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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder