January 22, 2012


Sheldon Garon, Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2012) ("Politicians and historians often talk of 'American exceptionalism.' What each regards as distinctive about the American experience varies, but generally they highlight freedom, individualism, egalitarianism, risk-taking, and laissez-faire. There is, to be sure, something self-congratulatory and insular in this selection. Curiously, few Americans consider what has struck so many foreign observers as exceptional about the United States over the past 150 years. To an uncanny degree, travelers remark upon American abundance, excessive consumption, and the weak spirit of thrift." Id. at 84. "America's fixation on consumption reached new heights following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush became the first modern president who did not propose higher and greater savings to finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the House of Representatives passed legislation giving the Treasury Department the authority to issue "Patriot Bonds," the Bush administration did its best to neuter the program. It was more important, spokesmen insisted, to encourage consumers to spend to 'fight global terrorism.' Best remembered was President Bush's advice just two weeks after 9/11. Americans should respond to the terrorists by getting 'down to Disney World . . . and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.' Advertising campaigns that autumn urged Americans to shop to demonstrate their patriotism. Don't 'let the terrorists get you down,' trumpeted car manufacturers offering free credit. At Christmastime 2006, even as several prominent economists predicted the imminent bursting of the housing bubble, Mr. Bush fell back on the familiar: 'I encourage you all to go shopping more.' " Id. at 331-332.).

Louis Hyman, Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2011) ("The instruments of debt changed after 1970, but the more essential difference for borrowers was their place in the productive economy. . . . The balance of power in capitalism was not determined by the interest rate caps for consumers, but whether they were able to pay back what they borrowed, Thirty years of wage stagnation made paying back those debts through anything but accidental asset inflation--homes and home equities--impossible. In the 1990s, the full flower of deindustrialization pummeled not only blue- but white-collar America as well." "While a generation of postwar consumers could safely borrow against rising incomes, the promise on which American prosperity had been built now cracked. The evanescent promise of getting a good-paying job that a generation earlier would have been seen as a sure path to upward mobility, only led in the 1990s to increased debt and certain bankruptcy after that job was downsized. Even those with college educations found themselves downsized in the 1990s as information technology increased the efficiency of office work and their wages converged with high school graduates. The only educational group that received a substantial increase in income during the 1990s was those with graduate degrees. Those best-educated workers, who could multiply their efforts through the new information technology of models and data, produced tremendous profits for their firms, and were amply rewarded. If their models put others to the brink of bankruptcy, for those who created them the models produced untold fortunes." "Credit issuers may have found the revolvers, and even pressured them to borrow, but the labor markets kept them in debt. While issuers struggled to push and to prod borrowers into not paying their bills, capitalism did their job for them--and did so effortlessly. Consumers borrowed more because their lives were more volatile and because credit card debt, on average, was a more profitable investment for banks than other investments. The same banal and brutal process of allocating capital that had made postwar America prosperous had come to undermine its long-term viability." Id. at 279-280. Too bad they done teach more history in high school, college, and law school.).

James Livingston, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2011) (Here is the bottom line of this polemic: "if we want to prevent another economic disaster, and to promote balanced, sustainable growth, we must create a more perfect union--a more equal, more democratic America--by redistributing income and socializing investment. [Maybe go so far.] But first we need to know that the inevitable effect of redistribution--the magnification of consumer culture--is a worthy cause." Id. at 210 (italic added). If you believe that last sophomoric sentiment--that the magnification of consumer culture is a worthy cause--, then, my friend, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to interest you in.).