I don’t want to seem indifferent to suffering, and I don’t want anyone to accuse me of minimising the likely effect of the recession, because the coming months will very probably be a lot tougher – for millions of people – than the boom times we have all recently enjoyed.
The column can be read here.
But after reading the BBC’s special market crisis website, complete with its jagged red arrow pointing at the floor, and after hearing the pornographic glee with which we are told that another small country has gone up the spout, and after Mr Bean, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, has informed us that this could be the worst financial crisis in history, I am afraid I want to thrash my FT on the table and shout, Whoa! Come off it, folks! This isn’t the Black Death. Pinch yourself. Are you still there? Got a pulse? Thought so. Look out of the window. Those aren’t zombies. They are men and women engaged in the normal business of getting and spending.
This isn’t some disaster movie about a virus from Mars. It’s a recession, a downturn, a correction of a kind that is indispensable to any kind of human activity, and it does not require that we all go around under a special kind of credit-crunch pall. It does not mean we have to cancel all parties and talk in hushed credit-crunch tones. It doesn’t mean we have to line our rooms with newspaper, get in the foetal position and live on tins: in fact, it means the opposite.
It was pretty disturbing, on Saturday, to read a hymn of hate, in this very newspaper, about the incompetence of the political class and their grossly inappropriate decisions to take holidays in July and August, just when the financial storm was gathering. Not since Earl Haig, we gathered, had there been such blithering myopia about the impending slaughter.
Well, I can scarcely complain about pieces attacking politicians, since I have made a pretty good living out of them myself. But if we ban holidays for the British Establishment, where will it end? What about restaurants? What about taxis? What about going to a film on a Saturday night? If we are not careful, a puritanical pall of disapproval will spread over the economy, vetoing consumption, nixing hope.
I am not suggesting that those in debt should add to their problems by trying to double up on their credit cards; I am thinking more of the people out there who still have dosh. There are quite a few. There are the hedge fund boys who have made a mint by shorting the banks, and then there are all the knuckle-cracking receivers who will do well from the coming bankruptcies. There are the oilmen, still awash with profits after the recent price spikes. And then there are all the people on dependable fixed incomes such as – gnash, gnash – the BBC’s foul-mouthed multi-millionaires Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, unchastened, unpunished, still laughing themselves sick on their mountains of taxpayers’ gold. What is the point of asking such people to protect their loot? Whom does it help if they keep it in their Luxembourg bank accounts?
I read the other day that the credit crunch had affected the dress-procurement strategy of the Queen. Sensitive to the mood of her subjects, she had decided not to lash out on any new frocks, but to recycle the old ones. I read that with alarm. Who is giving her economic advice these days? Now is exactly the moment for the Queen – who has a bob or two – to buy dresses, now when the milliners and dressmakers of London could do with a right royal tonic. This is not the moment for dowdiness and self-sufficiency; this is the moment for a life-affirming splurge.
We should remember that the boom-slump cycle is a natural part of our history; indeed, it is indispensable to our psychological make-up. It is like love. It is a basically incurable condition, and we revert to it again and again. First. we conceive the passion – the Tulip Mania, the South Sea Bubble, the dotcom or the property boom – and then we bicycle-pump our hearts with wild hormonal elation, and every time it happens we tell ourselves that this is the big one, this time it’s real, this time we have broken the paradigm; and we invest with ever more irrational exuberance, and though some people occasionally tell us that the love-object is not worth it, we don’t see it that way, of course we don’t, since our exuberance is irrational.
And then it turns out that we have been in some way deceived, and the bubble bursts, as bubbles do, and the irrational optimism gives way to a pessimism that is equally irrational, and life isn’t worth living, and nothing will ever be the same again, and we wish we could be towed out to sea and sunk with 20-inch guns.
And that, economically speaking, is where we seem to be today. It is miserable, but it is not so miserable that we have to cease all economic activity out of deference to our misery. Some people genuinely seem to think we would be better off staying at home and growing our own cabbage and baking our own bread. This is insanity. I have just brewed 24 bottles of home-made cider, and by the time I had bought the bottles and the stoppers and the yeast and the press and the alembicks, it was the most expensive cider ever made.
There is a system called capitalism, by which goods and services are allocated by markets, and under capitalism I can go to the off-licence and buy five times the cider, of vastly superior quality, for a twentieth of the price, and I can use the time and money saved to buy other things and stimulate the economy in other ways; and by the time the mistresses of the bedchamber have finished trying to make and mend her clothes, I expect you could say the same of the Queen’s dresses.
A deep recession may be upon us. But there is no need to go into mourning for capitalism, because capitalism will never go away, and there is nothing remotely impolite, in these circumstances, about spending money and being seen to spend money. Far from it.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 28 October 2008 under the heading: “Financial crisis: Eat, spend and be merry – this is not the end of the world.”