An economics lesson for David Cameron

Comparing the UK's finances to a maxed-out credit card betrays a poor understanding of basic account

Ed Balls seems to be on track, as he is clearly rattling the coalition's cage. He made an interesting speech today at the London School of Economics, where he called for a temporary reduction in VAT, which would help to boost spending. This seemed especially apposite on a day when the Office for National Statistics published retail sales numbers that were horrid. A VAT tax cut would have the added benefit that it would immediately lower the CPI, which jumped artificially in January when Slasher raised it.

David Cameron's response to the Balls speech today apparently suggested that he is against tax cuts as a way to boost the economy. Amazing. A Treasury spokesman even suggested that tax cuts would lead to bankruptcy. "Tax cuts" has traditionally been a right-wing mantra, so that was something of a surprise -- and unlikely to go down that well with his backbench MPs.

I am afraid it really is time that Cameron took some lessons in economics before he talks the British economy into the ground. He has been the most unpatriotic Prime Minister we have ever had, with his entirely false claims that the economy was bankrupt when it quite clearly was not (and never has been). He has done this for cheap political gain and it has contributed to a collapse in consumer confidence. He should be ashamed of himself -- his job is to boost confidence, not to destroy it.

But most astonishing of all is Cameron's repetition of Nick Clegg's idiotic claims that the UK had maxed out its credit card.

If you have maxed out your credit card, if you put off dealing with the problem, the problem gets worse.

Asinine nonsense. Cameron shows no understanding of basic accounting. I guess that isn't surprising for someone who has never run a business and had to file basic accounts. Folks with silver spoons don't need to do that. Let me explain. There is an asset side to the balance sheet and a liability side. The national debt is not analogous in any way to a credit card. The debt has been used to pay for the infrastructure, roads, schools, ports, the Houses of Parliament and even Downing Street.

A little example makes clear that Cameron knows not what he is talking about. Suppose an individual receives a bequest from a long-lost uncle and is told it consists of a house with a mortgage on it of £200,000 and the house itself is worth £20m. Cameron would no doubt claim that it would be outrageous for the nephew to accept the gift because he would have to take on a mortgage of £200,000 on it. But that is absurd and the nephew is delighted at his good fortune and happily accepts the gift. The right question for the nephew would be: "How much is the asset (the house) worth, compared to the size of the liability (the mortgage)?"

The next generation will receive not only the debt but also the assets. The nephew and the Prime Minister need to compare the scale of the assets to any liabilities. Only a fool would focus solely on the liabilities.

Cameron is an economic simpleton. Yet everyone from Cameron's aunt to the family's pet fish, Eric, and the Conservative deputy, Michael Fallon, agree with Dave's credit-card anology. Sensible people cringe.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Coders for Corbyn
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Can emojis win elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has claimed his campaign's use of technology would be the "path to victory" in 2020. But can emojis play a meaningful part? 

When photographic campaign badges were first unleashed in 1860, a Facebook commenter posted on Abraham Lincoln’s wall: “What is this? Today’s youth are doomed” and then, a moment later, “You call this news?”*

It might be tempting to react in a similar way to the fact that Jeremy Corbyn emoji – or rather, Jeremoji – are now a thing. Small digital stickers of the flat-capped Labour leader expressing joy and sadness might seem like the End Of Serious Political Campaigning As We Know It, but are they really that different from the multitude of deft and daft political campaign buttons throughout history?

Well, yes. Because there will be a marrow.

Beyond the marrow, however, Jeremoji aren’t actually that revolutionary. Before Kim Kardashian crashed the App Store with the 9,000 downloads a second of her Kimoji in December 2015, we here at the New Statesman created a much-needed Yvette Cooper emoji. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders supporters released BerniemojiThe slightly-less pleasing to the ear Hillarymoji were also unveiled by Hillary Clinton campaigners two months ago, though none of these apps were officially endorsed by their respective candidates.

“We’re not affiliated, we’re totally independent,” says Gregory Dash from Coders for Corbyn, the group behind Jeremoji, and a wider online volunteer toolkit for Corbyn supporters. “A lot of us have social links with the campaign and we ran ideas past them and got feedback but as an organisation we’re totally independent and all volunteers.”

Dash reveals that a variety of professional and amateur artists contributed to the emoji and that unfortunately, as the marrow design is currently being finalised, it won’t be in the first version of the app. Once the app has been approved by Google Play and the App Store, it should be available to the public in the coming weeks.

“Mainly they’re just fun but we’re also hoping we’ll be able to communicate some of the main message of Jeremy’s campaign,” says Dash.

But are Dash and other developers misguided in their attempts to promote sexagenarian politicians via a communication tool favoured by teens? Hillary Clinton has already been mocked for her attempts to capture the youth vote via memes, and has proven on multiple occasions that trying to be “down with the kids” can backfire. Corbyn’s own digital manifesto was met with scorn by some yesterday.

“To be very honest, the emojis are pretty cringy,” says Max Rutter, a 17-year-old from Oxford. “I know that they are targeted towards teens but politics isn't something most teens talk about on social media, and these emojis could only be used in a political conversation. Corbyn doesn't need emojis to get teens on his side, he just needs to stick to his guns and keep telling it like it is.”

A 2013 London School of Economics study on Youth Participation In Democratic Life supports Max’s assertions. The final report found that although in theory young people wanted politicians to use social media more, in practice it led to more negative perceptions of politicians and “an increased perception of the gap between political elites and the young.” Moreover, teens exposed to a social media campaign were less likely to vote than those who only received political flyers.

Jeremoji, then, may not ultimately capture the youth vote, and nor are they likely to make lifelong Conservatives pause and say, “On second thoughts, yes. This Corbyn chap is the man for me.” So what will they achieve?

“We’re hoping to do some emojis around Corbyn’s ten pledges and allow people to share them that way,” says Dash. The app already contains emojis affiliated with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a society seeking justice for miners after the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. Dash also hopes to get emojis supporting the No More Blacklisting campaign and Save Our Steel.

“We want to have it so you go to the Orgreave campaign and you click the emoji and it will give you a little bit of information about the campaign as well,” Dash says. “Emojis then become a tool to communicate all these different campaigns that are going on. There are amazing things going on that the wider Labour membership may not know about.”

Coders for Corbyn seek the approval of each of these campaigns before creating the emoji, as they don’t want to seem as if they’re exploiting campaigns to make themselves look better “like Owen Smith did”. But despite their current affiliation with Corbyn, the group plan to rebrand as Coders for Labour after the leadership election.

“I’m not sure there would be the same demand for Owen Smith emojis, but we'd definitely still be producing Labour themed emojis for people to use,” says Dash, when I ask what he’d do if Smith won.

Dash tells me when iOS10 launches in the autumn, emojis will be available at three times their current size, and will be more like stickers. This means they can communicate complicated messages from various campaigns, and may also lose any potential stigma associated with the word “emoji”. In the late 20th century, campaign buttons like Lincoln’s were replaced by cheaper disposable label stickers. It makes sense for these in turn to be replaced by digital stickers. Even if emoji can’t win elections, they may still prove powerful in raising awareness.

The UK’s currently most used emoji is the despairing crying face. Personally, I see no problem with it becoming a marrow.

*May not strictly be true 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.