It always appears to be at this time of year that those dreary specimens of humanity, otherwise known as economists, are wont to lick a finger and hold it aloft as an aid to guessing which way the wind is blowing.
The signs are not good and the fingers are chill. The world economy, which peaked in May, is slowing down, inflation is rising, business confidence in the US is low, the oil price is high, and the indicators for growth are negative in the US, Europe, UK and Japan. If none of that changes, we could see a world recession.
But let us look on the bright side. Recession – or better still depression – has a cathartic effect. Just as a severe gale frees the forest of its dead wood, a global economic hurricane can scatter all manner of chaff to the four corners. And while unemployment is, of course, a curse, so too are some forms of employment – which, were they to go, would be missed only by those doing the going.
None of us is immune, but we must take comfort in a shared adversity. So, although I’ll be in Oxford Street selling my matches, I shall glance at the begrimed figure seated cross-legged before an upturned empty hat on the pavement east of my pitch and rejoice in the knowledge that somewhere amid that bundle of greasy rags is Vanessa Feltz.
Better still, however, when the trade cycle takes a helter-skelter dive it is apt to sweep before it people for whom there is no economic purpose whatever and whose income has come in one way or another from public funds – namely, taxation.
Take the scientists who were to be found the other day attending a conference on hygiene in the home. In a well ordered economy in which supply matched demand, these experts would have plenty of time on their hands to do the dusting and polishing at home.
Instead, the good and true were gathered in the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to hear the solemn announcement that we are all at peril from washing-up bowls, tea towels, and chopping boards. Professor Hugh Pennington went so far as to draw himself up to his full height and announce in sonorous tones that he would do away with bowls altogether. “They are,” he said, “an absolute menace.”
Since we now have a government that needs no encouragement to legislate in matters of this kind and, at present, lacks the diversion from trivia that an economic whirlwind might bring, the washing-up bowl may soon be outlawed and the police given powers to search homes for evidence of its existence.
While they are about it, they might keep a keen eye out for signs of children’s bunk-beds, another menace according to experts. Up and down the country, youngsters are tumbling out of bed in alarming numbers. Even those on the lower level are in peril, possibly because they bounce on the bed or, while larking about, fall off the ladder to the top bunk.
When the dole queues lengthen and the derelicts huddle at street corners; when there are bread riots and hunger marches and the lights go out across the land, we shall look back on the merry, laughter-filled days of plenty, of bunk-beds and conkers – and weep.
If recession comes, it will blow in, as always, from the US; and from there comes news of an especially reassuring kind: Researchers at the University of Illinois, who have frittered away these gilded days of economic prosperity on the modern equivalents of counting moonbeams and measuring the wing-span of fairies, may soon be lining up outside soup kitchens, their days of lotus eating behind them.
However, unlike us match vendors, who know nothing of our products other than that they work best when dry, the researchers of Illinois will take with them into the kitchens a body of knowledge that may serve them well as endless day blends into endless day. They have spent the last few months questioning 1,000 adults about their favourite soups. It helps to fill the time between turning up at the campus and drawing the pay cheque.
The head of the research team, Brian Wansink, explained that the foods we eat say a lot about who we are as people, a proposition of dubious merit, but one sufficient – so he says – to sustain a form of psychological analysis. Mr Wansink and his team formulated four different personality types based on strongly expressed soup preferences. The findings are published in the latest edition of the Journal of Database Marketing.
Thus, chicken noodle is popular with churchgoers and pet lovers. “They are more likely to be stubborn and less likely to be outdoorsy,” said Wansink. Minestrone lovers are likely to be physically fit and family spirited. Vegetable soup drinkers are inclined to read family and home magazines. Tomato soup is favoured by adventurous sociable types.
When their unshaven faces peer mournfully into their tin mugs of thin chicken noodle and they contemplate another night spent under the stars, the researchers will reflect that whatever the analysts might say, there is nothing quite like economic ruin and homelessness to make you “outdoorsy”.