David Cameron promises opportunity for the few and hopelessness for the rest

Under the Conservatives' new plans to remedy the “something for nothing culture” in the UK, you will now be getting nothing for something.

There is now a well established pattern of the Conservative Party kicking the poorest, in reaction to a crisis. It is like a nervous tic. If an asteroid threatened the earth with imminent Armageddon, their reaction - I am quite sure - would be to privatise all observatories, give a tax break to a restrictively defined class of married astronaut and cut all benefits.

After a very successful Labour Party conference, George Osborne announced wide ranging schemes which would once and for all tackle the “something for nothing culture” in the UK. I was very willing to listen. If anyone knows about the “something for nothing culture”, after all, it is a man who inherited his considerable wealth and flipped his taxpayer-funded constituency home for a profit of £400k; the only man in history whose CV reads “Data Entry Clerk, Towel Folder, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer”. This comes less than a week after revealing he is launching a legal challenge against the EU, at taxpayers’ expense, to protect grotesque Bankers’ bonuses. Protecting the people whose selfish and malicious decisions caused this crisis, while punishing the many innocents who lost their living as a result of it.

Never mind the fact that workfare schemes of the kind proposed do absolutely nothing to create jobs and their success in getting people to work is questionable, at best. Never mind that no work has been done to model whether such schemes actually cannibalise real jobs and have a deflationary effect on wages. The report the government itself commissioned to look at such schemes abroad concluded that “Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.” Never mind that, rather than eliminating the “something for nothing culture”, these schemes actually elevate it to the corporate level.  

The popularity of such initiatives is predicated on a bizarre form of reverse social envy against those less fortunate; built on stories of rhetorical drawn curtains and fictional families no member of which has worked in three generations. “Getting up early in the morning and doing something I hate for money is what I have to do. You should have to, too. Even if it is entirely counterproductive.” That seems to be the cri-de-coeur rising from the people whom the Tories claim to represent. Those “hardworking taxpayers” so self-sufficient they do not even need hyphens.

“Is this the start of a process where people will work for no salary?” asked a BBC News anchor. “Not quite. They will still get benefits,” countered their chief political correspondent, Norman Smith. But here is a question which has not been answered: if National Insurance no longer insures me against unemployment - one of the key elements for which both I and my employer pay it – why should we still be paying it at precisely the same rate? To cross-subsidise a cut of the top rate of tax? To pay for the pensions’ liability of Royal Mail employees, long after we have sold the assets? To fund legal action which seeks to protect City bonuses?

The whole concept of insurance is that you pay into it, knowing you may never need it, in order to purchase peace of mind. Nobody would stand for a car insurer suddenly turning around and asking its customers to do a bit of free work in its offices in order for their claim to be honoured. It may be emotionally easy to support such schemes if you connect them to rare but overly publicised cases of people defrauding the state. It is less easy to support them if you connect them to, for instance, military personnel which were dumped en mass by the 2010 review, have had great trouble getting back into the civilian workforce and many of whom will be coming up to two years unemployed soon. Lloyd George, introducing the National Insurance bill to Parliament in 1911, called it “a measure that will relieve untold misery in myriads of homes — misery that is undeserved; that will help to prevent a good deal of wretchedness.” The only thing that has changed, subtly but insidiously, appears to be public perception of “undeserved”.

What do these measures, which you may support emotionally, mean for you logically? Do they not vitiate one of the most important principles of our society? How certain are you that you or your children will not find yourselves cleaning graffiti or sweeping streets in two year’s time, for no remuneration other than the luxury of claiming back from a system into which you have paid? Will our lives be better or worse for the lack of that safety net? Now, you may answer all those questions in a way which confirms your support of such punitive measures. But at least make sure you ask them.

Cameron went further on Wednesday. He announced proposals to withdraw housing benefit, possibly all benefits, from under 25s. Again, very little thought has gone on the economic effect on parents, who will have to subsidise their children for seven years more than they might have budgeted. Not to mention the human cost for families who cannot afford to. That, in a nutshell, is what one gets with the Conservatives. A transfer of liability, en mass, from the state to the citizen, while personal and indirect taxation add up to more and more and, crucially, unbeknown to most the national debt continues to increase from under £800bn in 2010 to an eye-watering £1.4trn in 2015. Sorry to inform you, some “tough decisions” have had to be made. You are now getting nothing for something. Paying National Insurance, then having to work below minimum wage for your payout. Paying to buy shares in a mail service you already own and end up not owning it.

Certainty for corporations. Uncertainty for individuals. Land of opportunity for the few. Wasteland of hopelessness for the rest. The relentless focus is on creating an environment of advantage and security for business – and only large multinational business, at that – so that they may budget, invest and thrive. The implication is that individuals do not budget, do not invest and do not deserve to thrive. Were you planning to retire around 60? Did you think you had discharged your financial responsibility to your offspring when they reached majority? Were you under the impression that paying into a social security kitty granted you to some level of social security?

Not to worry, though; at least both you and your neighbour have to open your curtains at the same time in the morning. Which is what really matters, right?

When the going gets tough, the Conservatives kick the poorest. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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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?