British economists are extremely bothered that public debt keeps being likened to credit cards

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This holiday season, a group of progressive British economists are asking for just one thing: When it comes to explaining the country’s spiraling public debt, a personal credit card is not the metaphor you’re looking for.

The use of such metaphors to explain public finances, including by the U.K.’s state broadcaster, is “inappropriate,” the economists said in an open letter, released by the Progressive Policy Think Tank.

That’s because it gives the oversimplified impression that a country’s debt load works in the same way as an individual’s, with hard limits on borrowing, the economists argued—and that limits the understanding of what options the government has to ease the economic cost of the pandemic.

“Maxing out a credit card would imply that the government is approaching a hard limit on its ability to borrow. This is not the case,” they said. “It is the consensus amongst economists that the government should at this point in time not focus on reducing the deficit, but rather on delivering the spending necessary to secure a recovery from COVID-19.”

As the pandemic has wrought huge costs for the U.K.—the 2020–21 deficit is now expected to be about 19% of GDP, the largest ever in peacetime—the debate over how to manage such costs and ensure an economic recovery has been revived. But whether the impact of those costs should be explained to the British public in personal finance terms is actually a long-standing—and deeply politicized—source of argument in the U.K.

The household economy metaphor was a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, the country’s Prime Minister through the 1980s, who foreshadowed her restructuring of the British economy—including huge cuts to public services—with an early, often repeated quote: “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.” 

It then reappeared during a period of cuts to public spending under George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer—the country’s chief financial minister—who said that such cuts were necessary to reduce the national deficit, as the previous Labour government had “maxed out” the country’s credit card.

Many economists have long argued that it’s misleading to use the language of personal finance to describe a country’s economy: Countries have access to a wide range of complex economic levers, including tax rates and interest rate changes, that people do not, allowing governments to borrow and invest when individuals themselves are strained.

In Europe, including the U.K., pandemic costs include huge expansions to public benefits and services, tax breaks, and furlough programs that have paid millions of salaries as employees were temporarily laid off. As of mid-November, in the midst of the country’s second nationwide lockdown, around 9.6 million people were on the program, according to government statistics. Meanwhile, the U.K. economy is facing down what is predicted to be the worst economic crisis in 300 years, just as the government attempts to finalize its messy divorce with the EU.

The scale of that spending has also overturned political orthodoxy in the U.K. Those spending programs—first announced in March—were historic both in their sheer size and also for coming from a Conservative government, which for years had presided over massive cuts to public services. More government spending, including a huge push to invest in infrastructure and a national expansion of clean energy, has been announced this fall.

But if you’re going to compare the U.K. to the U.S., a credit card and a household budget as metaphors for national debt may sound appropriately quaint.

As of September, the U.S. fiscal debt for 2020 was $3.1 trillion—102% of GDP.

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