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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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear