31 January 2009

Let them eat negative growth

One advantage of a global recession is that I don't need to explain to my friends in Australia what stories are in the news in the UK. I think there are as-yet-undiscovered tribes living in the Sunda Shelf mangroves who could tell us the technical definition of a recession is two quarters of negative growth. And as the pyre of Bad News Stories grows ever higher, commentators are starting to talk about a new Depression.

The great thing about a Depression for news mongers is it is not only more sensational than recession - in case we had become immune to the power of the 'R' word - but it appears to have no technical definition. I once heard that a Downturn is when your neighbour loses his job, a Recession is when you lose your job and a Depression is when an Economist loses his job. The best the dictionary can do is: "A period of drastic decline in a national or international economy, characterized by decreasing business activity, falling prices, and unemployment." With that sort of looseness of definition, I can almost hear the newspaper hacks sharpening their pencils - let the bad times roll!

Partly this is a product of the growth of 24-hour rolling news since the last recession, which generates the need to constantly ratchet up any story at a terrific pace. "Newsflash: Recession is still happening" will hardly sell more satellite dishes, so before long someone will break ranks and push the story to the next level. And with no-one to say that it isn't a depression, and some striking parallels to the crash of 1929, everyone is looking to read something into everything.

But one striking difference between now and the 1930s is we don't seem to be starving. Subway, a chain of American sandwich retailers, is bucking the trend by recruiting more staff and opening new branches, while McDonald's continues to offer teenagers and immigrants the chance to wear nylon and a row of plastic stars. Last September Tesco, the UK's largest food retailer, announced record profits of £2.8bn.

It we seem we still have a long way to fall before we see repeats of one of the most haunting images of the 1930s - rows of men queuing at soup kitchens. And of the most memorable songs of the Depression, Big Rock Candy Mountain, is a fantasy of food that only a hungry mind could dream up; I can't see Lily Allen recording a cover of that before her 15 minutes are up. Of course there were plenty of other dreadful things from the 1930s I'd also hate to see repeated - Fascism, War, the novels of Virginia Woolf. But the persistence of saturated fats to sustain the growing human species remains the most positive sign that we're not quite into a Depression yet.

No comments: