On the whole I am delighted by my children continually asking questions. My two favourites have been: if two wrongs don’t make a right, why do two negatives make a positive? And, why do people buy pencils with rubbers on the end, as the rubber always runs out before the pencil and then the metal bit is just adding to waste? A good question for Zero Waste Scotland.
I had never thought about either of these things before and as an adult I wonder if too often people forget to ask “why?”
The daily coverage of the economy is a good example. For years the economic narrative has been dominated by a narrow range of voices. What has become clear through Covid is every choice can have benefits and consequences. There are often trade-offs. Choices about the economy are no different.
Many people that previously felt on a treadmill are stepping off as the pandemic has given them a chance to re-evaluate what matters in their lives. My first visit to the hairdresser post-pandemic was a good example.
My hairdresser sold her house last autumn. She has moved out of the city and has gone mortgage free by combining resources with her sister and parents on a single property.
This solves several problems the family had been worrying about for years, about inter-generational caring responsibilities, mortgage payments and pension worries. Put simply, it “takes the pressure off so they can all enjoy life more now they are not worrying about money so much”.
As many commentators speak of the economy returning to normal, they fail to notice that my hairdresser is not the only one whose life has changed dramatically over the last year. So many people have experienced bereavement, loneliness and loss of income, but even for those that have remained relatively unscathed their lives have changed in other ways.
My family, like so many, has got a dog. After years of thinking about it and using the website Borrow My Doggy, we took the plunge.
Lockdown was a great chance for puppy training and our new addition has had a huge positive impact on my children, but this means even when everything is opened up again we are likely to be living very similarly to this moment. Long family walks and holidays in Scotland.
The rise in dog ownership means many people’s future economic choices are likely to be different.
Recent research from the David Hume Institute showed how many people intend to continue their 2020 behaviours in future. Covid brought communities together and many people have experienced the power of being connected through helping others. So what if – my favourite question opener – the economy doesn’t return to “normal”?
Pre-Covid, our economy encouraged people to increase their consumption and buy more stuff, but this wasn’t making people any happier. More and more people are living alone, and we have been accepting this trend by building more single-person dwellings, but the data clearly shows people living alone are more likely to be lonely and be financially insecure.
What if we can return to something better than the old normal?
I was listening to Professor Ben Friedman talk recently about Adam Smith and what he really meant by wealth. It showed how much economic thinking in recent years has been dominated by a narrow mindset and assumptions. Many use the term 'wealth' to simply mean money but in economics, wealth refers to those goods which satisfy human wants, although all goods which satisfy human wants are not wealth.
My hairdresser certainly feels more wealthy now than previously when she owned more stuff. Over the course of the David Hume Institute’s research, I have heard so many stories of people making changes to their lives which on the face of it could have a negative effect on GDP – for example, consumption will go down by combining houses.
But surely those who argue for a return to normal would not want individuals to continue struggling with their old lives if there are options to be happier and wealthier in the true meaning of the word.
Apart from the initial panic buying at the start of lockdown, we have seen increasing compassion and humanity which gives us hope for the future. We will need this more in the coming months and years as the pandemic has not hit everyone equally – those with secure employment and assets have been largely insulated from the economic shock. For others, it’s been very tough times and it’s likely there are more to come.
For me, the idea that it is a dog-eat-dog world doesn’t work. I’ve never seen a dog eat another one. If you Google the phrase, you’ll find that it has been corrupted from an old Latin saying, “canis caninam non est”, meaning “a dog does not eat a dog”. Like so much of people’s understanding of the economy, the phrase is based on a mistranslation.
For anyone who remembers the O2 ad campaign “Be more dog”, it feels very apt now when thinking about the economy. Many people are making conscious choices with money that have positive knock on effects for their pack – other people and our environment.
Language and stories often take inspiration from animals but sometimes we forget we are ourselves a species of animal. We need the curiosity of cats and the simple joy and pack-connectedness of dogs for more of us to thrive.
Susan Murray is director of the David Hume Institute