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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Watch: The evidence Nigel Farage said money sent to the EU should go to the NHS

After the EU referendum result, Nigel Farage said it was a "mistake" for Leave to suggest funds could go to the NHS. But what's this?

Remember Friday? (I know: it's not necessarily a pleasant thing to do, but bear with me.) On Friday, hours after the result of the EU referendum was announced, Nigel Farage appeared on Good Morning Britain and said that the Leave campaign advertising which linked the extra "£350m a week" Brexit would allegedly gift us with the NHS was a "mistake".

Sure, it was on posters, and emblazoned on a bus, and he didn't speak up to disabuse anyone of the notion. But let's give Farage the benefit of the doubt and pretend he does sorely regret the fact that, through no fault of his own, members of the electorate may have been led to believe that that money would be put into healthcare. It must be tough, when you ought to be high on your victory, to have to answer for other people's mistakes

Ah. Hold that thought.

It looks like the Independent has unearthed a video of Nigel Farage on television before the vote, and  strange thing  he tells Hilary Benn that the money currently being sent to Europe should be spent on, er, "schools, hospitals and the NHS".

Well, this mole isn't sure what to say. Maybe Farage doesn't remember this specific moment? Maybe when he said "schools, hospitals and the NHS" he actually meant something different, like "negotiating our exit from the EU", or "paying to access the common market despite no longer being a member"? Or maybe when he said that money should be spent on these things, he didn't mean it necessarily would be, and it would have been entirely unreasonable for the voting public to make such an absurd leap?

All I can suggest is that you watch and decide for yourself, dear reader.

I'm a mole, innit.