I owe you all very little except, it seems, an apology

David Cameron was all set to give us a homely piece of quintessentially conservative advice when he addressed the Tories at their recent party conference in what is, in almost all other respects, a Tory-free Manchester. Live within your means, he was going to exhort us, and prove your personal fiscal sobriety by paying off your credit card debt. Until, that is, someone noticed that if we all took him at his word, the country’s GDP would fall by 25% in 6 months. Even if we’re all a bit more dilatory in swallowing this disciplined financial pill, and instead pay our credit cards down to zero between now and the projected end of the Coalition’s tenure in office rather than donning our hair shirts and paying them off before the end of the current financial year, GDP will still take an additional hit of 1.5% per quarter. On top of whatever hit it might take anyway if the current stagnation tips over into actual contraction.

A quick re-write later, and Mr Cameron merely noted our existing tendency to pay down personal debt, patted us rather uncertainly on the back for having done well so far, and discreetly dumped his planned exhortation that we should do so faster and more furiously in future. Leaving aside the political ham-fistedness of having one’s spin doctors and publicists rush around telling all and sundry something that one is obliged to have sudden second thoughts about, this embarrassing episode illustrates a serious dilemma.

As my post title implies, even had Dave pursued his original fiscal homily, it would have been wasted on me. I have already, with shameless selfishness, put my own interests way above my wider social responsibilities. I am obliged to admit that I have no credit card debt to divest myself of anyway. Instead of studiously accumulating loans, credit card balances, store card usury, and general profligate consumption in the interests of all the rest of you, I have indulgently pursued a policy of not spending more than I’ve got. By my blinkered piety, I have been adding to your pain, and throwing half of you into unemployed misery. Why, this very year, when my car reached puberty and consequently became subject to an annual MOT, I callously neglected to replace it and instead continued to drive it notwithstanding the outrageous lack of debt it now attracts. That has done you a great disservice. By “you”, and as a good Europhile, I include the French, since it’s the Citroën workers that I’ve let down by my self-centredness. But even Dave realises that a bankrupt and impoverished France is not going to be much help to a stagnated UK economy. It might irk, but the Tories know that despite their rhetoric we and the French, Germans, Spanish, Italians and what-have-you are all in this together. And it’s nice to know that we’re in something together, even if the something in question clearly isn’t the pain of deficit reduction.

The scales have fallen from Mr Cameron’s eyes, and from mine too. It’s not self-denial we need, it’s self-indulgence. I need to spend, so that you may work. If I continue in this Macawber-ish propriety the whole country will be going to hell in a debt-free handcart. Thus I apologise. It’s the least I can do. Apart from going on a credit-card-fuelled spending spree, of course, which I’ll do as soon as I’ve thought of something I want that I haven’t already got.

Is it just me, though, that wonders if this borrowing-and-therefore-spending-and-therefore-growing mantra is really a sound way to run an economy? Isn’t it this very philosophy that has landed us in the crisis we now face? And I’m thinking here as much of the environmental crisis as of the economic one. Do I really need to buy things I don’t want and don’t need because if I don’t my fellow citizens will be impoverished? Must I buy pre-cooked sterilised rice in a plastic container at perhaps 50 times the cost of cooking it for myself, because if I don’t the manufacturers of plastic trays and microwave cookers will go out of business and fling their workers into unemployment along with the shelf-stackers and delivery drivers that this wild inefficiency requires?

You’ll doubtless call me a naive romantic, desperate to turn the clock back, and oblivious to the realities of the world. Forgive me, but you’re wrong. The realities of the world have to do with growing food, maintaining ecological sanity, and both using and valuing human labour. It’s the chimera of never-ending growth, and creating and then satisfying needs we never had in the first place, which is unreal. Less is truly more.

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6 thoughts on “I owe you all very little except, it seems, an apology

  1. Partly with you on this one: I’ve never had a debt on a acredit card or an overdraft, or bank loan aside from the mortgage. If everyone was like me, we’d be buggered!

    I believe there is a happy medium though, in Germany and Austria at the very least they are much less credit card enthusiast. The figures on paying off credit card loans are all or nothing either current levels or zero level – this is ridiculous, in practice the most we’d achieve is a percentage drop which may be good in the medium term.

    • Of course you’re right to reject the all-or-nothing implications of my post, but I still think the fundamental presupposition that infinite economic growth is possible (or indeed desirable) is at the root of the economic and environmental crises. Somehow or another, this is a hamster-wheel we need to get off.

  2. I discussed attitude to debt with friends recently, I couldn’t decide if this is dictated by generation or class background. We are university educated but from working class roots. Debt was discouraged, if you wanted something, you waited until you had saved up enough to buy it, until then, you did without. This seems incredibly old-fashioned to people who have been bombarded with the idea that if you want something you should get it now. If nothing else, it shows the power of advertising.

    I also had a strange discussion with someone about “good debt” and “bad debt”. Good debt had a purpose such as a mortgage or student loan, bad debt was less focussed and based on wanting something. I see the point, but as far as I’m concerned, debt is debt. My being in debt may be better for the country, but I’m pretty sure it would be worse for me.

    • I’m 41 and my family is pretty straightforward middle-class yet I have always spurned debt (apart from the mortgage, which has always been relatively modest).

      Perhaps it is to do with personality and attitude to risk rather than class or generation.

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