I may have led a sheltered life, but growing up I don’t remember having an economy. I knew there were different currencies, because those French franc notes were so much prettier than ours, and I knew some people were rich but it was bad manners to show off about it. I knew my uncle was a stockbroker, which meant staring at a terrible ribbon of numbers all day and drinking lots of scotch. And I knew there was a Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he was the main butt of derision for David Frost and his merry band of satirists, who had cult status in our house in the 1960’s. But what did all that have to do with me?
A lot, it turns out!
I now know we have an economy, because hubby and I sit on the couch perplexedly trying to understand all the superannuation choices and bank interest options, with the occasional glance at the business section of the paper (Who knew that a remark from some guy called Ben in New York could ruin your life?) We don’t want to make money, just hang on to some of it, but it’s not as simple as the Bible story of the wise virgins who kept their oil for the bad times. Just keeping your money in a bank won’t keep pace with the rising cost of everything. I know I’m not a virgin but I did think I had accumulated some wisdom. Wrong! As well as making you feel anxious, this economy lark makes you feel stupid. You may have built a worthwhile career but now all that stuff you know about Shakespeare won’t help you decipher a superannuation booklet or become a successful day-trader, which is what you need to be to keep pace. So now we’re all watching the terrible ribbon of numbers at the bottom of our TV screens and drinking lots of cheap wine (who can afford scotch?)
Just as well we learned string-saving 101 from our parents who lived in the shadow of the depression and wartime rationing. You know the drill – work hard for forty years in a useful job, be prudent – buy the specials, know a million magic things to do with mince otherwise you might end up as the little old lady at the checkout on pension day with a single chop and a couple of tins of cat food.
OK it’s not that bad! We’re not running out of chardonnay any time soon and if I want a pair of those cute little ankle boots or a trip overseas I can have them. As well, I’m not too worried that I’ll never stay at the Versace Resort, buy a yacht or take advantage of the advertorialised “bargains” for the beautiful people on Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog, Goop. (Goop…sounds like the noise I make when I’m trying to throw up. You know, goop…goop…goop…bleugh! Ah, that’s better)
Actually, that’s a bit harsh on Goop. It’s such a pretty site and Gwyneth is such a pretty gal, great actor and perfect wifeandmother, and here she is sharing her perfect life with the rest of us mere mortals. We can wear the clothes, visit the resorts and even – this week’s suggestion – have a celebrity chef to cook for us (Let’s hope he knows the million and oneth magic mince recipe). But everything on Goop has a (hefty) price because clever Gwyneth has monetorised her entire life (well, the good bits – I’m sure she has Basil Fawlty days just like the rest of us, but no product would pay big bucks to be placed at Fawlty Towers!)
I’m all for a bit of enterprise and wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’m just being a grumpy old bag – all bitter and twisted because no one would want to advertise on my blog – recycled string anyone? Mince recipe book? But surely the Goop phenomenon has taken us a bit closer to what Harvard Professor Michael Sandel signals in his book What Money Can’t Buy, that if everything is for sale, money values will crowd out the values we care about. In the really sinister examples, we can apparently “outsource sacrifice.” Wealthy countries will pay poorer countries for the right to pollute, and people will pay the less fortunate to do unpleasant things like queue for them but fundamentally he says that market mechanisms change the meanings of what’s being done and warns us that, “a market economy can slide into being a market society.” So my admiration for Gwyneth and desire to know about her and feel closer to her is no longer a straightforward human interaction but is just a way for her to make money. I suppose that will teach me not to be such a creepy loser, and get a life of my own.
But it does seem as if nothing gets taken seriously unless it’s seen through an economic lens, although this isn’t always a bad thing. Climate change suddenly got attention when Sir Nicholas (now Baron) Stern put a serious monetary value on it, and closer to home, the journalist George Megalogenis’ political commentary has always benefited from rigorous economic analysis which lends weight and credibility to his remarks. Nevertheless there has been a plethora of books recently about the ways in which money isn’t solving our problems, and if you can afford to go to Melbourne, you can even attend a “Happiness Conference.” Social commentator Hugh Mackay is way beyond cash and has even bypassed happiness and gone straight to goodness as the answer to life’s trials in his book The Good Life. And the relentless optimism offered by Goop-style gurus does not seem to have helped Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman find happiness. Rather he maintains that embracing pessimism, uncertainty and insecurity is the way to go in his latest droll offering, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
My version of happiness is relatively simple: if you can’t have what you want, want what you have, and as a generation we have had lives full of opportunity: free education, cheap housing, job security and a world that has opened up physically and electronically giving us freedoms our parents could not imagine. And all the research tells us that happiness has little to do with lots of money, although unhappiness certainly has a lot to do with not enough. (Just ask all those ordinary people in Cyprus or Greece or Spain or Ireland who have been so badly let down by their economic “experts.”) So I’m glad I lived the first half of my life in blissful ignorance and I just wish our kids could be sheltered from the casino in which their lives and futures are the chips.
Thank you to William Blake for his beautiful image of The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. (Tate Gallery, London.) You can probably find the outfits on Goop. (Note the free plug)