Credit cards are obsolete. Is consumer debt heading the same way?

The technological history of credit.

Slate's Matt Yglesias, in a post about the effect higher bank capital requirements could have on the real economy, gives a brief overview of the changing nature of credit in America:

Once upon a time credit overwhelmingly meant business credit, which then expanded into the personal sphere primarily in the special case of houses and what you might call household investment goods (cars, large appliances). That then metastasised into the all-in culture of consumer debt and credit that we know from the past 25 years.

Yglesias' point is that high capital ratios will reverse that trend, boosting the price of consumer debt while making corporate debt cheaper. This, he adds, might not be a bad thing, "disproportionately encouraging business borrowing to finance investment while discouraging consumer borrowing to enhance consumption".

But what I find interesting is how that "metastasisation" of a relatively small field of debt into the widespread credit economy we now have was born. It was, broadly, a technological imperative, as the Financial Times' Isabella Kaminska points out:

The credit component in credit cards came into play because in the “old days” extending credit was the easiest way to transact remotely without the use of physical cash.

Any alternative back then would have involved waiting hours (if not days) for the merchant to call your bank, who would then verify who you were, who would then make a deduction from your account, who would then send an instruction to the merchant’s bank, whose bank would make a corresponding credit, who would both use different parties to clear and confirm the transaction. Sometimes by post.

It was basically much easier (from a velocity point of view) for a bank to guarantee to the merchant that you were good for the money by means of a piece of plastic. The transaction would take place and you would then owe the bank, whilst all the settlement processes continued on in the background. If you didn’t pay, it was between you and the underwriter bank. The merchant was covered. You were probably black-listed.

Initially, then, the fact that credit cards enabled people to freely and easily spend beyond their means wasn't deliberate — it was a by-product of the real aim, which was just to let people pay for things. It wasn't quite a bug in the system, because card issuers were always more than happy to let people pay off their credit card bills in instalments, racking up healthy interest payments in the process. But it was hugely important in getting the concept of borrowing to pay normal daily bills into people's heads.

Nowadays, of course, that technological imperative is nonexistent. Although they will take every possible opportunity to delay payments, squeezing marginal gains from the extra interest, banks are capable of transferring money instantly. At the very least, the fact that debit cards are now possible renders the initial rationale for credit cards obsolete.

Of course, if this apotheosis of the credit economy is something which is worth pushing back against, as Yglesias suggests, then doing so by just raising interest rates is about the most damaging possible way. People have got used to boosting their standard of living with easy credit, and until they can achieve the same standard without resorting to credit, making it more expensive to borrow could backfire heavily.

Credit cards. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.