Peter Hoskin

The dangers of a lifestyle culture

The dangers of a lifestyle culture
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On the day that the Treasury Select Committee skewered the FSA for its role in the Northern Rock crisis, the Telegraph features a thought-provoking article by Charles Moore - suggesting that consumers join the financial regulators in taking a long, hard look in the proverbial mirror.  

Moore places Northern Rock's downfall in a societal and historical context; characterising it as a symptom of lax Western attitudes towards borrowing and spending.  There's no totally innocent party here - companies peddle a "lifestyle"; consumers buy into it; and banks fund them.  As Moore puts it:

"The consumer dream is summed up in that advertisement for the cosmetic company - 'Because you're worth it.'

For the banks, the task has become to make it seem that you are, literally, worth it. They have tried to unlock the financial potential lurking in unlikely places. Rising house prices, in particular, have allowed them to persuade people that their home is like a cash machine. In these circumstances, why save? Indeed, a failure to borrow has become a lifestyle mistake, a terribly ageing thing, like living in California and not having plastic surgery."

The article's greatest insight is that politicians - and the general public - may find treating this modern malaise difficult, but treat it they must:

"The danger is that no politician can tell the truth. The truth is that we - both individuals and the Government - are borrowing and spending too much. We need a recession, or something very close to it, to correct our collective relationship with reality. Only then will we get recovery.

But if the Conservatives say it, they will be seen once more as the sour-puss party they have tried so hard to avoid being. And if Mr Brown says it, he will be admitting his own, now massive error in overspending in boom times so that he has a big deficit when his revenues start to fall. He will court electoral annihilation.

And yet, if we in the West continue as we are, we will end up being owned by China, India and the 'sovereign wealth funds'. And our sovereign wealth, which has dominated the entire history of industrial civilisation, will gradually disappear."