George Pitcher: Our economic conscience won’t outlast the downturn

It’s tempting to say capitalism has lost its swagger. But when the good times return, so will our appetite for consumption – only less conspicuously. By George Pitcher

A widely held argument has it that there is a new economic consciousness after the terrorist attacks on New York It is tempting to believe all this, but it’s wrong

I know Barclays quite well through work, but I don’t know any of the five investment bankers who have just lost their jobs as a consequence of blowing &£44,000 on fine wine over dinner at a West End restaurant called Petrus.

You would hope that they were fired less because of a sense of moral outrage than for their sheer stupidity with their own money. It is not a good thing for top investment bankers – in Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The mid-Forties vintages of Chateau Petrus that they quaffed cost them well over &£10,000 a bottle. There are far finer clarets to be had at much more modest prices, so we can only assume they believed there was something essentially grand in drinking it under the ersatz still-lifes of the eponymous restaurant.

But we should be more concerned about the attitude of Barclays than the cerebral capacity of a bunch of good-time refugees from the Eighties. What we need to know is whether Barclays’ sanctions are symptomatic of a new climate of moral austerity in business.

It is tempting to identify the iconic events of an economic downturn and count Barclays’ actions as one of them. We have had the major corporate collapse in the form of the demise of alternative telecoms carrier Energis, among others. We have had the major auditing scandal in Arthur Andersen’s cack-handed consultation of energy trading combine Enron (in the last recession, the equivalent accounting scandal was the tolerance of Robert Maxwell). And we have had the traditional ceremony of airlines in economic crisis teetering on the brink of collapse.

Less seriously, we have a renewed discipline in the banking world over restaurant bills and the rather prissy spectacle of Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse First Boston abolishing dress-down days. This last symptom of austerity is interesting, in that it will fuel the fashion industry’s enthusiasm for having us believe that smart is the new casual. I’m amused by the number of articles I’ve read to this effect, aided and abetted by retailers such as Next and Blazer claiming that the suit is once again replacing polo and chinos.

They wish. The casual genie has been let out of the formal-wear lamp and they will never get it back, any more than they could get City types to again wear tailcoats or bowler hats. Having cynically been sold the “third wardrobe” at extortionate prices, office workers have now defaulted to more economic options of casual wear and there is no marketing route back to the &£600-plus suit.

But I digress. The cancellation of dress-down days and the punishing of spendthrift boozers are every bit as symptomatic of the bottom of the economic cycle as corporate collapses and accounting scandals.

And then there’s the fall-back position of life post-September 11. A widely held argument has it that there is a new economic consciousness after the terrorist attacks on New York; that the West has lost its capitalist swagger and nothing is any fun anymore.

It is tempting to believe all this, but it’s wrong. It was the same in the recession of the early Nineties. It was predicted then that the hedonism of the Eighties would be replaced by “the caring Nineties”. Instead we had booming markets, run-down public services and a Labour Home Secretary who talked about cracking down on beggars.

Economic conscience is driven by straitened times and economic hooliganism – including bottles of claret at prices in excess of the average wage – by booming markets. The latter will return.

What is different since the terrorism of September is that there is a new insecurity and fear attached to this downturn. This has nothing to do with austerity or social conscience. Rather, it stems from a fear of losing what we’ve got.

So while there is a new Puritanism in business, it will last only as long as the economic downturn. What may be longer-lasting is the fear that the world’s have-nots might seek at any moment to steal or destroy the trinkets and extravagances of capitalism.

My prediction is that the conspicuous consumption of the Eighties and, to a lesser extent, Nineties will not make a rapid return, perhaps for a generation. But, with the relationship between capitalism, greed and mortality being what it is, the allegedly good times will return.

What we will face is a period of inconspicuous consumption. I have an image in mind that I think sums this up. It is of someone with a mobile phone using a discreet lapel microphone and earpiece, attached to a simple pocket transmitter/receiver that corresponds to their personal mobile unit at their desk. Either piece is useless without the other, so theft becomes an irrelevance. I also have a vision of fine claret held in secure central cellars and delivered to your home, there to be decanted with haute cuisine dishes.

But if you’ve got any style, of course, you do that already.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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