Joseph Epstein On The American Spirit of Thrift

Live within your means; waste not, want not; always put something aside for a rainy day—everyone of a certain age in America knows the litany of these platitudes about thrift. Banal though they may be, their banality does not make them less true. They are eminently sensible; barring cruel cataclysmic events—early death by accident or illness, worldwide economic depression—they tend to work. Those of us old enough to have had parents who lived through the Depression had the habits of thrift imbued in us along with an ingrained disbelief in life as limitless progress. We were instructed that life, like Greek plays, features peripeteia, or reversals of fortune. Prepare for it. Turn off the lights when you leave a room, finish the food on your plate, thoroughly squeeze the toothpaste tube, forget about the stretch limo.

Because they feel wasteful, many are the things those of us who grew up in the aftermath of the Depression cannot do: buy the hundred-dollar bottle of wine, wear cashmere socks, fail to ask the price of things. I remember reading that Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who got in trouble in the 1980s for insider trading, unable to make up his mind in restaurants about what to eat, used to order as many as six entrees so that he could taste them all before choosing the one he wished to tuck into. Hearses, true enough, do not come with luggage racks, which is to say that you can't take your money with you when you die, but this went way too far.

Carefully managing one's resources implies living by a certain unspoken game plan. Under the traditional American program of thrift, one would earn and save and, through extended effort, rise in one's work, building a nest egg through savings and circumspect investments, and end one's days in independence and security. Thrift was not a brake on ambition, but it qualified it, for by its nature thrift implies conservation; future-minded, it takes into account the long run. One of the things that has subtly yet substantially changed in American life over the past quarter century or so is this traditional game plan. Generations have come into the world with not even secondhand memory of economic depression, or even serious reversals. They have known relentless, progressive prosperity, ridden escalators that went only up, up, up. Onward and upward, until these past few months, when the economic meltdown set in, is all they had experienced.

If the old game plan for American ambition entailed the slow but steady accretion of wealth, the new plan called for getting it now, lots of it, and as soon as possible. The spirit of getting it now became evident when, 20 or so years ago, the best of American university students made plain their desire to land jobs with McKinsey & Associates and other consulting firms, hoping thereby to gain an inside track on the way to fast fortune. Business schools enjoyed a great boom. The very brightest M.B.A.s all wanted to sign on with hedge funds, where they hoped to make a quick $20 million or $30 million and retire at, say, 35.

This spirit is distinctly not the spirit of thrift. At a lower level of ambition, neither of course was the spirit of thrift to be found in the millions of Americans who allowed themselves to lapse into heavy credit-card debt or bought houses they couldn't afford, thinking, hope against hope, that they could somehow swing it, that something, surely, would turn up that would allow them to live beyond their means in perpetuity. All this conduct was hopelessly optimistic, with consequences that have only now been revealed, while thrift, behind which lies the suspicion that the something likely to turn up won't be good, is properly pessimistic.

The recent global economic meltdown has put paid to unfettered financial optimism. But will it restore the spirit of thrift to Americans in their economic behavior? Hard to predict, of course, especially when government financing, backed into the corner of the present crisis, is far from being able to practice thrift. Quite the reverse. Balanced budgets, we have been told, are a thing of the past, and not likely to be part of the immediate future. The necessary thing, we are also told, is to get credit flowing again, to trigger people's spending, so that the economy can swing back into action. In all this, the practice of thrift doesn't really come into the conversation. Thrift is at its base anti-Keynesian. Lord Keynes, after all, said that "in the long run we are all dead." He also said, "The engine which drives enterprise is not thrift, but profit."

Is it possible to spend and yet not be spendthrift? It once was and had better be again, or we may all have had the course. (The name of the course is Western Civilization, Decline and Fall.) I don't have enough knowledge of etymology to know whether thrift is the root of the word "thrive," or thrive the root of the word "thrift," but no nation can hope to thrive without the ethos of thrift at its core. With our recent penchant for McMansions, Hummers, $6,000 wristwatches, gourmet dog food and other items of opulent squalor, Americans could do worse than relearn, in fact memorize, the useful platitudes of thrift.

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