Western voters face a choice: peace in Ukraine or keeping on the air con

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Hurrah for Mario Draghi, prime minister of Italy. A decade ago, he promised to do “whatever it takes” to protect the euro, an iconic phrase that shaped policymaking in subsequent years.

Now he has produced another pithy salvo. Last week, he was challenged about what Italy might do if the EU boycotted Russian energy, given that gas supplies from Russia account for around 40 per cent of Italian energy.

Draghi replied he would join the boycott, irrespective of the cost. “Do we want to have peace or do we want to have the air conditioning on?” he asked. In other words: is the public willing to make sacrifices for the collective good?

It is a crucial question to ponder now, not just in Europe, but in the US too. In recent decades, the word “sacrifice” has not often graced the lips of western economists or politicians (except, perhaps, during the religious festivals of Easter and Passover).

After all, back in 1979 Margaret Thatcher, former UK prime minister, famously claimed there was “no such thing” as society. Ever since, politicians have assumed that the best way to win votes is by appealing to economic self-interest. And late 20th-century economists have also generally taken it for granted that consumers were atomised, profit-maximising — selfish — creatures. The idea of “sacrifice” was not something plugged into econometric models, or investors’ efficient market frameworks.

But right now the slippery issue of social cohesion matters enormously. The war in Ukraine has already caused energy costs to rise, contributing to a shocking 8.5 per cent US inflation number this week. Some European companies are braced for energy rationing this winter.

And a new Bank of America survey shows that investors are gloomier about the economic outlook than they have been for a quarter of a century. In plain English, stagflation looms. And with it a key question arises: can western societies calmly absorb and share this pain? Is there enough social cohesion — and readiness for sacrifice?

The only honest answer is that we do not (yet) know, since the invasion is “only” two months old. But there are three key points worth noting.

The first is that cultural attitudes to sacrifice clearly vary. Consider Japan. Twenty-five years ago I worked there and was constantly struck by the degree to which pain-sharing permeated almost every policy and corporate response to the country’s financial crash and subsequent stagnation. When companies needed to cut labour costs, for example, they typically started by cutting everyone’s salary — rather than “just firing workers, and paying a CEO more, as Americans do,” as one Japanese banker joked to me.

Similarly, when I asked local asset managers why they kept buying Japanese government bonds that would probably suffer future haircuts, I was told that losses were more acceptable if widely shared. And when the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred in 2011, the Japanese public switched off the air conditioning during a sweltering summer for the sake of setsuden, or collective energy conservation. This week, Tokyo embraced setsuden again to prevent blackouts.

It is hard to imagine the American public, or most of their European counterparts for that matter, championing setsuden on this scale now; in flies in the face of individualist ideals. In early March, an Ispos Reuters poll suggested that four out of five Americans backed a Russia energy boycott, even with higher fuel prices. A subsequent Pew poll also indicated that 70 per cent consider Russia an enemy. Meanwhile, 74 per cent of Europeans told a Euroskopia poll that they supported Europe’s fight for Ukraine.

However, polls also suggest that Americans and Europeans are angry about inflation and the economic squeeze, and liable to blame their leaders. And in practical terms, there is little sign that Americans, or Europeans, are conserving energy right now.

But the second point is that while cultural patterns matter, in ways that economists sometimes ignore, social attitudes can change. Before Covid, it was hard to imagine that Americans or Europeans would accept face masks or lockdowns, which were associated with Asian cultures. No longer.

And while the word “sacrifice” seems unfashionable in western political discourse today, it was dominant during the second world war. As recently as 1978 Jimmy Carter, then US president, explicitly called on the American public “to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices” with their energy usage during the oil embargo, in a way that would “test the character of the American people and the ability of the president and the Congress to govern this nation”. Nothing like this has yet emerged from Joe Biden.

That leads to the third key point: leadership matters, alongside culture, when it comes to pain-sharing. Merely blaming Vladimir Putin, Russian president, for energy price increases is not enough to create social cohesion; nor is releasing oil reserves. If Europe and America are going to back Ukraine effectively, politicians need to take a leaf out of Draghi’s book and tell voters that they face making sacrifices.

Moreover, the degree to which they do this will affect economic outcomes: a society with stronger social cohesion will be better equipped to withstand stagflation. Perhaps Draghi and Biden, or France’s Emmanuel Macron, should take look at Japan, and work out this Easter how to make setsuden sound exciting in their own tongues — after turning down their own air con.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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