Good Idea: Hamster horror

Baby hamsters (awww!) double in weight every week, the New Economics Foundation reports. Which is kind of interesting, and kind of cute, but perhaps not the most obviously pertinent fact to the field of economics.

Actually, the important point as far as the NEF is concerned - mummy hamsters might disagree - is not that the babies grow, but that they stop after puberty. If they carried on doubling in size, within a year each little hamster would reach a less-than-adorable body mass of nine billion tonnes. "There is a reason that in nature things do not grow indefinitely," the authors of Growth Isn't Possible note drily.

Endless growth may not be what we want from our rodents, but when it comes to the economy, the NEF points out, we have come to believe that unchecked expansion is always a good thing. The theory goes that rising GDP increases wages, reduces unemployment and raises tax revenues, leading to better public services and lower deficits. So everybody gets richer and therefore happier. Right?

In fact, as the NEF says (and as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their book The Spirit Level), Britain is already well past the point at which raising incomes leads to a proportionate increase in living standards.

And anyway, the NEF explains, economic growth can't eliminate poverty. Its benefits are weighted towards those who account for the greatest proportion of consumption; so the rich are required to consume ever more, while those on the lowest incomes receive ever-dwindling benefits. Meanwhile the world's distinctly finite resources are quietly being stripped bare, a task that will be completed long before dwindling returns could ever seriously affect poverty: if every country used resources as fast as the UK, we'd need 3.4 planets to meet demand. Growth promotes inequality, which, as Wilkinson and Pickett argue, is what really holds society back.

First popularised during the 1930s, growth-based accounting helped to measure government efforts to fund its way out of depression, then later aided increased production for the war effort. But what it cannot do is measure anything about an economy except its size. It reveals nothing about quality of life, for example, or non-monetary parts of the economy, such as family and community care. It breeds an approach to resources that, as the world mutters about its emissions targets, is untenable.

The NEF offers an alternative: resizing the economy by reskilling, urban agriculture, shorter working weeks, local currencies and, hardest of all, getting politicians to accept that endless boom is neither feasible nor desirable. It's a radical plan, if not downright utopian. But as any nine-billion-tonne rodent could tell you, big problems call for big solutions.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.