life.

We expect Labour to try to police what we see; to tell us what we like is wrong, politically incorrect, and likely to turn us all into murderers, terrorists and rapists. That’s what Labour does, because they know better than everybody else.

We don’t expect this from the Tories, not since the days of Mary Whitehouse anyway. Back when the Tories were old fashioned, blue-rinsed and God-fearing you could imagine them having plenty to say about all these horrible freedoms people are enjoying. But today’s Tories? It seems unthinkable that a bunch of Bullingdon Boys would even attempt to be seen as a credible moral authority, especially as they just burned their bridge to the Christian right and held a gay wedding in the ashes. When I saw David Cameron and his mob take over I thought at least one part of life would not be attacked for the next five years. This is a man, I thought, who might just not be a total killjoy. Or who at least might be too busy privatising all the things to find time to find the time to ruin anything else.

That the Tories would attack freedom of communication in this way under the ridiculous pretext that it is protecting children would be funny if it wasn’t a real thing that is actually happening. It is a foolish, reactionary, impractical move, and one that totally obliterates any Tory claim to being a party of individual freedom.

And so here we are, stuck in the middle. On the political right we have the born again moral guardians of the Conservative party, here to protect all of the children by flinging half-baked and technologically unsound ideas at a problem nobody seems to be able to prove exists. On the political left, of the Conservatives at least, we have Labour. The joyless overseers, making sure that wrongthink and dirtyfapping are expunged from our great nation so that we can live full and exciting lives of optimal make benefit for make great and wonderful United Kingdom.

There is no longer a political party in the UK for people who want the government to leave them alone. There is no longer a party that thinks what goes on in the bedroom or the internet browser is the business of the individual. All we will get at the next election is a choice of who gets to censor us and for what reason and this is an abysmal state of affairs.

At least when David Cameron was elected, you thought he might be too busy privatising things to ruin the internet as well. Photograph: Getty Images

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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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?