Home economics

Why do austerity advocates employ homely analogies?

So far this week we have seen much ado over Uncle Vince Cable's comments on the state of capitalism in the UK, and learned of his disingenuous Damascene conversion from stone-cold Keynesian to "deficit hawk".

This episode, on reflection, looks like the dysfunctional Tory family wisely letting an old relative have a palliative rant so that he will tire himself out and waddle off for a nice, long nap.

I'm not alone in flogging the corny family metaphors. The coalition has been consistently couching the reasoning behind the austerity message in the vocabulary of domesticity. Here's a sampler.

Danny Alexander at conference:

For every £4 Labour spent, £1 had to be borrowed. Would you run your business or home like that? It simply wouldn't be possible.You would have three choices. Take responsibility. Let the bank force you. Or wait for the bailiffs to come knocking. And so it is with countries.

Nick Clegg at conference:

The problems are there. They are real. And we have to solve them. It's the same as a family with earnings of £26,000 a year who are spending £32,000 a year. Even though they're already £40,000 in debt. Imagine if that was you. You'd be crippled by the interest payments. You'd set yourself a budget. And you'd try to spend less. That is what this government is doing . . . Would you ask your children to pay your credit card bill?

David Cameron:

"If you don't deal with your debts -- it's a bit like our credit cards -- we all know the longer you leave it, the worse it gets."

It all comes from (thanks to LFF) Maggie Thatcher:

Why don't you look at it as any housewife has to look at it? She has to look at her expenditure every week or every month, according to what she can afford to spend, and if she overspends one week or month, she's got to economise the next.

We have also been treated to recapitualtions of JFK's parable about not mending the roof when the sun was shining.

I'm reminded of Clegg's ham-fisted attempt to rebut the analysis of the "emergency" Budget by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and his dreadful canard that all our government debt is held by them wascally bond-traders (it is, in fact, held largely by UK pension funds and UK banks -- that is, us).

Given these hapless episodes, I can't help thinking that the domestic analogies are common, not because those who use them think they are the best way to explain the apparent need for aggressive fiscal conservativism to us, but because they are the means by which said policy has been explained to them.

Whatever about Clegg et al's piggy-bank understanding of macroeconomics, it is reprehensible for the coalition to sell the false imperative of its fiscal message by tilting directly at the fears of debt-encumbered households. There's also a patronising outreach to women here, though another blogger may be better taking that on.

What would we think about a householder who protects the breadwinners at the expense of their old, their young, their disabled and their female inhabitants? Who, with their family in a flood, would first fix the roof?

The household analogy fails on its own terms. Even more importantly, its own terms are false: the UK economy is not a household. It is a monetary ecology of millions of homes, businesses, charities and public-sector institutions. It's part of that big thing called society.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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