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: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation