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Sunday, January 24 2021 @ 03:36 AM CST

Puritans love disasters.

Whited Sepulchers

Status Anxiety

Toby Young

The recession is not a ‘much-needed reality check’ — it’s a source of great suffering
Puritans love disasters. No sooner has some calamity befallen mankind than some hair-shirted scold emerges from his priest hole and starts wagging his finger. The message is always the same: ‘You are being punished for your immoral lifestyle.’

The latest grist to the puritan mill is, of course, the credit crunch. George Monbiot, the Guardian’s very own Oliver Cromwell, has been looking forward to this moment for years. ‘I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises,’ he wrote in 2007. Now that it is upon us, he and his colleagues can hardly contain their glee. ‘A much-needed reality check’ was how another Guardian columnist recently described the global economic meltdown.

However, none of these prigs has welcomed the disaster quite as joyfully as Oliver James, the broadcaster and clinical psychologist. Last Sunday, I heard him on Radio 4 discussing his most recent book in which he offers ‘scientific proof’ that there is a link between material wealth and mental illness.

‘I absolutely embrace the credit crunch with both arms,’ he said. He went on to denounce ‘Thatcherism, Reaganomics and neo-Liberalism’ which he claimed were responsible for the ‘consumer binge’ that encouraged us to think ‘wide-screen TVs were more important than playing with our toddlers’. ‘With any luck people will actually change their values, they’ll start concentrating on being rather than having and on meeting real needs rather than wants,’ he concluded. ‘It could be the beginning of a radical change in our mental health for the better.’

It is really quite astonishing that someone who prides himself on his sensitivity to human suffering could be so openly enthusiastic about an economic recession. Does he know any of the 1,230 people who are about to lose their jobs at M&S? Or the 2,700 people who work for Waterford Wedgwood? How about the 27,000 people laid off by Woolworths? The number of unemployed in the UK currently stands at 1.8 million, but according to the CBI it is due to increase to 2.9 million by 2010. In all likelihood, the number of people who will receive a ‘much-needed reality check’ from the credit crunch will exceed one million.

The notion that throwing people on the dole queue will improve their mental health is a justification for mass unemployment that even Margaret Thatcher — Mr James’s bête noir — would shy away from. A close relative of mine recently went bankrupt and if anyone thinks this experience is morally improving I would recommend a trip to the bankruptcy courts in the Strand. Plenty of mental illness on view there — anxiety attacks, substance abuse, depression — but most of it caused by poverty, not cured by it.

Presumably when people like Oliver James welcome the credit crunch ‘with open arms’ they are not thinking of its effect on the Neets — people Not in Employment, Education or Training — but on investment bankers. James singled out the collapse of Lehman Brothers as a particular cause for celebration in his Radio 4 broadcast, but it is a misconception to think that they will bear the brunt of this recession. Indeed, I would be amazed if a single Lehman Brothers employee has declared bankruptcy since last autumn. My next-door neighbour worked for Lehman’s and he landed another City job within a fortnight.

The mistake the puritans make is to imagine that the victims of this disaster have brought about their own misfortune. As Michael Lewis made clear in an excellent article in the December issue of Portfolio, the architects of the global financial catastrophe are the mortgage companies who lent money to people with no hope of paying it back, the bankers who securitised those debts and the ratings agencies who gave those securities a triple ‘A’. If those people were suffering, the credit crunch might well be a ‘much-needed reality check’, but in fact the vast majority of them are still in gainful employment. As with all disasters, it is the little guy who suffers — the auto-worker in north Oxford trying to keep up his mortgage payments, the taxi driver in Harlesden struggling to put his two sons through university, the single mother in Manchester who had a job at Zavvi. For them, the recession isn’t a moral corrective, it is just another piece of bad luck.

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