Thursday, March 05, 2009

Trends of the New Economy

The last major economic crisis to have a discernible effect on culture as well as politics was probably the one that started in the mid-1970s and reached its nadir during the Carter Administration. It is memorable for such fads as Pet Rocks (1975), leisure suits (c. 1976-77), and the "preppy look" as satirized (and, ironically, solidified) by Lisa Birnbach's illustrated guide, The Official Preppy Handbook (1980).

While the brief recession of 1991-92 might have stimulated memorable cultural trends, they don't pop easily to mind. What emerged in the '70s, however, has been embedded in popular culture through That '70s Show (the early years) and last summer's guilty pleasure, Swingtown.

Whether the current economic contraction leads to similar trends that will one day be recalled fondly (or with cries of "What were we thinking?") remains to be seen. But a few mini-trends have emerged that are worth noting.

The Economist, for instance, has discovered a spike in sales of books by Ayn Rand, the Objectivist philosopher/novelist whose major works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, generally have continuously steady sales even though the author died in 1982.

According to the British weekly:

Reviled in some circles and mocked in others, Rand’s 1957 novel of embattled capitalism is a favourite of libertarians and college students. Lately, though, its appeal has been growing. According to data from TitleZ, a firm that tracks bestseller rankings on Amazon, an online retailer, the book’s 30-day average Amazon rank was 127 on February 21st, well above its average over the past two years of 542. On January 13th the book’s ranking was 33, briefly besting President Barack Obama’s popular tome, “The Audacity of Hope”.

Tellingly, the spikes in the novel’s sales coincide with the news (see chart). The first jump, in September 2007, followed dramatic interest-rate cuts by central banks, and the Bank of England’s bail-out of Northern Rock, a troubled mortgage lender. The October 2007 rise happened two days after the Bush Administration announced an initiative to coax banks to assist subprime borrowers. A year later, sales of the book rose after America’s Treasury said that it would use a big chunk of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme to buy stakes in nine large banks. Debate over Mr Obama’s stimulus plan in January gave the book another lift. And sales leapt once again when the stimulus plan passed and Mr Obama announced a new mortgage-modification plan.
There is a chart accompanying The Economist's article that dramatically illustrates the ups (and downs, but mostly ups) of sales of Atlas Shrugged.

At CPAC last weekend, a number of speakers posed the question, "Has Atlas shrugged?" with an implied affirmative answer. The Economist notes the existence of a Facebook group with the name, "Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life," one of 111 groups dedicated to loving (or hating) the Ayn Rand novel. The group's 828 members are spread across the globe, but I note a disproportionate number from Scandinavia.

While some people are asking, "Who is John Galt?," others may be more curious about what John Galt is eating these days. The New York Times has a partial reply:
The cube steak is suddenly one of the hottest cuts of beef in the country, according to figures from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The amount of cube steak sold during the last quarter of 2008 was up by almost 10 percent over the same period a year earlier. The overall amount of beef sold went up only 3 percent.

It doesn’t take a wizard to figure out that the economy’s swan dive has much to do with the cube steak’s resurgence. But even before kitchen budgets became tight, the cube steak had its fan base.
No doubt some entrepreneurial cookbook writer (or publisher) is already preparing new editions of recipes our parents, grandparents (or, in terms of the Facebook generation, great-grandparents) remember from the Great Depression and World War II. There's nothing like an economic downturn to create business opportunities.

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1 comment:

Walloon said...

I've seen "pet rocks" mentioned much more often in retrospective looks at the 1970s than I ever saw in the real 1970s. Their cultural presence has been way exaggerated. Be honest: did anyone even own one of those things? There are several hundred more significant things to remember from that decade. And we're old enough to remember them!