For nearly 3 million years of human history, saving and investment was a dumb idea. We hunted, we gathered, we consumed, and we moved on to greener pastures. Only when migrating tribes learned to settle down and farm did they need to save and plan, storing seeds and surpluses to tide them over from season to season. We've had 10,000 years to absorb the truth that cultures that don't value THRIFT ultimately flame out and die. Apparently that isn't long enough to learn the lesson.
Judging from tales about the rise and fall of empires, there is always a point when things are going so well that the emperors doubt that anything could ever go wrong. "THRIFT," warned Nero's adviser Seneca, "comes too late when you find it at the bottom of your purse." In the Old World, nations grew fat and then lazy, until they collapsed under their own weight. But that was not to be our story. American greatness--the vision of the founders, the courage of the pioneers, the industry of the nation builders--reflected a mighty faith in the power of sacrifice as a muscle that made young nations strong. Banks were like gyms for the soul: the first savings banks in Boston and New York were organized as charities, where "humble journeymen" could exercise good judgment, store their money and not be tempted to waste it on drink. Architect Louis Sullivan carved the word THRIFT over the door of his "jewel box" bank nearly a century ago, for it was private virtue that made public prosperity possible.
That virtue died with the baby boom, but it had been ailing ever since the Depression, argues cultural historian David Tucker in The Decline of THRIFT in America. That crisis, he writes, invited economists to recast THRIFT as "the contemptible vice which threw sand in the gears of our consumer economy." A White House report in 1931 urged parents to let children pick out their own clothes and furniture, thereby creating in the child "a sense of personal as well as family pride in ownership, and eventually teaching him that his personality can be expressed through things." These days you can buy your baby daughter a BORN TO SHOP onesie with little pink purses on it.
Somewhere along the way, THRIFT did not just stop being a value; it became a folly. Saving was for suckers; you'd miss the ride, die leaving money on the table when you could have lived it up. There are no pockets in a shroud, as the saying goes. We once saved about 15% of our income. By the roaring '80s the rate was 4%; now we're in negative numbers. Bob Hope liked to joke that "a bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don't need it." But that too changed as easy credit bloomed and usury became another of those vices that had somehow lost its juice. The average American has nine credit cards with a total $17,000 balance. We borrow against our houses and pensions to live in a way that dares us to actually grow old. "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon," Fidelity mastermind Peter Lynch advised, but we embraced all kinds of investments about which we understood nothing except the hollow promise that they would never fail. When the economy began to swoon we kept spending, effectively sending ourselves rebate checks from accounts already way overdrawn, as if it would make us feel better to buy a new TV and charge it to our kids. States fund their schools, which among other things are meant to turn children into responsible adults, by selling lottery tickets.
George W. Bush has never been reluctant to frame policy debates in moral terms, targeting an "axis of evil," casting tax cuts as the removal of "unfair burdens" on hardworking people, calling tariff reduction a "moral imperative." But THRIFT is one virtue he never invokes, and a restoration of restraint is a strain of conservatism he seldom promotes. In fact, it was after the most tragic day in modern U.S. history, when Bush urged people who wanted to help to "go shopping," that profligacy officially replaced prudence as a patriotic duty.
There's no way to tell during this current distress whether we're repenting or just retrenching. THRIFT-store sales are up. Cars are shrinking. P. Diddy retired his private jet to save on gas. In hard times, people often rediscover the peace that prudence brings, when you try to spend a little less than you have because tomorrow might be worse. But that feels almost un-American; we're optimists by nature, and we've been living large for so long that solvency feels like a sacrifice. It will take some sustained character education--and leadership--to understand that morning in America is more likely to come again if we prepare for midnight.