Commonwealth Journal

June 30, 2009

Thrift is good for us, government


Go ahead and save. It’s OK. The country will survive. In fact, over the long run, we’ll all be better off.

Thrift is a long-term choice individuals can make and that city, county, state and federal governments can benefit from. When the private sector saves, it gathers the capital needed to start and manage businesses. When government saves, the country discovers its best hedge against future economic crises. An America re-learning the value of saving holds down the deficit and provides itself its own nest egg so that it borrows less from other countries.

Polls are beginning to show that Americans are growing nervous about the amount of spending generated from Washington today. The skittishness is not limited to President Obama’s policies: recently, the House of Representatives voted itself an 8 percent increase in members’ office expenses (allowances were $580 million in 2008, $609 million this year).

Before victory in World War II propelled the United States to unheard-of prosperity, this capitalist society embraced thrift as a virtue. People tended to spend only on what they needed; there was little thought of keeping up with the Joneses.

But the 1950s changed all that. Suddenly, new and shiny goods flooded the market, the advertising age took hold, and America was transformed into a society where “consumerism” ruled. Almost overnight, as families moved from the fringes into the new middle class, it wasn’t good enough just to buy an item — it had to be traded in every year for the newest model.

That kind of consumerist society still exists. But whereas government bodies like the U.S. House add extravagance, more of our citizens are cutting back now, becoming more determined to spend their money more carefully. Many of them are like the shopper interviewed on network news last week, who promised she’d continue to watch her pennies even after the recession eases.

It isn’t only those who’ve lost jobs or have been laid off taking up the cause of thrift. It’s as if consumerism itself is taking a back seat to a healthy foresightedness.

Will we continue to think this way when the economy recovers? Perhaps we’re like the proverbial boatman who, about to drown, vows to God that he will turn over a new leaf if only the Almighty would intervene and save him — then, when the crisis passes, he reverts to his old self.

We will see. As for Washington, however, it’s impossible to revert to anything if it refuses to even make the vow.