Maybe thrift isn't dead after all. The Year of the Bottomless Bailout has yielded a much needed correction in the lives of ordinary Americans. While fiscal restraint is AWOL in Washington, individual frugality has made a cultural comeback. Better late than never.
In large and small ways, we are cutting back. An online Zogby International survey this week reported that 70 percent of households are foregoing movies and restaurants. Forty percent of those polled said they were delaying the purchase of major items such as automobiles, home entertainment electronics or a computer; the same percent said they were giving up vacations. Notably, Reuters pointed out, "nearly 80 percent of younger adults, aged 18-29, said they have scaled back on going out, compared to 55 percent of people 65 years and older."
Pollster John Zogby called the results "depressing." I beg to differ. Out of necessity, a consumption-based society is learning to live within its means. For decades, government policies fueled that insatiable appetite -- and new government programs are desperately trying to preserve it. But the Obama administration's frantic efforts to encourage more brainless home buying, car buying and consumer borrowing aren't producing their desired results. Generational theft, it seems, has a silver lining.
The phenomenon is spreading beyond America's borders. London-based economic journalist Hamish McRae recently observed: "We may be on the cusp of a big socioeconomic shift. We have had half a century when the developed world has gradually moved away from regarding thrift as a virtue. It has moved at different speeds in different countries, faster in the U.S. and UK than in Germany or China. … We have created the institutional structure that has supported this shift: from credit cards to collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The world has clearly reached a point where it can go no further down that road. … The pendulum will swing back. How far and how fast we cannot tell, but we can be sure that debt will be regarded differently a generation from now."
President Obama, celebrated by his liberal media admirers for a miraculous ability to groove with the common man, hasn't yet caught on to the new age of individual austerity. As always, he talks a good game of "personal responsibility" and "sacrifice." But while penny-pinching Americans head to Sonic Drive-Ins for $1 everyday value meals or stay at home for cheap cube-steak dinners (sales of the inexpensive meat are up 10 percent), the White House serves up high-grade Wagyu beef to congressional revelers. The luxury item was on the menu for the bipartisan stimulus dinner in January, and was also served at the governors' dinner hosted at the White House two weeks ago.
Team Obama's image experts, perhaps hung over from all the Camelot-re-creating Wednesday cocktail parties that are now a signature of the new administration, have fallen down on the job. The man who scolded Americans for wasting energy and turning their thermostats too high still hasn't lowered his own. "He's from Hawaii, OK?" senior adviser David Axelrod snickered to The New York Times in January. "He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there."
In flyover country, the mood could not be more different. Party time is over. I heard from a reader in northwest Arkansas, now upside down on her house with two college-age kids, who is preparing to tighten the family belt. President Obama, meet personal responsibility:
"We are ultimately responsible for the mess we are in. If my husband and I have to live in his pickup and get ready for work at the community gym, so be it. If we lose our jobs, we will move in with (my husband's) mother, and he will hunt and I will garden. We have never been on unemployment, welfare or other assistance. We are Americans. Our ancestors fought in the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and his brother fought in Vietnam. Our family has faced tougher foes than this economy and Barack Obama. We will do as true Americans do; we will not whine, we will persevere."
Waste not, want not: Outside of Washington, it's the renewed American way.