Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present

Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present

Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present

Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present

Synopsis

Thrift is a powerful and evolving moral ideal, disposition, and practice that has indelibly marked the character of American life since its earliest days. Its surprisingly multifaceted character opens a number of expansive vistas for analysis, not only in the American past, but also in itspresent. Thrift remains, if perhaps in unexpected and counter-intuitive ways, intensely relevant to the complex issues of contemporary moral and economic life. Thrift and Thriving in America is a collection of groundbreaking essays from leading scholars on the seminal importance of thrift to American culture and history. From a rich diversity of disciplinary perspectives, the volume shows that far from the narrow and attenuated rendering of thrift as asynonym of saving and scrimping, thrift possess an astonishing capaciousness and dynamism, and that the idiom of thrift has, in one form or another, served as the primary language for articulating the normative dimensions of economic life throughout much of American history. The essays put thriftin a more expansive light, revealing its compelling etymology-its sense of "thriving." This deeper meaning has always operated as the subtext of thrift and at times has even been invoked to critique its more restricted notions. So understood, thrift moves beyond the instrumentalities of "more orless" and begs the question: what does it mean and take to thrive? Thoroughly examining how Americans have answered this question, Thrift and Thriving in America provides fascinating insight into evolving meanings of material wellbeing, and of the good life and the good society more generally, and will serve as a perennial resource on a notion that has and willcontinue to shape and define American life.

Excerpt

James Davison Hunter and Joshua J. Yates

Until quite recently, thrift was a concept with which most Americans were only dimly familiar. For many under the age of seventy, a chance encounter with the word thrift could easily bring them up short for a lack of anything meaningful to say. From some, thrift was a relic from an earlier time, perhaps conjuring images of the tightwad or the miser, while for others, secondhand clothing stores might very well have been the first and only things that came to mind. Of course, for those seventy or older, thrift still resonated as a deeply ingrained habit. This was largely due to the searing experience of the Great Depression and World War II, and the forced scrimping, saving, and rationing of their childhood years. They could remember back to a time when thrift, or at least the ideal of thrift, was once part of a constellation of celebrated economic virtues such as prudence, industry, and punctuality, and thus a hallmark of middle-class respectability; they could recall an era when thrift was taught in schools, exhorted from the pulpits, and encouraged by the government in the form of federally supported “thrift institutions” like the building and loan associations memorably romanticized in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. This septuagenarian-and-over set was also likely to remember when, sometime in the mid-twentieth century, thrift appeared to lose its place of prominence and gradually to fade as a meaningful ideal amid the postwar abundance that so dramatically altered the everyday lives of most Americans. For the next half century, thrift seemed to go the way of chastity, teetotalism, and other quirky artifacts from a more morally uptight past. So severe was its fifty-year slide into irrelevance, that by the first decade of the twenty-first century, the average American family was only two paychecks away from poverty and carried around $9,000 in revolving debt (mostly from credit cards). At the same time, personal savings rates hit zero for the first time since the Great Depression—only times were economically good. For a handful of moralists, few images more dramatically, or forebodingly, symbolized the consequences . . .

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