Politicians like to tell us that we’d be fine if only we did the right things: work hard, save, live within your means. They don’t like to mention that accident and illness tends not to be a matter of personal choice, and that it benefits business to have a flexible (i.e. not universally employed) and negotiable (i.e. desperate and willing to tolerate any hours, pay and conditions) sort of workforce. Those may be issues for another day. I want to talk about doing the right things.
I’m a fine case in point for doing the right things. I work, and I’ve always worked. Granted, I don’t earn a great deal, but I live within my means. I’ve only ever borrowed money for mortgages and I’ve never got into a mortgage that it was going to be hard to keep up with. I do not buy on finance. I’ve never owned a car, I don’t do expensive sofas or widescreen TVs and I use things until they really aren’t usable anymore if at all possible. I have no expensive addictions, drink infrequently, do not gamble. As a consequence, I live cheaply, and I do not consume much.
Now, consider what would happen to the economy if everyone chose to do what I’m doing. Cars, fuel, tobacco, gambling, alcohol and new technology represent a lot of money moving about in the economy. A lot of jobs depend on a considerable collective appetite for cars, vices, and new gizmos. Rather a lot of the economy depends on personal debt. We create new money (and by we, I mean the banks, for private gain) by imagining money to lend as mortgages and other such loans. To service your debts and at least pay off the interest, you may need to work longer hours, or take a second job, which is shitty for you but great for the economy. Do it my way, and you don’t get growth.
What would happen if people only replaced things when they really needed to, shared tools and equipment, and gave away what they no longer need? That’s not going to fuel your economy either, is it? People might be better off in terms of quality of life, but the size of the economy would be bound to shrink if people on the whole lived carefully and wisely within their means, avoided debt and did not buy luxury things they don’t really need. And yet politicians are so keen to berate the poor for tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and buying luxury items and getting into debt, when that very behaviour is a big part of what keeps the economy as a whole moving.
And of course the hard work thing is a myth. If hard work really was what made you rich, then teachers and self employed people would be millionaires and gambling on the stock exchange would be about as much use as taking part in tombolas at the local village fete.
We can’t have it both ways. The whole approach to growth currently in favour depends on personal debt, living beyond your means and having more than you need. Do the right things for the economy, and you’ll also hear that you’re a terrible, irresponsible sort of person who should be punished should they fall on hard times. Save, keep a safety net, live lightly, minimise your costs, and you undermine the whole business. Our current crop of politicians want to have it both ways. Anyone interested in the quality of their own life needs to start questioning this.