After years of debate in which Keynesianism was pitched against monetarism, economic policy is reduced to the single instrument of interest rate management, and consumer spending levels are all that stands between the extremes of boom and bust.
The snag is that the weapon is still too blunt. A few months ago, the Government was urging us all to spend as a matter of patriotic duty. We answered the call with such fervour that there is now concern that the national level of indebtedness is becoming insupportable. Plainly what is needed is a more subtle and precise means of controlling spending, and news just in suggests it could be within reach; it might even be made to come out of our taps.
Tests conducted at California’s Stanford University have shown that Citalopram, one of a family of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can stop people from spending. Dr Lorrin Koran, who led the study, says: “The drug seemed effective for nearly three-quarters of those who took it. Many subjects found that eventually they could visit the shopping centre and not buy anything at all.”
Those who took part in the tests were volunteers and self-confessed shopping addicts, but such are the implications of an effective anti-marketing drug that it might prove an irresistible means of economic management. Imagine, squirt a little Citalopram into the water supply and bingo! – people go to Tesco and don’t buy anything at all. Allow the effect to wear off, and they’re back to it again, stuffing their bags with Snack-a-Jacks and Creme Eggs as though nothing had happened.
Those who argue that such tactics would infringe civil liberties must answer which is worse: inflation, unemployment, and the closing down of factories and businesses; or a harmless, drug-induced and temporary cessation of spending? Traditional methods of squeezing demand, such as putting up taxes and interest rates, are clumsy, blunt and painful by comparison. In any case, a break from shopping would be a welcome respite for many people and allow time for other things, such as the contemplation of beauty and truth and the pursuit of self-improvement and physical fitness.
Except not everyone wants to jog, do press-ups or eat the Government-prescribed five egg-sized potatoes a day. Science can answer that, too. Researchers at Dundee University believe they have a drug that fools the body into thinking it is exercising. Metaformin, which is derived from the French lily, triggers an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which burns calories and prevents fat being stored. The scientists hope to develop a synthetic form, which will allow us to work out even as we lie semi-comatose watching Richard and Judy.
Not that the researchers would like that. “I would never advocate drugs to replace exercise,” says Prof Will Winder of Brigham Young University, Utah, who is working on artificial ways to stimulate muscle AMPK.
Winder claims that his research is designed “to help people who cannot exercise, such as the elderly or those with health problems.”
Experience tell us, however, that there is an unpredictable difference between what science sets out to do and what actually happens. Heaven knows, for example, what John Logie Baird had in mind when he invented television, but whatever it was, it cannot have been Never Mind the Buzzcocks or anything to do with Anne Robinson, or he would surely have turned over and gone back to sleep. Similarly, how could the inventors of the mobile phone have known that what they were creating was not, as they supposed, a small, portable and convenient means of communication but a pernicious social irritant, a man-made equivalent of halitosis?
So when scientists say the exercise pill is only for those too old or infirm to pump iron, we know it is rubbish. Given the choice between popping a pill, washed down with a quart of Pepsi, and the indignity of panting round the block in lycra shorts, who would take the sweatier course?
The same principle applies to folic acid. Scientists used to believe that five portions of vegetables and fruit a day were sufficient to ward off heart ailments and keep body and soul on speaking terms. Now, for reasons too complex to understand, they say the elderly need three times as much. However, sensing perhaps that to add to the burdens of age the obligation to swallow 15 portions a day of fruit and veg might be construed as cruelty, the scientists favour a pill. But what is good for the elderly is no doubt good, too, for younger people who cannot stomach brussels sprouts or French golden delicious apples.
It may soon be that, for whatever task is irksome, tiresome, difficult, or needful of willpower, pills will provide a quick and easy shortcut. Professional athletes cottoned on years ago and now it is time for the rest of us to swallow success and achievement in tablet form. I cannot wait for the improve-your-golf-swing pill, but would abjure the learn-to-love-shopping pill that is the antidote to the anti-marketing pill.
Roll on then, Utopia, a world in which our desires are effortlessly fulfilled, our yearning for contentment satisfied, and all in a handy capsule form. In the meantime, I’ll settle for a pint of Best and a bag of crisps.