The latest economic indicators: We’re doing better than 5th century Britain!

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TIME is “dark” this week—that is, we’ve got no magazine to put out and not many people in the office. But we still have a Website, so I volunteered to pay attention to this week’s economic releases and post on them when they seemed to merit attention. Well, today we’ve got personal spending up 0.5% and personal income up 0.4% in November, and new home sales down 11.3% (pdf) for the month. That last number looked at first like it might be significant. The decline was certainly bigger than forecasters expected. But it comes with a margin of error of plus or minus 11 percentage points. And yesterday’s existing home sales figure was up by more than expected. I’ll go with the verdict of Ian Shepherdson at High Frequency Economics: “this number tells us nothing at all about the future.”

So my attention drifted to the FT, where Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Perkins makes the point that, while the economic downturn that seems now to be fitfully receding into the past has been really bad, it hasn’t been nearly as bad as the economic downturn that followed the departure of the Romans from Britain in AD 410:

There was some continuity of production of the high-class metalwork needed by a warrior aristocracy to mark its wealth and status; but at the level of purely functional products there was startling change, all of it for the worse. Roman Britain had enjoyed an abundance of simple iron goods, documented by the many hob-nail boots and coffin-nails found in Roman cemeteries. These, like the coinage, disappeared early in the fifth century, as too did the industries that had produced abundant attractive and functional wheel-turned pottery. From the early fifth century, and for about 250 years, the potter’s wheel – that most basic tool, which enables thin-walled and smoothly finished vessels to be made in bulk – disappeared altogether from Britain.

But then, as soon as he’s got the reader happily thinking about how far from such privation we are today (we’ve still got potter’s wheels!), Ward-Perkins turns things around:

The more complex an economy is, the more fragile it is, and the more cataclysmic its disintegration can be. Our economy is, of course, in a different league of complexity to that of Roman Britain. Our pottery and metal goods are likely to have been made, not many miles away, but on the other side of the globe, while our main medium of exchange is electronic, and sometimes based on smoke and mirrors. If our economy ever truly collapses, the consequences will make fifth-century Britain seem like a picnic.

So that’s what Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner were trying to save us from in autumn 2008—a complete lack of pottery and metal goods. And they succeeded!

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