His portrayal of Stan Butler did much to perpetuate the image of the 1970s worker as a bone-idle work-dodger; we forget today just how enormously popular On the Buses was. And this in turn might subconsciously have contributed to the popularity of Thatcherism. How many of those who, when asked by Tories in 1979 whether the working class had become too big for its boots, conjured up a picture of Stan Butler and so voted for Thatcher?
There’s more. As Andrew reminds us, Reg Varney was the first man in the world to use a cash point machine. In doing so, he might have kicked off two effects.
One is a tolerance of inflation. One of the drawbacks of inflation is that it forces us to economize on holding cash, as inflation erodes its value. We therefore make more trips to the bank, incurring what economists call shoe-leather costs - costs which are more significant than you might think. It was for this reason that Mr Varney’s less illustrious near-contemporary Milton Friedman thought that the optimum rate of inflation was negative.
However, the invention of the ATM helped make it much easier to get cash out of the bank. This fall in shoe leather costs for technological reasons offset part of the normal cost of inflation, which helped make people less intolerant of it.
Is it really a coincidence that inflation began to rise as the cash point machine, as popularized by Mr Varney, became more widely used? I think not.
There’s a second effect of its spread, however, which has only become appreciated in light of the rise in behavioural economics.
The easier availability of cash has reduced one constraint on our spending. Before Mr Varney used the cash point, impulse buying of good or sessions down the pub were constrained by the fact that cash was hard to obtain. After that fateful day, however, the constraint came down. If you think of consumers as rational far-sighted maximizers the effect on spending should have been minimal. But if people lack self-control, the spread of the ATM would have raised spending.
Maybe, then, Mr Varney is partly to blame for the low savings ratio.
His impact upon the economy has, therefore, been arguably quite malevolent. But then, he is not the only great TV character of whom this can be said.