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
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.