Culture of consumption
Mark Brown wishes his clients would think more about the future. But when deciding whether to buy a new Chevy truck or to set aside $300 a month for retirement, they more often opt for a pickup over peace of mind.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Brown, owner of the Brown Insurance Agency in Biddeford, Maine, says even people in this blue-collar town, who have struggled to make ends meet for most of the past century, have little instinct to save.
"Unemployment is higher and incomes are lower, but they still want to use the money now," says Brown, "and they can't foresee a day they might be sorry."
It was against this backdrop of day-to-day consumer behavior that Brown viewed President Bush's successful push to cut Americans' taxes by $350 billion over the next 10 years.
And it was with disbelief that Brown listened to Bush consistently say the tax cut would, first and foremost, allow consumers to go to malls, department stores, and car dealerships - and spend.
"My fear is we'll continue to borrow and borrow and spend," says Brown, who expects to use the $800 he'll receive this summer in child tax credits to pay for his oldest son's college tuition. "It's not part of our political culture now to tell people to tighten their belts."
And yet many experts believe the call to spend might be sounding increasingly hollow. With the US boldly deciding the fate of nations overseas, and assuming record levels of debt at home, the temperament of the nation, say experts, seems more suited to a message of fiscal prudence.
"As a country, we also have an ethic of frugality," says Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates balanced budgets. "Americans always feel you should pay your bills, and I think this tax cut was pretty much forced on them."
Without calling for an immediate downshift in spending, some observers are growing increasingly critical of what they describe as the nation's knee-jerk culture of consumption.
Business and government have come to portray consumption as a panacea for a variety of public ills. Consumer-confidence data, which many economists say are at best ambiguous, are now examined like tea leaves by marketers and media.
More important, the spending boosterism has ensnared, in part, a record number of Americans in bankruptcy and debt.
In response, experts are reexamining the context in which the nation's consumer culture was born, and asking whether it might be time to shape a more balanced ethic of saving and spending in America.
"This pattern isn't sustainable even in the short term," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. "There's a lot of anxiety [among the public] over how consumers are spending their money."
For the most part, they are spending too much, say some experts. Consider the drop in Americans' personal savings. In the 1980s, consumers saved about 10 percent of their disposable income. Last year, they tucked away only 3.7 percent.
One consequence: Personal debt has soared. Consumers owed an average of $8,940 in credit-card debt last year, up from $3,275 in 1992. Overall, they owe more than $1.7 trillion in credit-card bills, up from $1.1 trillion in 1995.
Partly as a result of tax cuts to fuel spending, the federal government's debt also is growing dramatically. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2005, say observers, the government will accumulate about $400 billion in added debt.