TOM UTLEY: Now I know why I’m baffled by the financial crisis. I have a terrible case of ‘dad brain’

How I laughed, many years ago, when the Foreign Editor of the London-based paper for which I then worked described his struggle to explain a simple point of economics to the woman in overall charge of his annual budget for overseas bureaux.

The point he was trying to get across to her was that the pound’s recent plunge against the deutsche mark (I told you this was years ago) would mean she’d have to allocate more sterling to the Berlin office, whose clerical and cleaning staff were paid in that old, pre-euro German currency.

For what seemed like hours, the woman with the purse-strings was baffled — until at last the cloud of confusion appeared to lift from her brain.

‘Oh, I see,’ she said. ‘Our pounds buy fewer deutsche marks, so we’ll have to spend more of them to cover our wages bill in Berlin.’

‘By George, she’s got it!’ thought my friend the Foreign Editor, and he left her to adjust her budgets for the following year accordingly.

But then minutes later, there came a tap on his office door, and she reappeared. ‘Hang on a moment,’ she said. ‘If the deutsche mark is strong, then why does the Berlin office need more money? Surely it needs less . . .’

Clearly, her eureka moment had passed, as quickly as it had come. My friend buried his head in his hands, and explained it all over again, until finally the message sank in.

As I say, the poor woman’s bewilderment struck me as hilarious when I heard about it all those years ago, in my arrogant youth. But, believe me, I don’t find it remotely amusing any more. For the pity of it is that I’m fast becoming exactly like her.

How I laughed, many years ago, when the Foreign Editor of the London-based paper for which I then worked described his struggle to explain a simple point of economics to the woman in overall charge of his annual budget for overseas bureaux. (Stock image)

Misery

Indeed, every time a new economic crisis like the current one blows up, I read and re-read the idiots’ guides in the newspapers, struggling afresh to get my head around the reasons why we find ourselves in this mess.

You know the sort of stuff. It’s all about gilt yields, derivatives, put-options, call-options, petrodollars, the supply side, interest-rate swaps and fluctuations in exchange rates and the money supply.

These are things I once thought I more or less understood, when they were explained to me patiently (though I’m not at all sure that I ever quite grasped the meaning of a derivative, even when it was described to me in baby-talk).

Today, however, it’s a very different story. True, there are still moments when I think, as I read those idiots’ guides: ‘Ah, yes! I’ve got it now!’

But then I put on the kettle for a cup of tea, and by the time it has boiled I find I’ve completely forgotten everything I thought I understood, and I have to start reading again from the beginning.

Oh, the misery of feeling my mental powers decline with every passing month, as I fast approach my 70th year.

How many like me, I wonder, find ourselves almost daily trudging upstairs to retrieve our spectacles from the bedside table — only to find, the moment we reach the bedroom, that the purpose of our mission has totally slipped our minds?

How many of us constantly forget our computer passwords, or find it increasingly impossible to follow the convoluted plots of the latest detective thrillers on TV?

In the past, I’ve always attributed my mental deterioration simply to the passage of the years and the corrosive effect on my brain cells of a lifetime spent drinking much more alcohol than the nanny state and its agents recommend.

But I’m delighted to see that many of us now have a new excuse for our forgetfulness and any difficulties we may experience in understanding concepts that were once well within our grasp.

Such, anyway, appeared to be the message of this week’s headlines, proclaiming that fathers’ brains shrink when their children are born.

The theory, as put forward by the University of California, is that our brains change physically when we become parents, in order to help us empathise with the new arrival.

If I understand the research — and I readily admit that I almost certainly don’t, since it’s all about cerebral cortices, neuroplasticity and synaptic connections — the idea is that we start thinking a bit more like babies, so that we get on with them better.

Our brains change physically when we become parents, in order to help us empathise with the new arrival, according to new research. (Stock image)

Or does it just mean that parenthood changes the shape of our brains to make us soppier, more inclined to coo over our infants, and perhaps more tolerant of those sleepless nights and streaks of posset down the backs of our shirts? Search me.

All I know for sure, from long and bitter experience, is that fatherhood definitely shrinks the wallet.

Whatever the truth, however, the upshot of this research appears to be that it’s not just mums who experience baby-brain. It’s dads too.

No wonder, then, that as a father of four, and grandfather of two (with more on the way), I find it increasingly hard to grasp the complexities of the City and the economy. From now on, I’ll put it down simply to the possibility that my brain has shrunk a little bit more, with the birth of every new Utley.

There are one or two truths about the economy and finance, however, which nobody needs a huge brain to understand. How extraordinary, then, that so many of our legislators, on both sides of the Commons, seem wholly incapable of grasping them.

For a start, this country simply cannot afford to go on printing and borrowing money at anything like the rate we’ve seen over the past few years. We are already £2.4 trillion in debt, for heaven’s sake, with the bills for interest alone already larger than the defence budget — and mounting terrifyingly by the day.

Surely it must be clear, even to the tiniest brain, that there are only two possible ways out of this hole: either the Government must take urgent steps to expand the economy, so as to make us better able to repay what we owe; or it must cut back its spending radically. Or, preferably, both.

You don’t need a giant brain to understand that each new pound they print, with nothing to back it up, makes every pound in our pockets worth a fraction less. (Stock image)

Desperate

Yet every suggestion of ways to promote growth — even those as blindingly obvious as authorising fracking, offering businesses and entrepreneurs tax incentives to invest here, or relaxing the building and planning restrictions that deter every kind of economic activity — is met with howls of angry protest, even from the Tory benches.

As for the wailing and gnashing of teeth that greets any hint of a cut in Government spending, it can be heard all the way from Westminster to Land’s End and John o’ Groats.

Yet we all know that unimaginable sums are wasted by the state every day. Why on Earth, for example, should millionaire pensioners be offered winter fuel handouts and free travel? It’s as if every benefit ever introduced by a vote-hungry politician is now regarded by MPs as a basic human right.

So instead of endorsing any constructive plan to tackle the country’s woes, Parliament simply buries its collective head in the sand, leaving the authorities to go on printing money in a desperate attempt to keep the economy afloat.

Meanwhile, you don’t need a giant brain to understand that each new pound they print, with nothing to back it up, makes every pound in our pockets worth a fraction less.

In my arrogant youth, before my own brain started shrinking, I thought you’d have to travel far and wide to find anyone as hilariously ignorant of basic economics as the lady in charge of fixing the budgets for those overseas bureaux. But at least she got the point in the end.

Don’t you wish we could say the same of the people we elected to represent us?

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