In January last year, while shadow chancellor, George Osborne said that the lesson of the credit crunch is that “the economy must never again be allowed to become so structurally unbalanced and poorly prepared for a downturn.” He was referring to our national over-reliance on the banking sector, which had made a few too many dodgy investments in the United States. But the credit crunch reveals that there is something else that our economy is disastrously reliant upon, and the Royal Mail shows that we are only ever becoming more reliant upon it.
The banking crisis was caused by banks having lent too much money to too many people who couldn’t afford to pay it back. But why couldn’t they afford to pay it back? Because all through 2007 the price of oil climbed relentlessly, breaking US$130 in the summer of 2008, just as everything was starting to collapse. In the good times, Americans had bought a house and his-n-hers SUVs on cheap mortgages and loans. They made hay while the gas was $2/gallon. In 2007 it hung around $3/gallon, and in summer 2008 it broke $4/gallon. People found themselves paying twice what they had planned for transport, and suddenly they couldn’t pay their mortgages and loans.
But the recession was more than just the banking crisis. It didn’t help borrowers that the high fuel costs were pushing up inflation and interest rates. But it also didn’t help that the fuel costs were beginning to destroy businesses and put people out of work. Partly that was because, to keep their cars running, people were tightening their belts and not spending on the luxuries. But partly it was because a lot of businesses, just able to scrap by in the good times, were built on cheap transport, and when transport turned out not to be a cheap as planned, those businesses collapsed.
The banking crisis was just a symptom of a recession caused by a global economy that is over-reliant on an unstable resource. The bankers failed to see the crisis coming (or saw it but saw no reason to do anything about it). But anybody who was looking at oil prices saw it. Recessions follow oil shocks like day follows night.
Our economy is dangerously unbalanced and poorly prepared for the inevitable oil shocks to come, shocks which are becoming ever more frequent as we pass peak production and head into decline. Too many businesses and too many jobs are built on a needlessly wasteful use of road transport. The short-sighted business world seems to think that the recurring cost of outsourcing tasks to companies who will drive stuff around is better business than making a one-off investment in the infrastructure that will allow them to do things themselves — the now routine practice of hotels outsourcing laundry being one of the more absurd results of artificially low road transport costs.
This week I was followed on twitter by @EdgarsCoolWater, who advised that anybody who wants water should check their website, where they could order a delivery. I boasted that I already have water, for my house features the ingenious invention plumbing. Edgar replied that some people in London and the South East aren’t so lucky. I can only conclude that some businesses would rather pay a weekly charge for water to be driven to them than the one-off investment in running water.
This is as much a bubble as the banking bubble. Some time soon the oil price will spike, the diesel price will jump again, and Edgar will have to pass on his costs to customers. Businesses that are already operating on the edge of profitability will cut jobs and go under.
What’s George Osborne doing about that? Anything?