I turned to this week’s press coverage of the latest pre-Budget economic forecasts only after a punishing battle with my motorcar. A morning’s home car mechanics left me bruised, cut, frustrated and covered in diesel, but — as it turned out — philosophically refreshed for the debate about Britain’s economic future.
I drive a grey 1999 Vauxhall Brava pick-up truck: a useful if charmless workhorse, and until recently a trusty companion. But on leaving the truck near the railway station I accidentally locked the steering column lock, then found myself unable to unjam it, despite ten minutes’ violent wiggling with the ignition key and the wheel. On returning to the parked vehicle I tried another key and finally, with a bang and jolt, disengaged the lock.
But when I turned on the ignition, the red light indicating excess of moisture in the fuel tank, which had just come on earlier, was unlit. Then I noticed that the ignition light hadn’t come on either. Yet the engine started. As I drove off, I realised that the speedometer wasn’t working... and it dawned on me that many of the indicators on the dashboard had failed.
Everything else was functioning normally. But on Monday I had the time to give the vehicle a going-over. Thinking of the steering column as a sort of neck, with both nerves and muscles running up it, I started to hypothesise on what might have gone wrong. Had my violent wrestling with the steering wheel trapped or cut some wires? Or was there a fuse that controlled both the dashboard instruments and the locking mechanism? And was the malfunction the reason for that earlier red light — apparently indicating moisture in the fuel tank, but perhaps itself a malfunctioning signal? These speculations (you will immediately have noted) hung upon the unspoken premise that a single cause was to blame for various problems, but as they had all occurred without warning and at the same time, this seemed a reasonable assumption.
The assumption was wrong. The problem with the jamming steering column lock has not recurred, and I could find nothing wrong. Finally, locating the fuse box, I found a fuse controlling the dashboard instruments and it had indeed blown. Once I’d replaced it, they all worked again. Whereupon I realised that the fuel moisture indicator was still on, and that this was due to fuel moisture.
I won’t bore you with all the interim mechanics, but take you straight to the conclusions. The fuel moisture indicator problem arose because the filler cap wasn’t rainproof. The steering lock jam (and un-jamming) was quite unconnected with the electrics. And the fuse that had blown had blown coincidentally with my other problems, but was wholly unrelated to any of them. Each problem had a separate cause and a separate remedy.
When multiple problems beset us at the same time, and especially when they’re in the same field, human beings are psychologically reluctant to posit multiple causes. Even when problems hit us from different fields — a ‘run of bad luck’ — we have to fight the thought that a broken mirror, a spell, or the concurrence of Jupiter with Venus might be to blame.
We are even more reluctant to posit multiple causes to a single problem. Contemporaneity seems to us compelling evidence for linkage. Journalists fall gratefully but lazily upon phrases like ‘in the wake of...’, ‘after’, ‘as’ and ‘at the same time’ — as suggesting, without the need for proof, that events are part of the same story.
Taken too far in a person’s mind, of course, the approach can lead to clinical paranoia, but the instinctive root of this tendency of the imagination may be life-saving. When many bad things hit you at once, look urgently for an explanatory linkage. But when no linkage is evident, this may be not because it remains hidden from us, but because there is none,
Armed with these thoughts, I digested this week’s news about economic growth forecasts for the next five years. Critically, these have been sharply downgraded by the new Office of Budget Responsibility, which said that earlier forecasts failed to gauge the full extent of the structural damage done to the economy by the banking crash and ensuing recession.
Well maybe. But another thought has been forming in my mind, and my Vauxhall problems helped crystallise it. What if Britain’s economic problems, and to a degree Europe’s and America’s, have a range of different causes, all adding up to one big problem, but not necessarily susceptible to one big solution? Maybe we were anyway witnessing, before Lehman Brothers, before Northern Rock, a fin-de-millennium end-of-empire: overcommitted militarily, overextended in public spending, and underfuelled economically, just as Soviet Russia was a generation before?
Maybe the economy of the West is simply running out of steam, and was running out of steam before the recent recession, and will continue running out of steam as the recovery happens, thus flattening the recovery? Perhaps we’ve all grown, as economies, a bit fat and lazy, losing nimbleness and fire as arteries harden and our energies and reactions are blunted. Perhaps we’re carrying too much weight in the form of welfare and pensions, and encountering too much friction in the form of health, safety and employment protection? Maybe our animal spirits have been dulled by social justice? Maybe the level of personal security citizens demand in a democracy is incompatible with the rough and tumble of global economics?
Maybe, coincidentally, we’re losing our competitive edge due to the economic expansion of less squeamish rivals: competition from China, India and other vigorously nascent economies that simply weren’t there in any strength 50 years ago? Why should the world forever look to London as a financial services hub, even as recovery gathers pace?
It’s true, as George Osborne keeps saying, that we British didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining. That has put our domestic balance-sheet a couple of treads down the escalator now it’s raining. It is true, as Gordon Brown kept saying, that the storm engulfed much of the rest of the world, too, including America and our fellow Europeans. That moved the whole escalator down a floor or two.
But, sans world recession, sans domestic deficit, and sans recessionary damage to our economic capacity, maybe our escalator was anyway a down-escalator. If so, the big challenge isn’t really how to get over the recession: it is to choose between either reintroducing into our citizens’ lives a level of permanent job insecurity and lifestyle insecurity that I doubt an electorate in a democracy would stand for, or else accept that any 21st-century British government’s fate will be to manage relative decline.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.