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The meaning of meaning

    What a difference a word makes. Today, it made the difference between a dramatically radical, challenging speech, and a sympathetic bromide.

    Nick Robinson and others have described how David Cameron redrafted his conference speech, changing a passage that read "The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills" to "The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That's why households - all of us - are paying off the credit card and store card bills." From 'means' to 'are', from normative to descriptive, from leadership to sympathy.

    No.10 back-pedalled for obvious reasons, having seen the headlines. Aides claimed it was a draft. Yeah, right. But the beauty of the speech as written was that it challenged the orthodoxy of feel-good can-do optimism that is making a mockery of democracy. Received wisdom - which fortunately Margaret Thatcher was unaware of - is that only a cheery message can win elections. If that's now true, it's appalling.

    Because at the moment we are actually in a rather dark place, even without the Eurozone mess. Let's suppose that magically the Eurozone crisis was resolved, and the logjam in Washington broken in a constructive way by the end of this week. Where would that leave the economy?

    The long term portents are appalling. Consider:
    1. Debt. The Western world is dramatically overborrowed. Household and government debt are both unsustainable. Consumers will inevitably continue to deleverage for the foreseeable future, as the Prime Minister's amended speech admits. Governments will have to cut their primary budget deficits at least to realistic levels. Quantitative easing and capital investment may help take up some of the slack, but nowhere near enough.

    2. Pensions. Even if we hadn't all overborrowed, we'd still have to save more, because for many years our pension provision has been inadequate. We do not put enough in our pension pots, but even if we did, most projections are based on unrealistic forecasts of growth in equities, so we would still need even more. We could tax future workers more heavily. And work longer. And have smaller pensions. But we'd still need to increase saving.

    3. Assets. The ageing population will push down asset prices, as younger people tend to buy first houses, then equities, while older people sell them. Indeed, given the looming pension crisis, it is likely that the baby boomers will draw down up their assets even more aggressively than might have been expected. Don't expect high share prices or house prices any time soon. And it was these assets, overvalued because the boomers were buying, that kick-started credit growth - so not only are people less likely to want to borrow (point 1), their collateral will be smaller as well.

    4. Commodities. While the Western world has been spending, emerging markets have been doing the precise opposite, building up reserves and buying Westerners' debt. They have grown impressively, especially the massive economies of China and India, and although growth rates will probably not be sustained, neither are these economies likely to shrink. So high prices for oil, copper and other commodities, and the concomitant drag on rich world economies, will continue.

    5. Man-made climate change. Whether or not one is convinced by climate science, it is likely to cost us money. Despite governments of both stripes pretending that green policies are opportunities for developing a carbon-free economy, they come with costs attached, as Tim Montgomerie and others constantly and correctly remind us. If you think the science is a con, and believe it is possible to persuade governments to ignore the risks detected by climate science, then you may discount point.

    6. If you do accept the science, or if you think that governments will foolishly spend money on subsidising renewable power or nuclear power capital costs to mitigate a non-existent risk, then you have to accept this as yet another drag on the future economy, whether justified or not.
    These five (or four) drags on the economy are massive, and their effects will last decades. It is not unknown for bear markets to last a quarter of a century. Governments will pursue growth, and may even provide it in small doses, but there won't be much to go around.

    Yet no politician can stand up and tell the voters that. Conventional wisdom rules it out. You can't win without an optimistic vision. In the A.A. Milne world of electioneering, people vote for Tigger, not Eeyore. So Cameron is not allowed to say that we should pay our debts off to make households more robust and able to stand a long wintry economic period. He is made to assert feebly that we are paying our debts off, and sympathise with us on that account. It is incredible to think that voters feel hard done by because they can't continue to spend money they haven't yet earned, and will punish someone for being "gloomy and condescending" enough to say that we should be moving towards a more Asian-style high-saving economy.

    It wasn't always thus. Consistent with the small-c conservative's respect for plural and incommensurable value systems, the Tory right used to be rather sniffy about growth. For instance, in his 1969 book The Common Problem, Angus Maude (no pinko he) could be found railing about "the present-day yearning to believe that even if 'growth' is not, after all, automatic, it ought to be" and scoffing at Harold Macmillan's lack of "ideals of [any] markedly spiritual kind". Maude was appalled by the Macmillan administrations' pursuit of "material comfort and the quick speculative profit." At one stage, Cameron seemed to be groping in this direction with his theories of General Well-Being (though rather undermining the plurality principle by insisting on quantifying it).

    It is incredible that, thirty-odd years after the first Thatcher administration (which included Maude) attempted to impress on the British people how little a government could do to drive an economy one way rather than another, politicians are judged first and foremost by how much growth they have 'produced'.

    If our modern media-driven democracy only rewards those with positive messages, and if Cassandras are always doomed to lose, then we have a real problem, because sometimes the right message is to batten down the hatches and prepare for a bumpy voyage. Plurality of value becomes a good thing, because people have the psychological and social resources to compensate for a flattening or even reduction of income.

    And after all, Cassandra was right.

    Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and has a DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford. His research interests are:
    the politics and philosophy of technology, particularly the World Wide Web; transparency and open data; privacy; memory; and conservative philosophy.

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