June 11, 2008


The Great Seduction (DAVID BROOKS, 6/11/08, NY Times)

The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality. Millions of parents, preachers, newspaper editors and teachers expounded the message. The result was quite remarkable.

The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money. [...]

The deterioration of financial mores has meant two things. First, it’s meant an explosion of debt that inhibits social mobility and ruins lives. Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. By last year, it was up to $937 billion, the report said.

Second, the transformation has led to a stark financial polarization. On the one hand, there is what the report calls the investor class. It has tax-deferred savings plans, as well as an army of financial advisers. On the other hand, there is the lottery class, people with little access to 401(k)’s or financial planning but plenty of access to payday lenders, credit cards and lottery agents.

That $900+ billion sounds awfully big, until you realize that it's about one sixtieth of our household net worth, then it sounds like George Bailey's account at Mr. Gower's store.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2008 9:18 AM

All I want to know is... who gave Brooks the stupid pills?

Yeesh, the guy's stuff is degenerating at a terrific rate.

He's like already at Broder level and he's got what, 25 more years left as a columnist?

Oh brother...

Posted by: Benny at June 11, 2008 4:32 PM

Dude, even Andy Rooney was all like that whole article was just a cranky old guy ranting IT WAS BETTER IN THE OLD DAYS WHEN ALL THESE WHIPPERSNAPPERS AND THEIR DEBT AND WHAT WAS I TALKING ABOUT???

Posted by: Benny at June 11, 2008 4:35 PM

Brooks has always been an idiot, but since he's become the "conservative" voice at the Times, his idiocy has flourished and blossomed.

Posted by: erp at June 11, 2008 7:56 PM

Columnists and professional opinionators often stumble over the concept of "net assets." I felt that this example from Matt Yglesias was particularly egregious. 83% of US households had positive net assets (i.e. no net debt). 53% of US households had net assets greater than $50k. 9% had more that $500k. That's more than nine million households. You can find the data here.

Posted by: John Sterling at June 12, 2008 8:16 AM