Friday, June 13, 2008

America's Thrift Deficit

Why did Americans stop saving? Although the report doesn't get to the bottom of the sources of easy money, a new think tank report summarizes some of the more proximate problems ably, and proposes a number of useful solutions including a move to taxing consumption instead of income.

The report is summarized in The American Interest by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. A quote:

Why are so many Americans struggling with high levels of debt? Some blame individual greed and recklessness, and certainly human frailty and irresponsible choices are part of the story. Others point to a culture of rampant, corporate-driven consumerism, buttressed by marketing techniques so sophisticated as to exceed the imagination of George Orwell himself. If you can find someone who honestly denies that this is part of the problem, sell him a bridge before it’s too late. But soaring levels of household debt are also tied to another, often overlooked, source: recent changes in America’s institutional and regulatory landscape.

Both statistical evidence and common sense make it clear that this is so. As to the former, many other countries in the world are similarly embedded in a corporate market economy, yet few other advanced countries confront a debt debacle comparable to that of the United States. The variable that can most readily explain the data is the different institutional/regulatory environments in different countries.

As to common sense, it is evident that in money matters, as in most things that matter, authoritative institutions play a role in guiding individual choices and in setting cultural norms. Few people understand the full range of forces affecting them, or have time to acquire the knowledge and self-discipline necessary to make informed decisions.

That’s where authoritative institutions come in. They establish the norms, conventions and values that vest individual decision-making with broader social wisdom and knowledge. But not all institutional set-ups are created equal. Some inculcate norms and values that foster unwise choices or contribute to unjust outcomes. Such is the case in today’s American debt culture. Newly powerful and aggressive anti-thrift institutions are promoting behaviors and attitudes that have undermined our nation’s traditional culture of thrift. (

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. This essay is excerpted and adapted from For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture, a report released in May by the Commission on Thrift, co-sponsored by the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, the New America Foundation, Public Agenda, Demos, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. Sources for all data can be found in the full report.

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