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Geoff Colvin
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We're a nation helpless to save ourselves
Living beyond our means hasn't caught up with us -- yet.

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Sometimes one of the day's great issues does us the favor of pounding us on the head so hard we can't ignore it, and one of them has done that just lately. The issue is saving vs. consuming, prudence vs. profligacy, later vs. now. It's everywhere:

  • The debate over Social Security reform is turning nasty -- witness the vituperative dueling ads from AARP and USA Next -- highlighting the bitter reality that most baby-boomers haven't saved enough for their imminent retirement.
  • We've just learned that January earned the dubious distinction of marking not only America's largest ever budget deficit, meaning the federal government spent far more than it took in, but also one of America's largest ever trade deficits, meaning we as a nation bought much more from other nations than they bought from us, so we essentially put the difference on our credit card.
  • Warren Buffett published his annual letter to shareholders, arguing passionately that our stupendous trade deficit -- our insistence on giving away claims on our future just so we can continue shopping the world -- is turning us into a "sharecropper's society."
  • A new bankruptcy bill is about to become law as personal bankruptcies rocket. Last year more than a million of us were under so much debt that we were willing to give up almost everything we owned just to get that debt canceled.
  • A new book, American Mania: When More is Not Enough, argues that we Americans are uniquely driven to be hyperconsumers, even though it's making us miserable.

That's a striking confluence of indicators. The overwhelming impression is that we're a society living way beyond our means and seemingly helpless to save ourselves. The inescapable big question is whether we're headed for some kind of crisis or maybe just a gradual descent into misery -- or whether all the handwringing is merely the latest installment in a long tradition of fretting over American acquisitiveness, which has never proven justified.

I'm afraid I tend toward the gloomy view, though deeply mindful of that view's incredibly poor record. The twin deficits (trade and budget) were a favorite worry of the late 1980s; they were followed by a particularly mild recession and then the longest economic expansion in history. In the early 1980s personal debt was going to be our downfall, yet somehow it wasn't.

More broadly, our rejection of the Protestant ethic of delayed gratification has been apparent since the rise of mass consumption in the 1920s. Harvard sociologist (and former FORTUNE writer) Daniel Bell made the case acutely in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, published in 1976. His argument was irrefutable -- the hard requirements of economic life are at war with the live-for-the-moment ethos of the culture -- yet America has kept right on growing, our living standard rising, our life expectancy increasing, and we've remained the envy of the world.

In short, if profligacy is a disease, then we've managed it mighty well, and why should we believe that after all this time it's finally going to hurt us? For at least a couple of reasons. One, the cultural trend has been running in one direction for a long time now, toward greater glorification of spending and acceptance of borrowing. Saving may be a virtue, but it's just not cool. After years of decline, our savings rate is down around 1% of income, the world's lowest. That marks a genuine difference with the past, and it's cumulative: The longer it goes on, the harder to escape it becomes.

Two, the aging of the baby-boomers creates unique financial stresses. America's most pampered and self-obsessed generation hasn't prepared itself for retirement and, as usual, expects someone else to bail it out. Trouble is, succeeding generations aren't big enough or rich enough to handle the job. That's a new conflict.

None of that means the dollar must tank or interest rates explode, as some fear. The unwinding could be far more gradual. The result, years from now, could be Americans paying unimagined portions of their income to cover their parents' and their own debts (personal and national) and to pay interest and dividends to the foreigners who financed our long shopping spree. That experience could even be as traumatic as the Depression was for an earlier generation and lead, as it did then, to a generation of champion savers and investors.

That is, America could come out stronger -- eventually. I believe it always does. The question is how much pain we'll need to turn us around. Right now it's looking like a lot.

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