Should we print yet more money? Does the COVID-19 disaster deserve another round, two or three perhaps, of government “stimulus” cash thrown at it? Is there ever enough?
Let me take you on a tour to the middle of Rockefeller Center in New York City, where there stands a polished block of marble inscribed with a single word. The stone is the keystone of the entire complex, but it is little noticed. And no wonder because this keystone is dwarfed by everything around it.
Built during the Great Depression, Rockefeller Center is itself a monument to the wealth and power of John D. Rockefeller, whose private fortune, adjusted for inflation, remains the single largest private fortune ever amassed in American history. As his fortune reached its peak, Rockefeller personally controlled nearly 2 percent of the American economy. The office towers soar above the towers of St. Patrick’s Cathedral across the street, and the courtyard at their base is a lavish display of fountains, gardens, fine shops, and, of course, the famous skating rink, behind which the great Christmas tree is erected each year. Nearby, the studios of NBC add a final polish of celebrity and glamour.
Nearly lost in the opulence is the keystone engraved with the single word: Thrift.
What, a visitor today in our throes of continuing “plandemic” may wonder, does thrift have to do with this grand setting, with our staggering debt?
Thrift is a forgotten virtue, much as the keystone motto of Rockefeller Center is the forgotten center of the complex.
Thanks to trade, new technologies, and deregulation, among other forces, we live in an era of affluence. Well, we used to until the Wuhan flu began to spread. But the government believes it can paper over that catastrophe with more free money.
Like the keystone, the virtue of thrift is almost totally obscured by the wealth and prosperity of our era, and the ensuing sense of entitlement. These days no one wants to be considered a cheapskate. Frugality is about as popular as chastity.
Thrift As Four-Letter Word
But it wasn’t always so. A recent, and telltale, Yahoo word search on thrift produced few results: a newsletter on simple living, an offensive guide called “Cheap Stingy Bastard” on so-called good deals, “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” the somewhat satirical “Cheapskate Monthly,” numerous addresses for actual thrift shops, and the frugal tip of the week—things like saving aluminum cans. This is not the virtuous thrift of an earlier and more respectful era, an era when America first gained its greatness.
I have conducted a very unscientific and admittedly utterly biased sample (just like most sociological surveys) over the past month or so of the people I know and have met around the country. Some I know well, many are simply acquaintances, but most are new folks I don’t know at all.
I ask them what they think of thrift. I don’t tell them I am writing about it or studying it. I just want to gauge their reaction and response. About half of this modest sample gives me a confused look meaning: Are you crazy? What the hell is thrift? They have no conception of the word, its history, or its lineage. Frankly, they couldn’t care less.
About 30 percent of the people say, Oh yeah, thrifty, that means “cheap,” right? Well, I am not cheap. They have a pejorative or quite negative response to the term. They are running away from thrift.
About 15 percent of people admit that they know what thrift is, although they still associate it with cheapness, and while they wouldn’t want to publicize it or broadcast it to everyone, they are—well, frugal on occasion. This dirty little secret is something they want kept secret, but they are rather proud of it.
This leaves about 5 percent of people, mostly educated and having above-average wealth, some even learned with multiple degrees or regular worshippers in whatever church or synagogue, who admit to knowing what thrift is; to appreciating it; practicing it; and in some cases even naming it as a “good thing”—a virtue. Only 5 percent of people (in this biased survey, apologies to my late friend, George Gallup) have not forgotten the virtue of thrift.
What have the others forgotten? Modern definitions of thrift are not nearly as good as the 1828 one provided by Noah Webster himself:
Economical in the use or appropriation of money, goods or provisions of any kind; saving unnecessary expense, either of money or anything else which is to be used or consumed; sparing; not profuse, prodigal or lavish. We ought to be frugal not only in the expenditure of money and of goods, but in the employment of time. Prudent economy; good husbandry or housewifery; a sparing use or appropriation of money or commodities; a judicious use of anything to be expended or employed; that careful management which expends nothing unnecessarily and applies what is used to a profitable purpose; nothing is wasted. It is not equivalent to parsimony, the latter being an excess to a fault. Thrift is always a virtue.
While the social historian Gertrude Himmelfarb was certainly correct in describing the transmutation of virtues to values as part of the general “de-moralization” of society, she was less complete about the religious origin of some of the key Victorian virtues, such as thrift. The Victorian contributions and moral framework in both Britain and in America were, as she noted, essential—not only for the good life of individuals but also for the well–being of society.
Fiscal Conservatism Rightly Understood
But where did this now seemingly foreign and distant notion of thrift originate? And how is it related to the American preference for what has curiously come to be known as “fiscal conservatism”? We need to make mention at the outset that a connection exists between thrift and thriving. That thrift helps us thrive is a vital point to make in offsetting the gravitational pull of so many of the word’s pejorative connotations.
Fiscal conservatism—the public face of thrift—is a term used today to refer to an economic and political policy that advocates restraint of government taxation, government expenditures and deficits, and government debt. In an earlier era, this tendency was known as public thrift, because thrift was said to have both a public and a private side. A major cause of the American Revolution recall was taxation without representation. Representation.”
Fiscal conservatism was most loudly and rhetorically promoted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989. During his tenure, Reagan touted economic policies that became known as Reaganomics. Based on supply-side economics, Reagan’s policies cut income taxes, raised social security taxes, deregulated the economy, limited the federal government, and proposed a balanced monetary policy to stop inflation. Reagan favored reducing the size and scope of the federal budget.
Unfortunately, many Republicans throughout the Reagan era and after ran on these premises but did more to expand the permanent bureaucracy and big government while in office than even their opponents.
Fiscal conservatism has had its supporters and detractors throughout just about all of American history. Preference for frugality is not naturally endemic in a polity. Except for Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, few other countries have had an on–going public debate in political circles about public thrift, the size and cost of government or balanced budgets, let alone the rivalry between the individual and the all-powerful state.
On a communal and personal level, Americans seem predisposed to policies of thrift in their personal as well as their civic lives. Behaviorally, however, they often act, spend, and vote quite differently. And when things are going gangbusters, all focus shifts to spending and consumerism, not thrift. But when recession strikes, as it now has in our virus-induced pandemic, out from under the floor resurfaces that odd virtue, thrift—as in, I should have saved more and consumed less.
Why is my credit card so problematic to pay down? Was I forced to charge yet more—stuff? Living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings seems irresponsible, especially during a planned and instigated global downturn.
The Cornerstone of American Greatness
What is it about thrift, public or private, that makes it so hard to achieve? Does it necessarily contradict or oppose economic growth? Is there a paradox of thrift? Where did it originate, anyway? Is it really a lost and forgotten virtue? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Is true conservatism an amalgam of the virtue of thrift mixed into the aspiration to live in freedom?
With the U.S. government throwing money in every direction in these days of corona-induced spending, we need to keep asking these questionsas U.S. debt soars past $100 trillion in the ongoing pandemic and its aftermath.
The pandemic plan has morphed into a government-planned giveaway scheme to benefit social progressivism, not the needs of everyday, hard-working middle-class Americans. The debt we have amassed in this short period (over $8 trillion with a “t”) will be born over the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.
he Democrats-turned-socialists are now pushing for things they would never get under normal circumstances. Their latest $3 trillion, 1,800-page hyper-liberal bill includes $1 trillion for blue state and local governments, subsidies galore, shoring up Obamacare, voting by mail, another round of cash to those who prefer to stay unemployed, and a bailout for the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. Treasury Department recently published a major report revealing that the federal government has amassed $103.7 trillion in debts, liabilities, and unfunded obligations. To place this unprecedented shortfall in perspective, it amounts to:
- $315,315 for every person living in the United States.
- $806,181 for every household in the United States.
- 4.8 times the size of the U.S. economy.
- 29 times annual federal revenues.
- 91 percent of the combined net worth of all U.S. households and nonprofit organizations, including all assets in savings, real estate, corporate stocks, private businesses, and consumer durable goods such as automobiles and furniture.
Remember: thrift was the cornerstone of America’s greatness.