Has the virus killed off the cult of consumerism?

JOHN HUMPHRYS ON SATURDAY: Has the virus killed off the cult of consumerism?

There is a very old Jewish joke doing the rounds on Twitter. What’s the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?

The pessimist says: ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’

The optimist says: ‘Oh yes it can.’

What makes it funny or, rather, deeply unfunny, is that they are both right.

For those who have suffered terribly — above all, those who have lost loved ones and could not even hold their hand in their last hours — it cannot get worse. Not so for the vast majority who have been spared bereavement.

For better or worse our post-crisis country will be a very different place.

The economy is about to be beaten to the ground and nobody is sure when — or even if — it will rise to its feet again.

A leaked Treasury document has estimated the country’s deficit will be £337 billion this year. That’s about six times as much as the Chancellor predicted in his budget in March.

I’m no economist, but even I realise that economies work on the basis of supply and demand. Two-thirds of our economy is created by consumers spending money. Note that word. Consumers. Pictured: File photo of shopping bags during Boxing Day sales in 2018

I rang Paul Johnson, the director of the hugely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, hoping he might offer some comfort. He did not. He predicted ‘a recession to end all recessions’. But before you turn the page because you’ve had enough of doom and gloom, let me try to persuade you to stay. This is a column about hope not despair.

I’m no economist, but even I realise that economies work on the basis of supply and demand. Two-thirds of our economy is created by consumers spending money. Note that word. Consumers.

That’s what we have become.

You and I might think of ourselves as citizens, say, or parents, or simply human beings. But for more than 20 years we have been defined collectively as ‘consumers’ and we have a duty. I can see the equivalent of the famous wartime poster: ‘Your Country Needs You (to spend!)’

When I was a child my parents bought what they needed. With five children my mother needed a vacuum cleaner. I was 13 before she got one. I can remember to this day scattering crumbs on the floor just to watch it sucking them up.

The poorest still buy what they need but ‘need’ has often come to mean something different. A teenager needs fashionable trainers and, obviously, a smart phone. Without the trainers they are ridiculed. Without the phone they barely exist.

The middle class need suppers in trendy restaurants and long-haul flights to exotic places and tickets to the theatre. But now the demand/supply equation has been turned on its head. You cannot ‘demand’ a meal in a restaurant because there’s no ‘supply’ to meet it. The restaurants are closed and so are the theatres. And you can’t book a flight to Bali. Or do any of the other 100 things we ‘consumers’ must do to feed the relentless economic machine.

We’ve been forced to spend less whether we wanted to or not. And quite dramatically so. Household consumption fell by more than a third last month compared with April last year.

There is nowhere to spend our earnings except food shops and, now, garden centres.

One welcome side-effect is that we’re even spending less at the bookies. William Hill is moaning that its revenues have fallen dramatically. Good.

 It’s those whose income barely covers the essentials that are suffering most.

You see it in the unmasked faces of people crammed into rush-hour trains. The risk of catching Covid- 19 is outweighed by the need to pay the rent.

The rest of us have always had more choices and the lockdown is prompting some fundamental questions.

Do we really need to spend as much as we once did on the things we felt we had to buy? How many of us are living to work rather than working to live?

A few years ago, the mantra ‘cash rich, time poor’ become a middle-class boast. That’s odd. Surely time is precious beyond riches. I spent so much time working away from home in my 20s and 30s I missed seeing my first two children growing up. I’ll always regret it.

It’s not just comfortably off elders like me who’ve been doing some reappraising. I’ve talked to many young people who find they’re not missing all those nights out clubbing half as much as they’d expected to. Or the latest trainers.

And the Greta Thunberg wannabes have noticed the air is cleaner and the stars are brighter. And cycling around a city when there’s no traffic can be fun.

King Lear had something to say about consumerism. ‘O reason not the need! Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous . . .’ That’s to say, nothing is essential and everything (save food and shelter) is inessential. The end of the lockdown will inevitably mean strenuous attempts to fire up the economy. There will be a post-apocalyptic feel to it all, but the signs are that it will be haunted by the same old political disputes.

Let’s pay off the debt with reduced spending and real austerity? Madness! The suffering will be unimaginable.

Let the debt go hang, cut taxes and spend, spend, spend? Madness! We shall be visiting untold misery on future generations saddled with crippling debt. And yet if we stop buying stuff, how will the Government raise the cash it needs so badly? Something has to pay for the NHS.

The answer is we won’t stop buying — even in my imaginary post-consumer world. But we will re-order our priorities. One small example. Every High Street is now full of fast food shops. What they sell makes you fat. A third of us are clinically obese. We are now easily the fattest country in Europe.

Being fat makes you ill and that costs the NHS a fortune. Now that he’s had a Damascene conversion and wants us to slim down, Boris Johnson would prefer us all to go out and buy a lettuce.

Some predict a V-shaped economic recovery from the pandemic. That means a sharp drop and then a sharp rise.

But what if we chose a U-shape one instead simply because we said we weren’t going to carry on playing the consumer game? The Government is terrified that vast numbers of businesses won’t survive even if we do resume our old spending habits.

And if we don’t? The prospect is literally unthinkable to any economist with more than ten brain cells. No doubt the masters of consumer capitalism will think up new ruses. They’re good at that. Take advertising. It has served well for a century, but social media is the new, dominant vehicle for it and it is infinitely more insidious.

Do we really need to spend as much as we once did on the things we felt we had to buy? How many of us are living to work rather than working to live? Pictured: Stock photo of a woman paying with her credit card

Social media demands we permanently present an image of ourselves as enjoying the best possible life at all possible times and that means, of course, we must keep spending to prove it. Or so the theory goes.

But are we really all happy to settle back into our role of compliant consumer? There is no evidence that it makes us any happier. Quite the opposite. All the evidence suggests developed societies are markedly less happy now than they were back in the 1950s when we consumed so much less. When we were still ‘people’ rather than ‘consumers’.

The virus lockdown was intended to be merely a suspension of time before a return to normality. But what if many of us decide that we don’t want to return to the old normal? That we are citizens and parents and human beings before we are consumers.

A great deal changed after the infinitely more terrible disaster of World War II. Within a few short years we saw laws that extended secondary education to everyone, the birth of the National Health Service and the welfare state. America delivered the Marshall Plan that helped a ravaged Europe rebuild itself. There followed 75 years of peace.

The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered the hope on Thought For The Day yesterday that when war or disease affects all of us, we learn to care for all of us.

He means a fairer society where human values count as much as economic ones.

And he added: ‘We’ve been through too much simply to go back to where we were. We have to rescue some blessing from the curse, some hope from the pain.’

Spoken like a real human being. Not a consumer.

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