There's a story in this week's Economist about the Chinese government trying to stimulate demand by getting its rural peasants to buy consumer electronics. It's not working very well, partly because it's the Chinese government doing it (who couldn't organise a piss-up in a sake distillery), and partly because this is The Economist, where a socialist initiative can't, ever, really work. But what can't be denied is that tens of thousands of households are getting their first TVs ever.
Amid the "sky is falling", apocalyptic analyses of the coming Fairly Great Depression, one thought keeps occurring to me: all - yes, all - of this doom-mongering is coming from a very narrow sector of humanity. Specifically, rich people.
Look at it this way. If we're to be thrown out of our homes and begging on the streets, then who exactly is going to be living in our houses? If we're all to be starving, then who specifically is going to be eating that food that the farmers are still producing, because let's face it, what else are they going to do with their land? If we're all to be poor, then who's going to be using this computer that I'm typing on now, or the iPod in my pocket? Are all these things going to lie about unused, simply because everyone has 50% less money?
Are they hell.
No, what's going on is a redistribution of wealth - away from (some) rich people, towards (some) poorer people. (And towards other rich people, of course, who have - as always - deftly cut themselves in on the deal.) And the complaints, loud as they are, are coming from people who are the losers in this transaction.
To be sure there'll be less production for a time, particularly of luxury goods like the aforementioned iPod. But there will still be a lot of goods in the world. Houses aren't going anywhere. Food production isn't drying up. I don't know what's in your wardrobe, but I'm reasonably confident that the clothes in mine today will keep me from nakedness for the next couple of years at least, even if they're not quite the cutting edge of fashion.
It is, of course, a messy system. Many really poor people are suffering even more than they normally do; and many of those losing out think themselves poor, being guilty of nothing worse than judging themselves by the standards of their peers and neighbours. It's happening that way because we, the modestly rich, have spent the last 50 years fighting tooth and claw against the shift happening gradually - thus making it inevitable that it should happen suddenly. (And now we're fighting to slow it down - that's what the huge government deficits in Western countries amount to. They don't make the countries any richer, but they do space the pain out over several years, rather than applying it all at once.)
But on the whole, on average, we are witnessing a net shift in wealth away from the rich and towards the poor. That's what happens when prices drop.
As in any uneven transaction, the losers complain much louder than the winners. And the rich have a louder voice anyway. Which is why the media is screaming economic armageddon, and why I'm not going to be invited onto any chat shows to talk about my theory.
Yes, there will be a lot of unemployed people. That's bad because unemployed people are less productive, their skills deteriorate, and they tend to be more isolated, with all the physical and mental health consequences of that lifestyle. But there's still about as much food, just as many houses, in the world as there was last year. So if more people are starving and begging in the streets, it's because we've chosen to put them there.
Why would we choose to do that?
Well, historically, it's because we love wealth. Specifically, we love what Galbraith called the chimera of "wealth without work" - the idea that someday we'll be rich ourselves. And while most of us keep our aspirations modest - we hope to retire sometime in our 60s, and live the remainder of our lives in reasonable quiet - a large minority want better. They want to retire earlier, be richer, live higher and faster and longer.
Most of us fall for this illusion at some point in our lives. My sister-in-law, Sarah, is a fine example. She has no ideas that amount to creating much wealth, but she aims to buy houses and live off the rents - an all-too-common dream here in New Zealand. And of course, that's a dream that can only work if a majority of people are willing to pay their rents. That is to say, they're too poor to buy their own homes (because house prices are astronomical), and too cowed to not pay, or to complain too loudly about the condition of their housing (because living in a slum is better than living nowhere).
And it's that mass hallucination, that dream of wealth without work, that has brought us to our present pass - as it did in 1929, and will do so time and again until we admit that we have already beaten scarcity - in the Western world at least, there is plenty to go around - if only we can bring ourselves to share it fairly.
There are three ways we could emerge from this - let's call it a "downturn".
One, the usual answer through recent recessions, is business as usual. Let the misery fall where it may, most of us will be okay, and eventually the economy will be back to what we've been trained to think of as "normal", and we can get back to our private dreams of wealth.
Two, we could - as we did in the 1930s - redefine the bottom of our economic scale to make poverty less terrible. The Great Depression gave us the idea of the "welfare state" - the notion that the state should guarantee a minimum level of welfare for its people. In the long term that configuration proved to be unstable - as generations went by people grew greedier, and increasingly resented "paying for others" to enjoy things, such as health care, that they wanted for themselves. But even so, it gave us an impressive 79 years between critical economic collapses.
Three, we could stop pussyfooting about socialism and embrace it properly. We could accept that there's no shortcut to retirement. We could accept that we're not going to inherit or save much wealth from anywhere. We could agree that "rich" is a four-letter word, that ambition is a bad master, that enough is enough.
But I don't think we're ready for that yet. Maybe next time.