Steve Connor: Culture, spending and the credit crisis
Friday 26 December 2008
Aldo Zilli, the Italian chef who has built a thriving restaurant business in Britain, was praising the strength of the euro last week for making his countrymen back home feel richer.
"I see the difference in my family in Italy," he said. "They have jobs and a better quality of life. The euro is making a huge difference, but it won't last. Italians will start spending, because they live for today."
We all know of people who live for today and those who worry about the future, but I wonder if this personal psychology extends to a whole nation, as Zilli suggests? And if it does, could it ever be exploited by economists to sort out a country's financial problems?
Take the decade-long period of deflation that affected Japan through the 1990s. This was famously caused by the Japanese reluctance to spend, fearing that to do so would make their future even more insecure – but in fact, it was the reluctance rather than the spending that turned out to be the problem. If there is such a thing as a national psychology towards money and the future, this may also explain the German diffidence to living on credit and the famous Russian tendency to throw money around as if there were no tomorrow.
I remember once sitting next to a German scientist on a flight to Siberia and he explained a study he had read into the psychology of different nations. Individuals were asked to rate their attitude to the past, the present and the future. The Germans and Japanese had little interest in the past but expressed great interest in the future. The Russians, by contrast, has a strong empathy with the past and the present, but little interest in the future.
It is easy to stereotype nations in this way, of course. But I do wonder whether it will prove easier for some countries to tackle the current recession because their cultural backgrounds makes it easier for them to overcome what Franklin D Roosevelt called the "fear of fear itself".
Damien's date with Darwin
Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversay of the publication of his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. So next year we can expect lots of celebrations, including an annivesary edition of the book.
The publishers Penguin are to reprint a lush version with a new introduction by William Bynum, emeritus professor of the history of medicine at University College London, and encased in a leather jacket adorned with a specially commissioned work of art by Damien Hirst. "Darwin's idea, 'evolution through natural selection', actually explains the meaning of life; it is the biggest single idea ever, its breadth and scope enormous, its means so perfectly economic," Hirst says. "Its capacity to shock and excite persist, to this day. Such emotion and passion over a search for essential truth is also the substance of art, such belief and relevance its goal."
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