#64. Beware low-flying reindeer



Just in case you’re not aware of it, there is a wonderful song in which American humourist Tom Lehrer regrets that traditional carols fail to focus on the real spirit of Christmas – which is, of course, the commercial.

The song with which he tries to put this right is called A Christmas Carol (and not, as you might suppose for the festive season, The Masochism Tango). The song includes the lyrics “Hark the Herald Tribune sings/Advertising wondrous things” and “Angels we have heard on high/Tell us to go out and buy”.

The emphasis on the commercial is, beyond a doubt, even more acute today than it was when A Christmas Carol first appeared on record back in 1959. Whether America and Britain do or do not remain “Christian countries” – opinions differ – it would be futile to deny that the modern Christmas is a festival dominated vastly more by spending, partying and boozing than by the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Partying and boozing are individual choices, but excessive spending is something that we are conned into doing.

In other countries, the emphasis on the spiritual continues to be separated from the commercial, as in Spain, where Christmas itself remains religious – presents are not exchanged until the Night of the Kings on January 5th, by which time Britain and America are well into the spending fest of the so-called “January” sales, which nowadays actually begin before December 25th.

I’m not going to go into an extended moan here about the transformation of a Christian into a commercial festival. Religious views are (or should be) a private matter, so I will only remark that, when a retired judge undertook an evidential analysis of common themes in the great religions, he found far more commonality than might generally be supposed.

Most of the world religions take a dim view of “usury”, which means “lending for profit” – this was once outlawed in most Christian societies, and remains prohibited by Islam. An important point to note about Christianity is that Jesus did not say that “money is the root of all evil”. He said, rather, that “the love of money is the root of all evil”. It is an important distinction.

Rather, my reason for raising the commercialisation of Christmas is founded in two economic observations.

The first is that, whatever is claimed to the contrary, the world economy is flat on its back. The collapse in the prices of oil and other commodities tells us that demand has cratered, which is hardly surprising in a global economy whose only locomotive of growth – China – has come off the rails. Collapsing commodity prices, like widespread fears of deflation, are irrefutable indicators of a slump.

The second observation is that, where “growth” is being reported at all, it is nothing more than the spending of borrowed money. Growth projections in, for example, Britain and America, are predicated on continued expansions in debt at rates that exceed incremental increases in economic activity. If further evidence is required, we need look no further than China, where nominal “growth” of $5 trillion was recorded in a seven-year period in which debt increased by $21 trillion. You don’t need me to do that sum for you.

Spending large amounts of borrowed money can be described in many ways – “idiocy” comes to mind – but cannot realistically be called “growth” within any sane definition of that term. When one looks at trends in global debt – which, ex-interbank, grew by even more during 2007-14 ($49 trillion) than it did during 2000-07 ($38 trillion) – one surely has to conclude that there may be wisdom in the Christian and Islamic prohibitions on usury.

Despite the perils of escalating indebtedness, some governments seem determined to encourage the practice of delivering “growth” on the basis of borrowing. In Britain, for example, official growth projections from the OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) are founded on household debt growing a lot more rapidly than GDP. Analysis of OBR data has shown that, having retrenched in response to the banking crisis, households’ spending will have exceeded their income by £40bn in 2015, a debt-funded excess that will reach almost £50bn by 2020, and total £220bn over five years.

Any country which promotes “growth” on the basis of ever-expanding debt is following the philosophy neither of Adam Smith nor of John Maynard Keynes, but of Charles Ponzi.

Obviously, no-one but a fool or a marketing executive would claim that happiness is a direct function of how much one spends. To assert that buying the latest gadget can deliver more happiness than, say, health or relationships, would be disingenuous in the extreme even in normal times. It surely becomes preposterous in a world in which “real” (as opposed to “borrowed”) growth is conspicuous by its absence. By definition, we cannot all get richer – but we can certainly become indebted, worried and stressed by trying.

No reader needs me to tell them that real value lies not in purchased gadgets but in immaterial wealth. But what I would urge people to do in the year ahead is to begin the fight-back.

Be aware that those who push consumption are pursuing their own objectives, not ours.
When urged to buy something by advertisers or celebrities, ignore the claims and focus instead on the motives.

Don’t be pushed around. Make your own decisions.

Politely, and by voting with your feet, tell the advertisers, the celebrities and the corporates where they can stick their doctrine of happiness-through-consumption.

Like Tom Lehrer, I’ve never been happy at the idea of standing directly underneath a flying reindeer.

This year, we all need to “get out from under”.