What’s Happening In Aisle Three?

As a timely complement to my What’s Happening post, the New York Times has an interesting piece about research into what consumption habits change during economic downturns.  These are extensions of what I remember as a boy was called the “hemline index”:  hemlines went up and down in lockstep with economic prosperity.

According to those who study these things, in a recession or depression people tend to prefer songs that are longer, slower, with more meaningful themes. It’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” rather than “At the Hop.” Playboy’s Playmates of the Year tend to have a more mature appearance — “older, heavier, taller and less curvy”, and American actresses with mature features — small eyes, large chins, and thin faces — are more popular.

In rough times people also buy more laxatives (because they are stressed) and less deodorant (because they are not dancing around with glee).  In addition, they

buy more of the things that have less water in them, things that are not so perishable. Instead of lettuce and steak and fruit, it’s rice and beans and grain and pasta.

A recent survey by Nielsen reported that tobacco, carbonated drinks and eggs were vulnerable to an economic downturn, while candy, beer and pasta sauce are “recession-proof”.  The recession will also, inevitably, bring with it an increase in property crime and mental depression.  Employee-assistance programs have already seen a strong increase in the number of those seeking help.

However, against all this, some experts suggest that a new recession could actually improve the nation’s physical and mental health in some ways.

“People are physically healthier in times of recession,” said Christopher Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Death rates fall, people smoke less, drink less and exercise more. Traffic fatalities go way down, which is not a surprise when people drive less. Heart attacks go down. Back problems go down. People have more time to prepare healthier meals at home. When the economy weakens, pollution falls” …

In a study of coffee growers in Colombia, Grant Miller, who teaches health policy at Stanford’s medical school, found that infant and child mortality rates fell as coffee prices slumped, and concluded that it was because parents had more time to take care of their children.

These positives are not measured in the official figures.  As one the experts said:

“[N]othing in the G.D.P. captures what you gain if you cook and eat in a leisurely way with your kids.”

Fascinating stuff.  Especially fascinating to both live and study the phenomenon at the same time as we are doing today.

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