I argue periodically that the current global slump/recession/depression is one consequence of the tidal wave of smoking bans that swept around the world over the past decade or two. The effect of these bans is to evict smokers from bars and restaurants and any number of other venues – theatres, cinemas, etc. And the effect of this eviction is that the smokers spend less money in these places, and also less money on transport to and from these places, and less money on the clothes and shoes to wear there, and less money on deodorants and aftershave (or lipstick and eyeliner). And since smokers comprise some 20% of the population of the Western world, and even more elsewhere, that’s a lot of lost customers, and not just for bars and cafes. And since smoking bans are always being extended to parks and beaches and the streets near schools and hospitals, the extent of eviction (and loss of custom) is always growing.
But no economist ever seems to put forward this argument. Most economists seem to think that if people have got money, they’ll automatically spend it on something. And if they can’t spend it on one thing, they’ll spend it on something else. So if you can’t buy roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in some restaurant, you’ll happily settle for Peking duck and noodles. They never seem to consider the customer who sits down at a table and studies the menu and decides that he doesn’t want to eat anything on it, and so just gets up and leaves. For when I go shopping, I usually have some list of things to buy. And if I can’t find them, I don’t usually buy something else instead. So if I go into a hardware store looking for a hammer, but can’t find one, I won’t buy a screwdriver or a drill or a bag of nails instead: I’ll just turn round and walk out.
It’s the same with smoking. As a smoker, I want to be able to sit down somewhere with a beer and a cigarette, and maybe read a newspaper or talk to somebody about how bad the weather is. It’s what I want, just like I wanted the hammer or the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. And if I can’t get what I want, I won’t buy. The chair and table and beer and cigarette and newspaper and talkative acquaintance are a complete package, and if any of them are absent, I won’t buy. Just like I won’t buy roast beef if they’re out of Yorkshire pudding or roast potatoes or boiled carrots, or because there’s a potato and carrot ban. Or I won’t buy a house that’s got walls and roof and doors, but no windows. Windows are part of the package of things that come under the umbrella name of “house”. If it’s got no windows, I won’t buy it. I’ll go looking for a house that has got windows.
But the economists seem to think that when I check my wallet, all I see inside it is money to burn, and if I’ve got £50 in my wallet I’ll just head straight into town and blow the whole lot on anything I can lay my hands on. But it’s not like that. I spend my money very carefully. I’ll weigh up whether I really want to buy two expensive Dartington glass tumblers, or whether the money would be better spent elsewhere, or put back under the mattress.
Lots of people borrow money. They borrow money from banks, and pay it back later with interest added. These days interest rates have fallen to near zero. It’s very cheap to borrow money these days, and people ought to be borrowing lots of this cheap money, but they’re not. People aren’t spending money. And I suspect that the reason they’re not spending is because there isn’t much they want to buy. The shops may be full of all sorts of things, but there’s nothing that they actually want to buy. The banks can lower their interest rates to zero (or even set them negative, and pay people to borrow money), and people still won’t spend money on things they don’t want to buy. In my case I want to buy the table and chair and beer and cigarettes package, but they’re no longer on sale. Even if interest rates go negative, I still won’t start buying what I don’t want to own.
We have a situation right now, it seems to me, where on the one hand we’re being encouraged by low interest rates to borrow and spend money, but on the other hand we’re being dissuaded or prevented from buying what we actually want.
And it’s not just smokers who are being cajoled and bullied and banned from buying what they want. The global anti-smoking campaign is just one of countless anti-something campaigns. For there’s also anti-alcohol campaigns, anti-food campaigns, anti-sugar campaigns, anti-salt campaigns, anti-obesity campaigns, anti-car campaigns, anti-hunting campaigns, anti-gun campaigns, anti-coal campaigns, anti-nuclear campaigns, anti-war campaigns, anti-carbon dioxide campaigns, anti-whaling campaigns, anti-seal hunting campaigns. Name more or less anything, and there’ll be some organisation campaigning to ban it, usually with a government grant to do so. And a great many people now live in a chronic state of guilt about eating too much, smoking too much, drinking too much, travelling too far, owning too much. They’re being told every day to stop spending on more or less everything. And if they’re made to feel guilty enough, they won’t actually need to be banned by law from doing things because they’ll ban themselves from doing it anyway.
There’s now an ubiquitous, global, anti-consumerist movement of which the antismoking movement is just one very small cog. Its devotees are anti-everything. They’re anti-industry, anti-trade, anti-growth, and above all anti-human. If they have any discernible goal, it seems to be a wish to return the whole Earth to being a green planet inhabited only by plants and animals, completely devoid of human life. Human life is now seen as a plague, economic growth as a disease. Guardian columnist George Monbiot, writing in October 2007 (shortly after the UK smoking ban was introduced), Bring on the Recession:
Is it not time to recognise that we have reached the promised land, and should seek to stay there? Why would we want to leave this place in order to explore the blackened wastes of consumer frenzy followed by ecological collapse? Surely the rational policy for the governments of the rich world is now to keep growth rates as close to zero as possible?
The governments of the rich world would seem to have been taking Monbiot’s advice to the letter for the past 9 years.
I imagine that Save The Whales is probably now just another taxpayer-funded, environmentalist political organisation like Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. But here’s some people in a small boat actually saving a whale.