Snappy comebacks to stupid questions: the eternal undeath of the credit-card analogy

How to respond when the prime minister says something simplistic and wrong.

One of the most pernicious simplifications in mainstream politics is the "credit card" analogy. You know the one: the British economy is like a maxed-out credit card, and we have a responsibility to pay it off.

It's pernicious because the British economy is nothing like a credit card, maxed-out or not. Britain has control of the very currency in which it owes debt; it can print money to pay bills. On top of that, its effect on the economy which is its revenue source is so large that if it scrimps and saves in order to pay down its debt, there's a very real chance its income will drop by even more.

But the analogy is unkillable, and even if politicians don't cite it directly, they apply its lessons nonetheless—as Cameron did last Thursday:

Labour’s central argument is exactly that. They say that by borrowing more they would miraculously end up borrowing less. Let me just say that again: they think borrowing more money would mean borrowing less. Yes, it really is as incredible as that.

He may not have said the magic words "credit card" (or similar analogies involving "household spending" or "Britain plc"), but the same implication is made: the national debt, and macroeconomics in general, is no more complex than a family budget.

That's not true. But the thing is, even if you apply the same analogy, Cameron's claim is still over-simplistic. Here are just some ways borrowing more money can mean borrowing less:

  • You are unemployed. You have great ability, but few qualifications. You take out a career development loan to pay for post-secondary education. You get a well-paid job as a result.
  • You are unemployed. You have ample qualifications, but no smart clothes. Before the first of a string of job interviews, you borrow enough to buy a suit, ensuring that you win gainful employment and don't have to borrow money to eat.
  • You live in a 1950s prefab. With no real protection against the elements, an uncomfortable proportion of your monthly income goes on heating. You borrow money to pay for insulation, your expenditures drop, and you use the extra to pay off credit-card bills.
  • Annual income six pounds; annual expenditure six pounds sixpence. Result: misery. You borrow some money to put solar panels on the south-facing roof of you Guernsey house, reducing your spending on electricity. Annual income six pounds; annual expenditure five pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence. Result: happiness.

I could write some detailed sophistry about how each of those analogies apply to Britain. The first is broadly equivalent to "upskilling"; the second to spending money on promoting Britain overseas; the third to fixing our much-vaunted "crumbling infrastructure"; and the fourth to investing in the Green Economy.

But I won't. Because the way to discuss the macroeconomy isn't through trite analogies and dumbed-down explanations; it's through discussions of the macroeconomy. If you want the best discussion of whether Cameron's claims are true, I recommend you turn to Jonathan Portes' exhaustive examination, or Duncan Weldon's blow-by-blow account of the squabble between the PM and OBR. You won't find many comparisons to your own financial situation, but that just means you're getting the good stuff.

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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle