However, his claim has some substance:
1. There’s some evidence that recessions do, as Lansley claims, cause people to live healthier. Smoking and obesity decline in recessions. And deaths from several (pdf) causes fall in recessions.
2. Recessions are minority activities. In the 1989-91 downturn, the worst-affected 20% of firms accounted for 94% of gross job losses. The vast majority of us keep our jobs in a recession. Which means that we gain in several ways. It’s easier to book restaurants and theatre tickets, and to get cabs; I spent a large part of the last recession being driven around in a big Merc. And of course inflation comes down - which is a considerable improvement in welfare.
3. It is possible that recessions help improve long-run growth by cleansing the economy of lame ducks.
4. People are not so risk-averse that fluctuations in average living standards over time cause them pain. In this sense, as Robert Lucas has demonstrated (pdf), the bad thing about recession is not that GDP falls 1-2%, but that the costs of the downturn fall disproportionately upon some people and we don’t have adequate institutions for spreading this risk.
These claims are of course arguable. But they are reasonable. They are certainly more so than the notion which I fear underpins some of the hysteria surrounding recession - the idea that all is well if the economy grows but catastrophic if it doesn’t.
Lansley’s cringing apology, then, represents a bad day for democracy. It shows us that our party system stops some quite reasonable beliefs from being considered.