Don't spend more than you make. Don't buy things you don't need. Save for a rainy day. If Americans had followed these simple rules over the past decade, there would be no financial crisis, no worst-since-the-1930s recession, no acrimonious Washington debate over what to do about it.
Now we seem to be starting to rediscover thrift. Debt levels are falling. Consumer spending is down. The savings rate is on the rise. Great, right? Not exactly. The sudden sobering up of the American consumer happens to be the No. 1 force driving the U.S. and global economies downward. We're saving more, yet we're all getting poorer.
This is what some economists call the paradox of thrift. The notion is generally credited to Englishman John Maynard Keynes--seemingly the source of every important economic idea these days--although he doesn't appear to have actually used the phrase. Paul McCulley, an economist and portfolio manager at bond giant Pimco, defines it like this: "If we all individually cut our spending in an attempt to increase individual savings, then our collective savings will paradoxically fall because one person's spending is another's income--the fountain from which savings flow." (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)
So what do we do about this? During the last recession, in 2001, President Bush famously urged the American people to get out and shop--and visit Disney World--to thwart the downturn. We did, and the recession was mild. It was followed, though, by an explosion of debt and imprudence. The savings rate (the percentage of personal income left after spending) fell below 1% for the first time since the early 1930s and stayed there from 2005 through 2007. Millions of Americans spent trillions of dollars on things--houses, mainly--they couldn't afford.
A painful reckoning was inevitable. And so now, while retailers and a few economists still make the case that more consumer spending would be a really great thing, our nation's political leaders have concluded that it's too soon to issue calls for more shopping. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt makes a clever pitch for spending now on things that will save you money later--such as Kindles and Costco memberships. But that's not going to stave off depression. And so government indebtedness and spending are being substituted for consumer indebtedness and spending. The federal deficit is projected to hit $1.2 trillion this year, and that's not counting the close to $1 trillion in further stimulus being contemplated by Congress.
This kind of behavior, contends McCulley, is what the paradox of thrift demands. "Uncle Sam has got to go the other direction and lever up his balance sheet and actually spend money," he says. Simply standing by and letting the downward economic spiral worsen strikes him as "inconsistent with a civilized society."
Still, the approach remains paradoxical. Our profligacy has gotten us into trouble, and so the response is ... more profligacy? There is no shortage of critics who contend that today's massive government spending is simply laying the foundation of another financial crisis, this one centering on a loss of confidence in Treasuries and the dollar.
For now, we're betting that it won't--and investors from around the world are letting us get away with it by continuing to buy U.S.-government debt. We will, however, eventually have to shape up. Consumers must pay down their credit cards, and the country must pay down at least part of its debt. "Some of the painful adjustments that are taking place are not avoidable," says David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, a New York City think tank that for the past few years has made an obsession of thrift. "Wringing debt out of our economy at every level is a painful and inevitable process, and it isn't going to be solved by charging more things at the supermarket."
Blankenhorn isn't opposed to using government stimulus to ease the transition, but he's worried that it could obscure the need for big changes in behavior. "If the moral of today's crisis is 'Let's stimulate this and bail out that, and as soon as things get back to normal, we can go back to a debt culture,' that's just not a sustainable idea," he says.
He's right. Virtually all economists agree that there is no paradox of thrift in the long run. Saving stimulates investment. Careful stewardship of resources brings prosperity. Frugality is its own reward. Just not right this second.