Sunday, March 29, 2009

Celebrities: it’s not them, it’s us

Do you ever, while reading something, think ‘ah, but such-and-such’ only to find, a few paragraphs on, the writer making exactly that point?

I guess it might deflate you just a little to find that your moment of inspiration wasn’t original and that you haven’t outwitted the writer, but I find it’s actually a nice experience to find yourself thinking along the same lines as someone else – far more so than when you read something and merely nod along with it.

It’s the nearest reading gets to feeling like an interaction, and I think it’s a mark of a good writer that you can lead readers not just to accept your conclusion but even to expect it.

I just had that experience with Danny Finkelstein’s piece ‘Why did we pay to watch Jade Goody?’ He writes:

When someone sells you a hamburger, you consume it. You pay a small amount of money to take possession of the hamburger and you enjoy it alone. That is, you are the only person who can benefit from the item once you have paid for it.
A superstar sportsman is enjoyed differently. You might be willing to pay only the same amount to watch a top sports star that you are prepared to pay for a hamburger. But when you enjoy the sportsman you do not reduce anyone else's enjoyment. Other people can enjoy him at the same time.

Upon which I thought: ‘ah, but it’s more than that – the viewer’s pleasure is actually increased by the fact that they’re part of a mass audience’.

And, sure enough, a couple of paragraphs later:

Not only does one person's consumption of a superstar's talent not reduce another’s enjoyment of it, it actually enhances that enjoyment. One of the things we are paying for is the ability to gossip about stars, shake our heads over their antics, marvel at their clothes and laugh at their choice of partner. And for this enjoyment the talent of the star doesn't really matter all that much.
No one will pay to read a story about an individual no one has heard of or few remember. But if, by a process, perhaps, of chaotic accident, one person becomes emblazoned on the public mind, then that person's behaviour becomes suddenly worth paying for. If they are talentless then we can all have fun discussing the fact that they are talentless.

But this raises another point.

I mostly loathe celebrity culture, and this loathing is something above and beyond the low opinion I hold of most celebrities themselves. It dulls the senses and promotes selfish individualism.

But: the flip side is that by giving us some human stories (however confected) that we can all talk about, celebrity culture provides a little glue that can bring us together and get us talking – at first about Jade Goody or whomever, but then about, well, anything. We get closer to each other by talking about them.

As such, celebrities are – in an inadvertent, synthetic and limited sense, to be sure – creators of social capital. I don’t think that this fully offsets the negative side of celebrity culture, but it’s something.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Listing to the left

Norm Geras reports on Linton Weeks’s list of ten reasons that we love lists. They are:

  1. Lists bring order to chaos
  2. Lists help us remember things
  3. Most lists are finite
  4. Lists can be meaningful
  5. Lists can be as long or as short as necessary
  6. Making lists can help make you famous
  7. The word "list" can be tracked back to William Shakespeare
  8. Lists relieve stress and focus the mind
  9. Lists can force people to say revealing things
  10. Lists can keep us from procrastinating.

I think 1, 2, 8 and maybe 9 are fair enough; the rest are a bit tenuous and 10 is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

Norm adds:

I can't believe he left out one of the most satisfying and important reasons for a making a very common kind of list, a to-do list - namely, that crossing off tasks as you do them gives you a sense of achievement, which you might get from nothing else that day.

Exactly right. But there’s more!

The list above is numbered, although there’s no reason it need be; a lot of lists don’t need to be itemised in any particular order. And these lists are deeply egalitarian, which should appeal to those of us on the left. For instance, my current to-do list, free from any hierachies of so-called ‘importance’, includes:

  • Drink tea
  • Get haircut
  • Pop to supermarket
  • Buy a flat
  • Watch another couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica
  • Read that piece in the LRB by Ross Whatshisname
  • Clean kitchen
  • Figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life
  • Go running

And when it comes to crossing them off, each is equally satisfying.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Lovely spam, wonderful spam...

A nice gentleman from the Ivory Coast has emailed me to ask whether I can help him to move “USD$11.million 500,000 Dollars” out of the country. Well, I doubt it: I have a couple of suitcases but no car.

But what caught my eye was the email subject line:


If this guy thinks I have any assistants, he really hasn’t looked at our office organogram properly.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


You learn something new every day. Well, I do. Well, some days.

Those little single-portion plastic milk containers (and I use the word ‘milk’ under duress) are called jiggers.

Excellent word.

I remember a girl I fancied at university once bet me I couldn’t think of 100 uses for one of those. The first two were easy (put it in your tea, put it in your coffee), but then it got harder.

Shake it to make cheese; run your fingernail back and forth over the corrugated bit on the side to create a musical instrument; use the label to teach (very little) English to children or foreigners; peel the top off and balance it on a door to (slightly) drench someone; use the pointy bit of the lid to hack your enemies to death (slowly)… I got to about 90 before ‘put it in your cocoa’ occurred to me.

She was very impressed: I was a really funny guy, such a great mate.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quotes that sound really, really stupid when taken out of context

Part one in what may or may not become an occasional series.

Matthew Taylor:

2010 will probably be somewhere between 1991 and 1996

(In fairness to Matthew, he’s actually making a perfectly sensible point rather than making a schoolboy error with the space-time continuum.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein fiskalisch Stimulus

Anatole Kaletsky’s latest column raises an interesting point for those who love to liken our ‘NuLab’ government to the Nazis:

In the 1930s only one country put expansionary policies fully into practice. Hitler's Germany, guided by the explicitly Keynesian economic thinking of its Finance Minister, Hjelmar Schacht, rapidly restored full employment by building the autobahns, even before it turned to rearmament.

Papal bull and corporate manslaughter

Ratzinger’s been at it again…

Pope Benedict XVI, who is making his first papal visit to Africa, has said that handing out condoms is not the answer in the fight against HIV/Aids. The pontiff, who preaches marital fidelity and abstinence, said the practice only increased the problem.

When will the religious right understand that it’s beside the point whether abstinence or monogamy prevent AIDS better than condom use? The point is that public programmes to promote abstinence or monogamy prevent AIDS less well than public programmes to promote condom use.

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. For the importance of public health evaporates when there’s an opportunity for a good bit of moralising. And who cares about a bodycount when you can claim a soulcount?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Economic forecasts: a load of crystal balls

The IMF has made its seventh stab at forecasting GDP growth for 2009. Here is its record so far, showing how its predictions for the major economies this year have massively changed:

And here’s what I said in January, when their sixth effort was produced:

Can we have much confidence in the latest predictions?
Think about it this way: what are the next IMF forecasts, due in April, going to say? … If we can’t predict the next prediction confidently, then what’s the point in crunching numbers about the rest of the year, or even beyond?

Well, I was wrong: we didn’t have to wait until April for the next set of wildly different numbers. In just two months, the forecast for US growth this year has dropped by a full percentage point; ditto the UK. Canada is down 0.8, the Eurozone 1.2 and Japan all of 2.4 points. And these are just the latest in a rapid series of hefty revisions.

To repeat myself again:

There’s too much uncertainty, particularly about what’s going to happen with the various schemes around the world to support banks and lending. Until this is resolved, there just won’t be any reliable growth forecasts.

The IMF has also got new forecasts for 2010. If you think they’re worth looking at, you’re out of your mind.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Why not make your own Tory logo?

And it does seem that the Tories need a proper slogan. Just look at the alt text you get on their website when you hover the cursor over their current (peculiar) logo:

Why can’t newspapers just tell us things?

A deeply unsatisfying story in the Independent on Sunday. It begins:

More people are out of work in a third of constituencies across Britain than when the Conservatives left power, new figures revealed yesterday.

As with many statistics-based media reports, my immediate reaction was: ‘Is this claim all that significant?’ There are 646 constituencies and you’d expect a fair amount of variation not just in unemployment rates but in changes to those rates over time.

The Sindy does not make it easy to find out. The report tells us absolutely nothing about where these “new figures” come from – other than that it’s an “analysis of unemployment in parliamentary seats”. Conducted by whom? Based on which data? Published where?

What’s more: does this analysis compare numbers of people unemployed or the rate as a percentage of working-age people? Given the growing population, the former comparison will produce results that are both less favourable (i.e. more headline-grabbing) and less meaningful. And is it using the claimant count or the Labour Force Survey measure of unemployment?

A little time on the web leads me to suspect that these mystery researchers will have got their data from Nomis, an Office for National Statistics research centre that deals with local labour markets. But at that point, what with it being a bloody lovely day outside, my detective instincts die. Sorry. I tried.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Quote of the day

“Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher deserved each other. But nobody else did.”
- Neil Kinnock

Monday, March 09, 2009

‘We must be purer than pure’

I’m sure nothing could possibly go wrong with this:

A new political party aimed at “cleaning up politics” is being set up by a multi-millionaire businessman. Sir Paul Judge, a former Tory grandee, believes the power of the internet and disillusionment with sleaze make the time right for a party dedicated to independent thought and open governance.

The party has no specific policies and no manifesto. Instead, it will select its candidates by public vote from anyone who puts themselves forward, provided they are committed to the principles of good governance, including selflessness, integrity, openness and honesty.
Nominees will have their details and interests published online; the public will then vote by text message, X-Factor-style, to choose the party’s election candidates.
Judge said: “These days the party selection processes of candidates are about as undemocratic as it gets. We think independent people can make good decisions. We use that model for juries. If you put a group of sensible people together and show them the facts, they’ll make good decisions.” Hence his name for the new party: the Jury Team.

Yes, promoting a political movement wholly on the personal integrity of its candidates is certainly not a recipe for disappointment. And self-nomination followed by a public text vote is exactly the model we use for juries.

The Jury Team – of course it was named after the 12 people in a court and not because it’s a nice accompaniment to the founders’ name – has a list of principles on its website to which candidates would have to sign up, but they seem a little more substantive than general support for “good governance”:

  1. End of the Party Whips
  2. Transparent Pay for MPs and MEPs
  3. An independent Politicians Complaints Commission
  4. Capping donations to political parties
  5. Elected Select Committees
  6. European Legislation applied appropriately
  7. Term limits for MPs and MEPs
  8. General elections every five years
  9. Referendums as requested by 5% of the electorate
  10. Government departments run by a Board
  11. Independent publication of Government statistics
  12. Applying these principles [to the EU]

We’re not told how these principles were arrived at.

A fair few of these I’d agree with at least in part, but I think there’s plenty of room here for reasonable disagreement.

There’s more than a whiff of deregulatory Euroscepticism about 6 and 12. Let me quote a passage from the explanation of 12:

The relation of the UK to EU has been a central feature of UK politics for fifty years but its various enhancements have generally not received particularly strong parliamentary support.
For example, the Bill to join the EEC passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons in July 1972 by only 301 to 284 (16 Conservatives voted against and four abstained and there were 13 Labour abstentions) and for the vote on the Treaty of Nice in 2004 there was an Opposition and a Government three-line whip and the Government won with a large majority even though 100 Labour MPs did not even attend.

I only note that’s the kind of long memory and attention to detail you don’t usually expect in a man building a broad-based political movement and with no other axe to grind.

Point 7 – a three-term limit – is intended to stop parliamentarians from becoming “too comfortable with their lifestyle and too separate from the rest of the population”, but it will actually mean they don’t become too experienced. Just as they’re getting to know the ins and outs of the place, they’ll have to leave. And if a party’s in opposition for three terms it’ll have to purge its top ranks just as it nears power. This will reduce the quality of scrutiny. Hilariously, the explanation of this proposal ends by saying that “if there are any particular people whose time as an MP comes to an end as a result but the Prime Minister still wants them to serve in the Government, then they could be appointed to the House of Lords”.

So unelected life peers are fine, but MPs who could win election four terms in a row are an affront to democracy.

Finally, given Judge’s obvious commitment to openness in politics and party funding, here’s part of his Wikipedia entry, relating to the time he spent as Director General of the Conservative Party (1992–95):

In 1995 Judge sued The Guardian for libel. The action followed an article alleging that Judge could face court action for contempt of court relating to donations made to the Conservative Party by fugitive tycoon Asil Nadir. It was alleged that, in September 1993, Judge and others at the Conservative Central Office had resorted to "old tricks" to obstruct trustees' inquiries. … The jury found against Judge, finding no-libel.

I make no comment at all on the case. However, Judge does now say that during this period, “I observed at close quarters what came to be known as sleaze” – although he gives no specifics.

(Update: I see Sunder Katwala has a rather more thoughtful and measured response to this “anti-party party” and the more general “anti-politics” movement.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pot. Kettle. Brown.


Mr Brown opened a cabinet "away day" in Southampton with a remarkable lecture about the dangers of allowing the contents of private discussions to enter the public domain. He ended his 10-minute dressing-down with a stern reminder that the whole Government would suffer critical damage if cabinet confidentiality were not preserved.
"He said we would all suffer if any more details leaked out," one cabinet minister revealed last night.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Rational expectations

Chris Dillow shows that idiot fund managers can, with not all that much luck, make a market-beating profit for several years at a stretch.

Given the large number of idiots, even a small success rate by chance means that we can expect a fair number of idiots to be hailed as financial geniuses, having delivered impressive results. Then their luck is likely to run out.

But that couldn’t really happen, could it?

Friday, March 06, 2009

‘Bank error in your favour’

Yesterday, the Bank of England announced its plans for quantitative easing: boosting the money supply (electronically, not with old-fashioned printing presses) in order to stimulate the economy. Imagine my surprise when I popped to the cashpoint this morning and found my current account balance was £75 billion higher.

My round, I think.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The inefficiency of big government

In the wee hours of 5 November 2008, the freshly elected Barack Obama announced to the nation his Domestic Canine Acquisition Plan. Four months on, and there is still no sign of Sasha and Malia’s promised puppy – the best Obama can offer is that a breed of dog has been chosen. Big deal.

Is this bureaucratic foot-dragging going to save the economy?

Fair and unbalanced: trying to be a respectable partisan

Hopi Sen moans about the media’s obsession with trivial personality stories in politics – prompted by the coverage of Mr Brown Goes to Washington.

Liam Murray technically agrees, but then takes issue:

Where he’s misguided and getting a little irritating is this faux naivety Hopi affects – “why are they doing this?” / “can’t they see how important these things are?” Of course they can Hopi but this is national politics…
None of us were blogging in the dog days of the Major administration but I don’t believe for a minute that a young Hopi would’ve been crying foul about all the ‘Tory split’ stories, demanding substance and disavowing any interest in the gossip surrounding Major.

I can’t answer for Hopi, but I can say that this sort of point – the imperative to be fair in one’s writing while also being a partisan – is worth keeping in mind. There can be a tension between a commentator on politics and (in however small a way) a public participant. My own answer is this:

You will not get a balanced overall coverage of politics from my blog. I’m likelier to cover stories that (I think) reflect well on Labour or badly on other parties than vice versa. I’m partial not just in what I think but also in what I choose to write about.

But – other than when I’m joking – I won’t say anything I don’t believe to be true. I won’t attack the Tories on a charge I think to be bogus (although I probably won’t defend them). I won’t defend Labour when I think they’ve screwed up (although I probably won’t attack them). I try to be fair in what I say, although not necessarily balanced in what I don’t say.

I don’t actually mention the majority of political stories. I tend to write when I think I have a point that’s getting little or no attention, or when I think I have a novel way of looking at something. Most of the time, I have nothing to add, so I don’t try.

And there are plenty of other people, in blogging or the older media, ready to play equivalent roles as supporters of other parties and opponents of mine. While my blogroll has a strong centre-left slant, you can find plenty of criticism of the government via those links.

Here’s an objection to my approach: ‘If you truly think Labour is worthy of support, warts and all, then why not be as open about the bad bits as the good? The overall case you make would still be pro-Labour. Otherwise you seem like a party hack.’

Reply: My views on ideology and policy come first; they motivate me to support Labour; that conditional support then motivates me to think about which of my views I want to air. If you’re a commentator with a partisan allegiance, I don’t think there’s any obligation to wash your own party’s dirty linen in public for the sake of even-handedness: just don’t go around pretending that it’s all spotless, and only call the other parties out when their own linen genuinely is dirty.

I’m somewhere between ‘impartial analyst’ and ‘slavish propagandist’, and I like to think I’m just about in the respectable part of that spectrum.

Specifically on trivia, personalities and media swarms:

There’s a difference between: (a) decrying a certain sort of coverage of one’s own party but gleefully propagating it when the other lot are on the ropes; and (b) decrying this coverage of one’s own party but generally ignoring it when it’s the other lot. (a) may be hypocrisy but (b) is just partiality, and there’s nothing inherently disreputable about that.

And yes, I have my moments of chucking froth at the other parties, be it on David Cameron’s dangerous cycling or Brian Paddick’s lack of impact in the mayoral race. I’m weak.

But I’m not beyond ridiculing and snarling at my own party too when the mood takes me. And as for personality-based gossip coverage of Brown’s trip to Washington, I do love this photo. Sorry, Hopi.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Intelligence tests

The secondary school admissions process in England is still too complex for many parents, research claims.

"Despite improvements, our research suggests that the system is still too complex, particularly for parents and carers who are not highly educated or proficient in English, and especially where there are schools responsible for their own admissions," says report author, Anne West.

Well, why go to the effort of marking all those 11-plus exams to select bright kids when you can just use administrative complexity to select bright parents? As long as it runs in the family, you’re laughing.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

God, Judge Death and original sin

(Pictures by Brian Bolland and Michelangelo)

When I was younger, I was a fan of the comic 2000AD, which featured Judge Dredd. The nastiest of Dredd’s enemies over the years was Judge Death. This superfiend and his followers were undead law enforcers from another dimension, and worked on the twisted logic that, because all crime is committed by the living, all life should therefore be a crime.

As a result, they went around killing everyone: “The crime is life – the sentence is death!” Unreasonable and not very nice at all.

The similarity to original sin has only just occurred to me. Let me take a step upmarket from Wikipedia and go to the Catholic Encyclopedia, which describes it as “a consequence of [Adam’s] first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent”.

Adam and Eve were created in a state of grace; by their actions, they forfeited this, falling into physical and spiritual mortality; the rest of us, though, don’t get this initial benefit of the doubt (a sort of spiritual Lamarckism: the descendants inherit not the innate condition of the parents but an acquired characteristic). It seems unfair on the rest of us, though.

The Encyclopedia explains:

by the sin of Adam [man] has been deprived only of the Divine gifts to which his nature had no strict right, the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, the vision of God in the next life.

So it’s not that we’re being positively punished for original sin; rather, we’re deprived of a set of privileges because of it. But the lack of these privileges does expose us to harm, though. It seems a rough deal. As Shaggy once protested, in a slightly different context: “It wasn’t me.” I didn’t eat any apples. I didn’t listen to any serpents and/or rib-women. I didn’t disobey any commands. And I have an alibi: it was, as James Ussher can confirm, a good 5981 years before my birth.

Apparently, though, there’s a perfectly good sense in which we can all be held responsible on this count. The Encyclopedia quotes Thomas Aquinas:

An individual can be considered… as part of a whole, a member of a society… an act can be his although he has not done it himself, nor has it been done by his free will but by the rest of the society or by its head, the nation being considered as doing what the prince does… Thus the multitude of men who receive their human nature from Adam is to be considered as a single community or rather as a single body… If the man, whose privation of original justice is due to Adam, is considered as a private person, this privation is not his 'fault', for a fault is essentially voluntary. If, however, we consider him as a member of the family of Adam, as if all men were only one man, then his privation partakes of the nature of sin on account of its voluntary origin, which is the actual sin of Adam.

And it adds:

Being a distinct person I am not strictly responsible for the crime of another; the act is not mine. Yet, as a member of the human family, I am supposed to have acted with its head who represented it with regard to the conservation or the loss of grace. I am, therefore, responsible for my privation of grace, taking responsibility in the largest sense of the word. This, however, is enough to make the state of privation of grace in a certain degree voluntary, and, therefore, "without absurdity it may be said to be voluntary" (St. Augustine).

With all due respect to the intellects of Aquinas, Augustine and others… How can anyone accept this reasoning, except when they’re wanting to paper over one of the cracks in the belief system to which they’ve already committed?

It may have been (and in some circles still is) culturally common to blame subjects for the conduct of their rulers, or children for the dishonour of their parents, and that fact no doubt lends some superficial credibility to Aquinas’s account. But why should this standard be the right one for God to hold? Outside the realm of original sin, Christianity treats souls individually: if your parents and grandparents committed a huge number of awful sins, you are judged no more harshly than the offspring of good people.

To imagine that my role and yours in the Fall are “voluntary” is an “absurdity”. This “responsibility in the largest sense of the word” is empty, and to treat it otherwise stinks: the doctrine can’t get off the ground without taking a base human prejudice, elevating it to the level of moral principle and then nailing it to God’s mast.

Sin entered the world with human life; we’re all human, so we’re all sinners, and the sentence is death.

(Don’t get me started on why it’s wrong to eat fruit that gives you knowledge of good and evil, nor on why God needed the elaborate incarnation/self-sacrifice routine to save us from the fallen nature he’d imposed on us.)

Imaginary numbers

David Aaronovitch goes fact-hunting:

The mystery stat was sitting on one of our Times blogs and read “the average Brit is caught on security cameras some 300 times a day” and, God knows why, I just decided to chase the number down and find out where it came from. …
One of the stories… referred “to the results of a study by the Government's privacy watchdog” (the Office of the Information Commissioner), which “found people were caught on a national network of 4.2 million CCTV cameras an average 300 times a day”.
… It transpired that the document, entitled The Report of the Surveillance Society, was published in 2006…
The specific “300 times” claim occurred on page 23. The second part read: “There may now be as many as 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain: one for every 14 people, and a person can be captured on over 300 cameras each day.” The source was given in a footnote as coming from a book The Maximum Surveillance Society, published in 1999, by two academics, including a C. Norris.
So I set to work trying to find the book. …
The footnoted page was towards the back of a chapter detailing a day in the life of a man called Thomas Reams, as he did various things in and around London. By the end “Thomas had been filmed by over three hundred cameras on over thirty separate CCTV systems”, the authors wrote, adding: “While this contrived account is, of course, a fictional construction, it is a fiction that increasingly mirrors the reality of routine surveillance.”
What? A fiction!
… So I began to wonder how the ICO report's authors had failed to notice that an important factual source was fictional. Had they not checked it? … Then I saw that Clive Norris, the Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and author of the original work of imagination was a co-author of this report. This amazed me even more. He must have known, surely?

And so on, and so on.

I don’t often say this about newspaper columnists, but I reckon this guy might just be good enough to be a blogger.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Bogeyman politics

The true test of whether you believe in civil liberties is whether you believe in them for people you detest – be they Holocaust deniers, asylum seekers, terror suspects, convicted paedophiles… or bankers:

Harriet Harman has said former Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) chief Sir Fred Goodwin should not "count on" keeping his full £650,000 a year pension.

"And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in."

What monstrous times are these we live in when an Englishman faces deprivation of his legal earnings by politicians arbitrarily bowing to the mob?

I wonder what the Convention on Modern Liberty has to say about this?

(Perspective check: Goodwin’s total £16m pension pot amounts to 0.07% of RBS’s £24bn losses last year, and 0.01% of the £118bn that the Treasury forecasts for public borrowing in the coming year.)

Plato on the national debt

Fraser Nelson is angry with the government for sneakily taking on too much debt:

Gordon "two books" Brown has just started a new series of national debt excluding the banks. Purpose: to conceal from the taxpayer what he's done. He rejects the ONS definition of national debt, but won't give us a new one. Just his own make-believe set which excludes every penny sent down this vortex of the imploding banking sector.

Plato might disagree. But we can come back to him later.

First, for reference, the Office for National Statistics publishes figures on the national debt – or rather, ‘public sector net debt’ – both including and excluding the effects on the public finances of the state’s exposure to the bits of the banking system it’s propping up.

This graph from the ONS is, annoyingly, mis-labelled: the pink dots are the figures excluding financial sector intervention, the blue line includes it.

It shows how debt excluding intervention has recently climbed quite steeply, while debt including intervention has a couple of huge leaps: the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the Bradford & Bingley loan book. Last week, the ONS announced that it would include the balance sheets of RBS and Lloyds/HBOS as part of the public finances, dating back to their bailouts last October. This means the blue line (but not the pink dots) will be revised sharply upwards.

So, the ONS counts the liabilities held by these state-dominated banks as part of ‘public sector net debt’. As far as proper accounting conventions go, I defer to official expertise in a heartbeat. But ‘public sector net debt’ is not quite the same sort of thing as what we ordinarily think of as debt.

For most of us, debt is money that you have to pay back – the result of having borrowed in the past.

But the liabilities taken in to public sector net debt are something else. They are amounts of money that the state would, in theory, have to pay in the event of: all the nationalised/bailed-out banks going bust; all of their borrowers defaulting on all of their debts; all the prices of all the properties on which such mortgages are secured dropping to zero; and all the assets of those banks – from deposits in savings accounts to the little chains with the pens on the end – becoming utterly worthless.

It’s an apocalyptic worst-case scenario, and it will not come to pass. Some of these banks’ debts will turn bad and some assets will be duff, but nobody knows how much. And in the meantime, the decent assets are still turning a profit: investments will earn returns and the majority of mortgage-holders will keep making their payments. To us.

Indeed, accounting convention means that a whole lot of capital assets held by the banks don’t get counted against the liabilities in these figures. Fair enough, if that’s the way these things are done, but these assets are still worth a tremendous amount of money.

The recent announcement that RBS and Lloyds would be classified as in the public sector said:

The ONS decision is based on a judgement that government has the ability to control the respective banks’ general corporate policy through the conditions associated with the agreements signed relating to recapitalisation.

That’s all. It’s not saying the government now actually owes all this money, let alone that it’s been “sent down this vortex of the imploding banking sector” – sorry, Fraser.

How much money?

an indicative analysis suggests that the addition to Public Sector Net Debt is likely to be in the range between £1 trillion and £1.5 trillion … roughly equivalent to between 70 per cent and 100 per cent of GDP.

How did the markets react to this more than doubling of public ‘debt’? Did the pound plummet? Were government gilts suddenly viewed as riskier? No: the markets shrugged it off.

And that’s where Plato comes in.

There’s a principle in philosophy sometimes called the causal criterion of reality. One modern formulation goes: “To be real is to have causal powers” (Samuel Alexander), but the earliest known occurrence is in Plato’s Sophist: “everything which possesses any power of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause… has real existence”. More casually: if something is of literally no consequence, it may as well not be there.

Public debt – real debt, as you and I understand it, money that we owe and definitely have to pay – is not good for government credibility. When it shoots up, the government loses the respect of the money markets. But, despite the surge in ‘public sector net debt’ (including financial sector interventions), the markets aren’t that spooked.

Certainly, public debt in the ordinary sense is rising strongly as well, and this has an effect on the markets: it’s real debt and it has real effects. But the liabilities on the balance sheet coming from the financial interventions haven’t had the same sort of effect: those figures lack the causal powers of debt and so do not exist as real debt. Perhaps, in the future, some of it will be converted into real public debt – but this remains to be seen. And don’t forget those uncounted assets on the other side.

Just imagine that the sums involved in the bank bailouts had actually been ordinary public borrowing: the pound would now be at parity with the Zimbabwean dollar.

But the Brownophobes needn’t fret: there’ll be plenty of real debt in the years to come for them to fulminate against. And the new asset protection scheme, while it will turn a government profit at first as the banks pay participation fees, seems likely to end up costing us… something. Although, given the role of confidence in markets, that fact that it’s there means it’s less likely to be needed.

We should be worried about the economy. We should be concerned about the public finances. It’s still not a cert that the banks are out of the woods, which should trouble us. But if we want to know how much we actually owe, look at the ‘excluding financial intervention’ figures. The astronomical numbers that include the interventions represent only possibility – and the most extreme, theoretical possibility at that.