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

An economic downturn is painful – but inevitable and desirable, says Tim Lott. For, amid the suffering there will be more creativity and a corrective to our runaway acquisitiveness
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The Independent Online

Last week saw the weakest high street activity in 25 years, house prices dropping by £150 a day and warnings of two million unemployed by Christmas. Alistair Darling added to the woe by proclaiming that it was the worse recession for 60 years.

A senior source within the Government confirmed that the country was heading for "shit creek without a paddle" and there were unconfirmed reports that Gordon Brown last night bludgeoned his brains out with an industrial grade calculator after the IMF refused to waive bank charges on the national debt.

All right, I made the last bit up, but you get the gist. Everything is terrible and it's going to get worse. But it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. And more people might benefit from this coming storm than you might think. You might even be one of them.

But before going any further, I feel a disclaimer coming on. Recessions are nasty, horrible and painful. Many people are already suffering, many more will suffer. The unemployed, the elderly, the poor – all the usual victims will get it in the neck. It would be in the poorest taste imaginable to celebrate an economic slump and thus insult the many losers such a slump would produce.

Having, I hope, established myself as a member of the human race, I would like to modestly suggest that recessions are both inevitable and (this is the controversial part) a bit – just a little bit – desirable.

To address the idea of inevitability first, it may come as a surprise to the under-35s who have known only boom, but economic crises are not that unusual. I say this with all the authority of a man who is no expert on economics, but who possesses a reasonably functional memory. I lived through the decade of disaster that was the Seventies as well as the 1983 unemployment crunch, the 1989 housing crash and the 1992 ERM disaster.

Despite the Labour Government's claim – and genuine determination – that it was going to end the "boom and bust" economy, here we are again. Busts have happened time and again over the history of capitalism and I see no good reason why they should stop happening now – whether you are a liberal economist who chooses to call it "cyclical", a Marxist who chooses to call it "dialectical" or a guru who chooses to see it as an "organic" part of the pulses of creation and destruction, intrinsic to every process.

Recessions are inevitable, not simply because of poor economic or political planning, but because they are in some way hard-wired into humans (what you might call the hubris and nemesis model of economic man). More controversially, they recur because they are, in the long run, functional. I dare say we can all agree on the intractability of human folly, but I suspect the word "functional" is a bit sensitive – the idea that a recession, for all its pain, may produce a lot that is good. Throw rocks at me if you will, but it seems to be obvious to me that pain has it uses. And I am far from alone in this particular heresy.

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.

There is little doubt that the recession of the early 1980s put an end to the over-mighty unions that were strangling economic progress and made way for the technology boom that allowed, among other things, this very newspaper to be launched. The circumstances today, of course, are very different – no over-mighty unions now, and no one wants to engineer a boom in unemployment to drive down wage costs – but there may be other, less tangible, benefits.

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.

In a world where Kelly Osbourne can announce proudly that she owns 750 pairs of shoes and WAGs talk of putting their names down for a handbag that costs £12,000, haven't the boom years led to a collective coarsening of our souls? When Lakshmi Mittal can own three houses in one London street – one for him and one for each of his children – at a combined cost of more than £100m, we are well on the way to moral rot.

The novelist Susan Hill wrote passionately about this in a recent blog. "A recession," she writes, "will sort out the kids who have been brought up to think you not only have to have a new pair of trainers, you have to have the designer brand costing £200, and next month their upgrade."

She goes on to say: "We will be made to learn all over again that not only do we not need 5,000 models of mobile phone with bells and whistles, we do not need 5,000 brands of shampoo, toothpaste, washing powder, dog food. This is where the real waste of the world's resources starts to bite."

Hill is absolutely right. And a recession will not only see a massive growth of realistic thinking but in justified resentment. Suddenly all those City bosses who have been making millions for shifting figures around on a screen and avoiding paying taxes on the profits will not seem merely annoying but obscene. All those footballers who have been paid laughable amounts of money to kick a ball around will not seem glamorous but venal. In short, we will undergo a massive and well overdue reality check.

My income, like nearly everybody else's, has been squeezed over the past 12 months, and the future worries me as much as anyone else. All the same, call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I think the whole thing could be as refreshing as a slap in the face with a P45 and as chastening as one of the hair shirts Gordon Brown undoubtedly wears under his regulation two-piece suit.

Greed is good, said Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in the iconic Eighties movie Wall Street. And so – he might have added – is the humility that it inevitably brings in its wake.