Picking up on themes we’ve touched on here, here, and here, last week NYT columnist David Brooks weighed in on the culture of debt in the United States.
“The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined,” he writes. “The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened.”
Brooks has his own proposed solutions for this cultural shift. Elsewhere Richard Posner and Gary Becker debate whether there has been a paradigm change and if so what it means.
I submit that a good place to start to look would be religious institutions. Max Weber had a profound insight when he pointed out the specifically theological backgrounds (even if he didn’t get the particular backgrounds quite right) and their impact on morally-informed behavior make all the difference between someone like Richard Baxter and John Wesley on the one hand and Benjamin Franklin on the other (the easy cloak vs. iron cage comparison). A divine mandate inspires and motivates in ways other things simply aren’t able.
Brooks wants us to return to Franklin-esque “bourgeois virtues.” But it may just be that those secular virtues don’t have cultural staying power on their own, and when divorced from religious undergirding become a waystation on the way to rampant consumerism.
But hey, at least this guy has figured out a way to make the economic stimulus package permanent (unlike the Bush tax cuts).