Lately, whenever anybody asks me how I'm doing, I find myself, as if by reflex, parroting the phrase, "Oh, struggling." Or I might mumble, "You know, just about surviving the crunch." Even allowing for the fact that I am not known for being a ray of sunshine at the best of times, I have never lived in a time when prospects seemed so bleak. The yellow brick road of prosperity has finally turned into lead and dust.
But the other day it occurred to me that I was being told that the yellow brick road was heading for ruin about 12 months ago, after Northern Rock collapsed. Even then we were being told that we were embarking on a new era of austerity, uncharted waters, financial collapse, bankruptcy and repossession.
This early prediction of calamity appears to have been absolutely correct on every level – except one. Certainly, crisis has duly followed crisis, from financial meltdowns in America to bank takeovers and retail closures in this country, culminating in Woolworths and MFI last week. The only flaw in those early predictions is a somewhat personal and anecdotal one, but one that remains nevertheless puzzling. That is the fact that no one I know is in financial trouble as a result of the crunch.
In fact, everyone seems to be doing just fine – so long as they are keeping hold of their jobs. Maybe they're worried about their pensions, but for most of us, that's a very distant worry, if we have a pension at all. (I don't.) Maybe things aren't so bad after all.
Certainly, we can all agree that rising unemployment is going to hit people hard. But a large number of the jobs that are disappearing have been, and are probably going to be, in the City and the financial services – and nobody cares much about that lot. They're not useful, like miners, nurses or Munchkins, after all. And if you are lucky enough to hold on to your job – even if it means that three million end up on the dole, that still leaves a huge majority of people in work – things may not turn out to be disastrous. They might even be quite good.
For some, mortgages, are dropping sharply, and there is talk of the Bank of England cutting the interest rate to zero. Yes, house prices are declining, but so what? I don't care so long as I don't go into negative equity. And it means that if I ever want to trade up in value, the gap between me and the next step is much lower than before. Similarly, if I were a first-time buyer, I would be delighted at the cut-price properties on offer – if, of course, I were able to get a mortgage, which the banks are making it hard to do.
There has – remarkably – been open talk during the crisis of nationalising the banks. In some corners, this is spoken of as representing the end of the world and our way of life as we know it. I think it's great. I have believed that the banks should be nationalised every since I was a teenager. It seems to my simple mind like a win-win situation: the state instead of private corporations gaining all the income from loans, currency trading and various other forms of usury and exploitation. There are no over-mighty banking unions to banjax efficiency, and, to some extent, state-owned banks might be immune from the greed of private bankers. They would be subject to a sense of social conscience which would make, say, first-time borrowers a priority for loans when there is no rational reason to deny them.
Meanwhile, the fall in inflation is producing amazing bargains on the high street: everything is being cut in price. I have had six flyers for two-for-one offers in restaurants over the past few weeks. On two occasions I have tried to cash them in, but the restaurants have been so full I could not get in. So I have gone to restaurants charging full price – and they have been close to full as well.
Where's the poverty? Where's the despair? At the time of the last few recessions the answer to that question was simple – in the North. But this recession is meant to be affecting the South.
Half-a-dozen fancy shops opened up last year in my London suburb, and a handful more this year – and none of them has closed down. It feels more like a boom town than the brink of the worst recession in living memory. Meanwhile, Westfield, the biggest urban shopping centre in Europe has opened on my doorstep and seems to be mobbed most of the time.
So, what is going on? It could be that the collapse is just taking a lot longer than we all thought it was going to take, and that the Government and individuals are just borrowing desperately to create the illusion of a functioning system. Except that borrowing is a near-impossibility and government loans haven't fed through to the economy yet.
Isn't there another possible resolution of this paradox of public despair vs personal prosperity (or, at least, liquidity)? Perhaps – and given the lack of my economic knowledge, I dare suggest only it because expert economists have so often been wrong about everything in the past – perhaps there's a possibility that this financial disaster we are supposedly experiencing might turn out to be a storm in a tea cup.
In my little world, which is mainly, though not entirely, composed of middle-class, middle-aged people in largely non-essential professions, this recession is so far not really hurting much at all. On the contrary. People are talking as if everything is dreadful, but in reality it's quite hard to imagine some of the scenarios that I was envisioning only a few weeks ago when I believed that the collapse of the entire Western economic system was imminent. I was even seriously thinking of stockpiling bags of rice (until my wife generously reminded me that I don't like rice).
Maybe people are so glum not because of an economic slump, but because the whole crisis fits so snugly with the basic British philosophy that everything is always going to the dogs. We almost welcome a credit crunch and are happy to talk it into existence. In this country, we savour our fears; we positively relish the feeling of impending doom since it confirms the correctness of our comforting gloominess.
The only trouble with widespread pessimism is that it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this scenario, nobody buys anything because they believe everything is about to go pear-shaped, and thus the economy collapses for want of demand. But maybe there isn't all that much to be miserable about after all for most of us.
Who knows? All I can say is that at the moment I've had the pleasure of seeing the Labour Party close the gap on the Tories, (whom I have never trusted or voted for), the much-longed-for demise of Bush's Republicans, and the spectacle of everybody I know living life pretty much the same as they have always done. Everything in the shops and on loan is cheap and getting cheaper, and the sky is simply refusing to fall on our heads. In fact, I sometimes have the distinct impression that the sun might actually be shining.
Perhaps if we moan enough the recession will happen and saloon bar economists like me will be shown up as naive and ill informed.
But perhaps if we stay positive – if we only, collectively, had a heart, a brain and courage – this might be remembered as the crisis that never was. I for one, when asked how I am doing, am now resolved to respond, "Pretty chipper, thanks" or something along those lines. If enough of us take the same approach, who knows? Maybe we'll all wake up and discover that, instead of being faced with witches, flying monkeys and scary (financial) wizards, we never left Kansas after all.
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