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.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.