A sideways look at economics
The couple of days after returning home from a business trip always feel similar. Home is where you let things slide, while the fight-or-flight hormones drain out of your body. Home is where you flop and wallow, where you can be listless and without drive. Where you can be fallow. And that is just what you need.
I know this, but it still surprises me every time it happens. Returning in December from a hectic week on the east coast of the US to temporary isolation in a damp, dark, cold Oxford, I spent a few days functioning at around 60% of my most productive self. I felt hung over. Partly it was the jetlag – the return leg across the Atlantic is always brutal, and this time we chose a day flight, which I think was a mistake. Better to lose a night than a day.
But mostly it was the transition from high-intensity to low-intensity life. The week in the US was back-to-back meetings with our clients there, involving high stakes for our business, running on coffee and adrenaline. The week back home was sitting in my home office watching the rain, reading, listening to music (the White Stripes, I remember, singing “When you’re helpless with no-one to turn to alone in your room”, which fitted my state of mind with uncanny accuracy).
The week in the States was full of purpose and agency. The week after was about letting things happen to me, and quietly observing while they did. I went into a sog, as my mum used to put it when I was a boy.
At the same time, there was always a gentle pull on the line that would eventually get me out of the sog. That pull came from Emma, my wife, who needed me to be present with her at least some of the time. And it came from my colleagues too, who needed me to apply my mind to work. I didn’t need to be 100%: 60% would do for a few days, but I could feel that would gradually need to increase. The most difficult returns are when 100% is needed right away – then you can feel the wear and tear. Metal grinding on metal, without the necessary oil. It can be done, but there will be a price later.
This time, which is the more usual way, thankfully, I was able to run at 60% for a while. I could fall back and wait while my unconscious got on with doing the things my mind and body needed. I could dream and idle and let my mind wander. I could allow hours to pass without pressing. It’s wonderful, in a way. I felt low and slow, but I recognised that, underneath, there were essential processes going on. I needed to let them happen.
Something similar applies in the natural world at this time of year. The weather in England this January is cool and grey, day after day like that. The buds are not yet evident unless you look closely, the snowdrops are green but mostly not yet in flower. Everything feels as though it is on hold, but underneath there is activity, largely hidden from us for now. And because the normal routines of travelling to and from work have not yet been restored, thanks to Omicron, I am more than usually aware how short the days still are and how dim the light even at midday. We have not yet entered the steep part of the curve when the days lengthen quickly, but that change is imminent.
And the same applies to the economy. After the convulsions of the last two years, the exceptionally high intensity of the biggest recession of all time followed by the swiftest recovery, overlaid with the human impact of the pandemic, the economy is now, as it were, taking a breath. The intensity level has dropped. It appears grey and quiet and still. And that is probably what we all need: essential regenerative processes are underway even if we can’t see them.
Sometimes it’s OK to feel low and slow and sleepy. More: it’s essential. The pull on the line will do its work in due course. In a month or so we’ll be back to normal intensity. And then the whole cycle will repeat, as regular as the seasons, COVID permitting. It’s winter now, but soon it will be spring.