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.

Credit cards. Photograph: Getty Images

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.