Sarah Sands: Why the common good feels bad to me

Sarah Sands urges thrift until the banks start spending too
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In the age of Obama, none of us walks alone. We are all part of a common purpose and a common good. And we know that our duty as world citizens is to start spending again. Governments talk of financial stimulus of the economy, but they really mean full cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Unless the patient starts breathing – ie spending again – the curtains round the bed remain closed.

There have been appeals to patriotism and the bottom line. Look at the price of cars: you would be mad not to buy one. Feel the blood rush at the prospect of January sales all year round. Interest rates of zero per cent. We have never had it so cheap.

Yet the common good is not the same as the personal good. The sheer weight of personal debt means we should stop spending altogether. We should follow the example of the woman who has reduced her energy bill to a few pounds by living without heat, light, television or cooked food. However, if we did this collectively, the country would go bust.

I have noticed before that the personal and collective good are not wholly aligned. I would prefer my child not to have the MMR vaccine because it is not 100 per cent safe. The perfect solution would be for every other child but mine to have it. I would love it if I could continue to drive my car while others gave up theirs. The air quality of the city would be Alpine and I could get everywhere really fast.

The logic of being the exception to the rule is overwhelming. I guess it is what the rich and the powerful have always known. We want air conditioning and power showers in the West but it becomes awkward if, say, African countries ask for the same, and catastrophic when China catches up.

That is the trouble with the spending argument. We look for a lead from those who understand the fundamentals of capitalism. And what do we find? The banks are hoarding not spending. However much governments – taxpayers – throw at them, they pocket the money and sit tight.

If you experienced air turbulence, you would look at the stewards to see how seriously they are taking it. If they grabbed air masks and Bibles, and started blowing whistles to attract attention, you would not feel reassured. I would feel more confident about buying a new car, and indirectly rescuing General Motors, if I saw the banks showing the slightest concern for the public good. I am pretty tired of "shareholders" being used as an excuse for selfishness.

Meanwhile, heartbreakingly, Argos is heaving with the lower paid and generous-hearted customers, buying Christmas presents for their children. Charity shops are reporting brisk business because people who are really hard up have a stronger sense of "there but for the grace of God... ".

In David Hare's latest play, Gethsemane, which I saw last week, the deal is simple: if the rich privately funded the Labour government, they would get low taxes. In the end, the rich were paying less tax than their cleaning ladies. Now they would like their cleaning ladies to bail them out as well. This is for the common good.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'