Our Vanishing Savings Rate; Americans Have Indulged Their Self-Indulgence: They've Spent More and More of Their Incomes. Someday, This Must Stop, but Who Knows When?

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, August 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Our Vanishing Savings Rate; Americans Have Indulged Their Self-Indulgence: They've Spent More and More of Their Incomes. Someday, This Must Stop, but Who Knows When?


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

Every so often the government spits out some factoid that seems crammed with special significance. The Commerce Department did just that recently when it reported that Americans' personal savings rate had dropped to zero. As a society, we seem unwilling to devote even a penny to the future. How could this be, considering all our huge contributions to retirement accounts? There are two possible answers. One is alarming: a low savings rate reflects national character--an addiction to immediate gratification. The other is more reassuring: low saving is partly a statistical mirage. Both answers are true.

Go back 250 years, and you find British Colonies already bulging with big spenders. In 1764, an anonymous English pamphleteer marveled that Americans spend "as much [on] the luxurious British imports, as prudence will countenance, and often much more." The colonists bought vast amounts of linens, tableware, watches, glasses, gloves, hats, furniture and much more, relates historian T. H. Breen of Northwestern University in his recent book "The Marketplace of Revolution."

From the mid-1740s to 1771, British exports to the Colonies rose fivefold. Credit was common. Some Philadelphia merchants "sold as much as 90 percent of their goods on credit," Breen writes. Farmers could "obtain whatever goods they wanted in advance of the sale of their crops." Credit was also a come-on. Said one writer: "[' T]is well known how Credit is a mighty inducement with many People to purchase this and the other Thing which they may well enough do without."

Sound familiar? Breen depicts an America whose basic values and instincts were rapidly crystallizing: its brashness, its optimistic faith in the future (hence, the desire for credit), its acquisitive culture, its tendency to see material items (China bowls in 1770, flat-screen TVs now) as badges of success and status. Today's consumption binge, which erodes savings, expresses the same impulses. Perhaps absurdly so.

But economic statistics also distort what's happened. The outlook isn't as dire as the zero personal savings rate implies. One common error is to confuse personal with national savings. Along with consumers, businesses and governments can save, too. In 2004, companies saved about $1.4 trillion in retained profits and depreciation allowances. If you own stock, your companies are saving for you. But federal budget deficits, a form of dis-saving, erase some of that. The overall result: although our national savings rate has declined, it's nowhere near zero.

The personal savings rate is derived by subtracting Americans' total consumption spending from their total after-tax income (i. …

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