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Culture of consumption

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The endemic fiscal risk-taking probably exceeds many Americans' level of comfort, say experts. "It's all very disquieting for people who have traditionally believed in the importance of balancing their accounts," says Mr. Bixby.

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Western notions of frugality and fiscal prudence have held a significant place in American intellectual thought from the 17th century to present day. Adherents of the ethic often make their voices heard on the public stage in cycles. Many observers cite the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot, fueled largely by public distress over government debt, as one of the most prominent contemporary examples.

This temperament of austerity intensifies during conflict. During the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon Johnson promised America could produce both guns and butter, the antiwar movement still took a strong anticonsumption turn.

"During war, people often don't want business as usual," says Lawrence Glickman, a professor of US economic history at the University of South Carolina.

Even during peace, Americans have never easily accepted the ethic of consumption. In a recent study of American literature, Professor Glickman found very few examples of writers who celebrated spending money and buying products.

"You would think this would be a great American genre," says Glickman. "But there's a sense in America that consumption couldn't be an unmitigated good."

And yet the idea that steady and even rising spending by consumers is vital to the well-being of the nation has been generally accepted by many Americans for more than 50 years.

"The idea that we have recessions because of insufficient consumer demand still has a vise-grip on the way Americans think about the economy," says Stephen Moore, an economist at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank. "Almost every newspaper article you read about the economy implies that consumers have to keep spending or the economy will sink."

Experts point to the theories of early 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes to explain contemporary America's infatuation with consumer behavior.

Keynes said that the economic depressions that rocked the US and Europe during the 1930s resulted from a lack of consumer demand. To keep the economy strong, he argued, governments should stoke consumption.

Once the nation's factories were at full strength following World War II, US officials began implementing Keynes's theories, shaping a consumer culture in which families were capable of buying all that American factories could produce.

The new era of consumption, say experts, grew out of a coordinated effort on the part of leaders across a broad swath of American life, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Madison Avenue.

"Various groups in power and authority came together around the notion that they could build a prosperous economy based on the idea of mass consumption," says Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard University historian and author of "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America." "It was a strategic, concerted effort to get people to buy."

Spending as patriotic duty

Part of the consumer revolution required businesses to convince Depression-wary consumers that spending was not entirely selfish. Even then, many did so by arguing that consumers had a patriotic duty to open their pocketbooks.