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23 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:12am

Home economics

Why do austerity advocates employ homely analogies?

By Patrick Osgood

So far this week we have seen much ado over Uncle Vince Cable’s comments on the state of capitalism in the UK, and learned of his disingenuous Damascene conversion from stone-cold Keynesian to “deficit hawk“.

This episode, on reflection, looks like the dysfunctional Tory family wisely letting an old relative have a palliative rant so that he will tire himself out and waddle off for a nice, long nap.

I’m not alone in flogging the corny family metaphors. The coalition has been consistently couching the reasoning behind the austerity message in the vocabulary of domesticity. Here’s a sampler.

Danny Alexander at conference:

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For every £4 Labour spent, £1 had to be borrowed. Would you run your business or home like that? It simply wouldn’t be possible.You would have three choices. Take responsibility. Let the bank force you. Or wait for the bailiffs to come knocking. And so it is with countries.

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Nick Clegg at conference:

The problems are there. They are real. And we have to solve them. It’s the same as a family with earnings of £26,000 a year who are spending £32,000 a year. Even though they’re already £40,000 in debt. Imagine if that was you. You’d be crippled by the interest payments. You’d set yourself a budget. And you’d try to spend less. That is what this government is doing . . . Would you ask your children to pay your credit card bill?

David Cameron:

“If you don’t deal with your debts — it’s a bit like our credit cards — we all know the longer you leave it, the worse it gets.”

It all comes from (thanks to LFF) Maggie Thatcher:

Why don’t you look at it as any housewife has to look at it? She has to look at her expenditure every week or every month, according to what she can afford to spend, and if she overspends one week or month, she’s got to economise the next.

We have also been treated to recapitualtions of JFK’s parable about not mending the roof when the sun was shining.

I’m reminded of Clegg’s ham-fisted attempt to rebut the analysis of the “emergency” Budget by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and his dreadful canard that all our government debt is held by them wascally bond-traders (it is, in fact, held largely by UK pension funds and UK banks — that is, us).

Given these hapless episodes, I can’t help thinking that the domestic analogies are common, not because those who use them think they are the best way to explain the apparent need for aggressive fiscal conservativism to us, but because they are the means by which said policy has been explained to them.

Whatever about Clegg et al’s piggy-bank understanding of macroeconomics, it is reprehensible for the coalition to sell the false imperative of its fiscal message by tilting directly at the fears of debt-encumbered households. There’s also a patronising outreach to women here, though another blogger may be better taking that on.

What would we think about a householder who protects the breadwinners at the expense of their old, their young, their disabled and their female inhabitants? Who, with their family in a flood, would first fix the roof?

The household analogy fails on its own terms. Even more importantly, its own terms are false: the UK economy is not a household. It is a monetary ecology of millions of homes, businesses, charities and public-sector institutions. It’s part of that big thing called society.