I attended a small dinner recently where a leading figure in international finance regaled guests with dark scenarios of our collective economic future. You can't escape the bad news these days. The Financial Times ran a headline recently, front page above the fold: "Pessimism Deepens Over Global Economy."
A bottom-line emerged from our dinner round, for the U.S. economy in any case. We Americans have a "culture" problem. We spend too much, save too little, and must -- rather urgently, this prominent voice in the global economy opined -- (re)learn the discipline of deferred gratification.
I think "culture" problems -- that is, the basket of things we call habits, values and behaviors -- represent the single biggest challenge of our time.
It was chiefly a problem of culture that got us into the financial crisis of 2008. There was undisclosed conflict of interest, excess and greed, and not just from Wall Street. As a nation we have been losing for sometime the ability to live within our means. It's entitlement spending, it's household finances. Fareed Zakaria noted in his 2008 book, "The Post-American World," that the average American household had come to the point where it was struggling to manage 13 credit cards. Talk about drowning in debt.
I'm taken by a new book by Amity Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge, U.S. President from 1923-1929. Coolidge may be one of the most boring U.S. Presidents in history. When told that President Coolidge had died, the New Yorker's Dorothy Parker quipped, "How can you tell?" The shy Vermonter was known as "Silent Cal," a man of few words. He was also a politician who stood for sound money, fiscal prudence, and getting government out of the way of respectable business and hungry entrepreneurs.
This sort of common sense runs against today's Zeitgeist. Our expectations of government have grown exponentially. We've become passive. We wait for technocrats to offer technocratic fixes. In some circles, business has become a dirty word, free enterprise the enemy.
For the record: the only thing worse than big government zealots on the Left are those libertarian utopians of the Right who think that our large, diverse, complex societies can function properly and prosper with virtually no government at all.
Nevertheless: looking constantly for salvation from the experts and high government officials is a fool's errand. I've recounted elsewhere the story of a meeting I attended after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s with American economist Herb Stein and a group of Russian economists visiting Washington. The Russians wanted to know from Stein what accounted for American prosperity. Stein paused, reflected, and then said that U.S. success had been the result of millions of Americans doing the same thing day in and day out: working hard, saving, balancing their check book, and raising their kids the very best they could. You don't need a Harvard Ph.D. to follow the logic.
Europe's problems with the euro are not so complicated either. With the adoption of the single currency there was an implicit assumption that Greeks would become more like Germans. I love Greece, but should we be surprised how this worked out?
We need to re-think exactly who's responsible for what.
We need to realise that it's culture --again, habits, values and behaviors -- that ultimately drives economic prosperity. And culture starts at the grassroots. He was dour and dull, but maybe it's time to see Calvin Coolidge as cool.
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