Saturday 16 March 2013

Bring on the recession?

Brendon O'Neill is in the Telegraph reminding the bien pensants of the left about their guilty little secret—that the 'austerity' they bemoan is exactly what they were demanding a few years ago. Brendan has written about this before, as I have in The Spirit Level Delusion, but the hypocrisy of these misanthropes can't be pointed out often enough. Indeed, as Brendan says...

To describe this shift among radicals from loving austerity to hating it as hypocrisy would be to do a disservice to hypocrites. It is something closer to political schizophrenia.

Brendan mentions some of the most notorious offenders, including Monbiot and his semi-legendary 'Bring on the Recession' op-ed of 2007:

These days he rails against austerity, especially of the Tory variety, saying it has “extended the crisis” and “hurt” ordinary people by propelling Britain into a double-dip recession. But wait – I thought he loved the idea of recession? In 2007 he wrote an article called “Bring on the recession”, in which he argued that, as “unpleasant as it will be”, and yes, “some people [will] lose their jobs and homes”, a recession might at least help prevent “ecological disaster” by reining in pesky, polluting economic growth.

And then there is Johann Hari, who stopped vandalising his enemies' Wikipedia pages for long enough in 2008 to glorify the end of economic growth in the Independent...

The disgraced Independent columnist Johann Hari ridiculed David Cameron’s proposed austerity measures in 2010, saying these “cuts will kill, not cure”. Yet just two years earlier, in early 2008, he was calling on the then Labour government to introduce a system of wartime-style rationing in order to “force us all… to shift towards cleaner behaviour”. Force – what a lovely word. “Just as the government in the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily, governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily”, he said. In the space of two years, he went from demanding war-like austerity to make greedy people learn to live with less to lambasting Cameron for daring to impose cuts on people’s living standards.

For the sake of completeness, I'd like to offer some other examples. For instance, here is Hephzibah Anderson, writing in the Observer in February 2008.

Hurrah for the recession. It will do us a power of good

... Feeling poorer in pocket may not make us richer in spirit, but it could just help us get there. If we really are teetering on the brink of recession, technical or otherwise, it may remind us that houses are places to live - castles, perhaps, but not piggy banks. It may force us to recall the thrill of yearning for something, the more tantalising aspects of restraint, the delicious frisson of anticipation rather than the dull ache of satiation.

Here is Tim Lott writing in the Independent in August of the same year. This article has so many layers of wrong that it deserves to be quoted at length. According to Lott, the recession was going to be the cure for pretty much everything...

Bring on the pain of a recession and purge our coarsened souls

... Christopher Ruhm, the American economist, for instance, has published a study suggesting that a 1 per cent rise in unemployment reduced the death rate in the US by 0.5 per cent. Higher unemployment, he argues, can mean fewer cars on the road and thus fewer accidents. This also means less air pollution and a drop in pulmonary diseases and heart attacks. Also he suggests that during a slump it is the heaviest smokers, drinkers and the most obese who are likely to change their behaviour.

Recession can lead to many other benefits – a boom in public works for instance. With residential construction virtually stopped it's likely to get a lot cheaper to build things. One of the enduring legacies of America's Great Depression, for example, was the infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, city halls, museums and parks. During recessions, governments get far more for their money, so embark on public works projects, which can also cut unemployment.

This is much debated, but my feeling is that the environment may also benefit from a recession. People will want to cut their energy costs, therefore non-essential power consumption will drop by far more than any amount of liberal nagging would achieve. There will be pressure on the organic market, as Rose Prince discusses on page 54, but equally there will be less eating out (therefore less driving) and less meat eating (since it is more expensive). Holidays and therefore air travel will slump, curbing pollution.

The rise in energy costs, one of the chief reasons for the recession, is liable to have a number of positive knock-on effects. The mall culture that has destroyed many of Britain's high streets is likely to erode in the face of the financial burden of a car journey that can offset many of the economic benefits of out-of-town superstores. High streets – especially as rents begin to fall as businesses fail – can start to regenerate with smaller, more individual shops.

... During the Eighties, for instance, it could be argued that the huge amount of youth unemployment led to a burgeoning of creativity. The inevitability – and relative acceptability – of being on the dole meant creative layabouts spent a lot of time doing reasonably creative things, and it helped fill the art schools and led to, among other things, the New Wave in music and, arguably, Brit Art. Perhaps a rise in youth unemployment again will lead to another creative upsurge.

There are a few more common sense benefits of a recession – retail businesses will be offering more discounts and perks for a longer period to attract customers and visitors, for instance. Divorce rates are dropping, partly because people can't afford to split up. But the main benefit for me of a recession is not any of the above, but the inevitable change in values that is likely to occur. After all there is no doubt that the past 10 years has seen a exponential increase in vulgarity, greed and stupidity. And, of course, shopping, which encompasses all three.

This kind of mentality was not confined to lefties. In the Sunday Times, India Knight said—under the headline 'Aah, what a relief the boom has turned to bust'—that “I am happy to observe that the decades of vulgar excess are finally over." And Alexander Chancellor, writing in the Guardian, had the following thoughts...

A recession will be tough. But it might turn us into a friendlier - and even happier - society

How so, Mr Chancellor?

I remember during the 1980s how polite taxi drivers became, so eager were they to attract custom

Good times!

One of the effects of financial hardship is to make people care less about their waistlines or about anything else that is supposed to keep them trim and fit. They feel free to be themselves again.

Hurrah for the recession indeed. But for Chancellor, the real benefit of economic malaise is greater social cohesion and a return to traditional values...

In a document leaked to the press this week, the Home Office warned the prime minister that the recession would mean more crime, more racism and more extremism. There may well be some risk of that, but it doesn't exclude a more general resurgence of a Britain admiringly described by John Major as one of "long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible suburbs and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.'"

Perhaps "old maids bicycling to holy communion" is pushing it a bit, but hard times can have the effect of making society cosier and less competitive. It may be my imagination, but I think I can already feel in London a quieter, more amiable atmosphere, in which people are friendlier and less abusive than they were when times were good.

Financial insecurity does improve people's manners, even if this is only out of self-interest. I remember during the economic downturn of the 1980s how polite shopkeepers and even taxi drivers became, so eager were they to attract one's custom. We may find that this will happen again.

Given that depressions are bound to be depressing in lots of ways, it helps to remember that every cloud has a silver lining: and the silver lining in this case could be, for a short time at least, a somewhat more cohesive and even happier society.

This kind of talk sounds pretty ridiculous five years on. It sounded pretty ridiculous at the time, truth be told (which is why I kept the clipping at the top of this blog post). In part, it can be attributed the demands of being a contrarian newspaper columnist with space to fill, but there is no doubt that there are many people in well-paid jobs who believe that poverty is noble and empowering. They have been quiet since the end of 2008 for reasons I discussed in The Spirit Level Delusion...

When the full impact of the recession hit home a few months later, these columnists had the good sense to shut up about unemployment cleansing the soul for fear of being lynched by their readers. By the time The Spirit Level appeared on the shelves in March 2009, Britain was well into the longest recession since the 1930s. The anti-consumerists no longer had to fantasise about what a world without economic growth would look like.

It would be nice to think that some of these miserablists have learnt a lesson from the era of alleged austerity, but I suspect that it will only take a few quarters of economic growth for the attacks on GDP to return.

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