Posted by: MC | February 25, 2013

The Paradox of Thrift

the paradox of thrift  -mmc

My grandparents survived the Great Depression.  My parents were born into the close of that time, but like any time of stress linked with austerity, the aftermath of that economic trauma was evident in newly and deeply established habits of caution.

My farming grandmother could make anything out of anything, or so it seemed to me.  She made quilts from squares of rag scraps stuffed with old nylon hosiery (among other softish leftovers).  She made dolls out of clothes pins, and Christmas trees out of cards received over the years that she taped to the wall in the triangular form of a pine or a fir.  All of this passed across the generations.  Thrift is something we do.

Being thrifty is wise for individuals and families when there is little money coming in.  But at the level of countries and their governments being overly thrifty in a stumbling economy can slow and even severely damage chances for recovery.  As Paul Krugman has observed, any individual spending during times of economic contraction mean that someone else’s income is being supported.  The more participation there is in the exchange of goods and services the more what goes around can naturally come around. 

If put into action, all the talk in our country about sequestration and all the talk globally about austerity mean stark limits to government services that support the economic participation (like the reduction in air traffic control services we’ve heard about this week).  It’s as if we’ve got it all backward.  Like the now iconic J. Maynard Keynes suggested in the twilight of the Great Depression, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”  Save when you’ve got money so you’ll have it when you need to support a recovery.

There is, of course, a huge confound to all this thinking when the financial sector has a substantial surplus during tough economic times – “Like now?” you may be thinking.  Yep, like now.  The motivation for the people who “have” is stubbornly low when it comes to anything associated with increased income taxation.

The truth is, when it comes down to it we’re most all in on this.  Everyone who has stuff is afraid of losing it so we talk thrift, we get greedy, we pull in.  We isolate into small groups of people who are very like us and we stop listening to everyone else.  Those who are used to having at least a little say in things (i.e., based on the idea of democracy) post rants in the social media, rally to protest (like this weekend in Spain), or write blogs like this.  Still, we’re all pretty stuck.

In the face of manufactured governmental circumstances tagged with compelling words like, “sequester” much of the public becomes baffled or elects to remain clueless.  Ours can be a manically busy time of worry about job and healthcare — about survival.  In circumstances like ours who among everyday citizens has time to decode and act in response to “sequester,” to threats of “austerity”?

So the system stays as it is.  Sequestration one more step toward national and global austerity that guarantee there will be less spending and less income – the exact things we need to recover healthy economic functioning.

So what do we do?  We keep going.  We listen to each other as best we can.  We build networks in our communities for supporting local business, buying local food and growing it ourselves.  We get a little more conscious in support of spending that logically increases reciprocal benefit.  When I buy those shoes I need, the sales person, the designer, the leather tanner, the cobbler, and all the people who provide administrative support receive income.  The system works that way.  It’s ultimately collaborative – ultimately cooperative.

I don’t really know anything much about economy, but I do know the corporate system we’ve been living in is grinding down.  It also seems that alternative economies are going all over the place and may just be hearty enough to remain and even grow.  Of course I see one crucial difference is in the way people listen to and respect one another along the way.

Time will tell, and now is the time for generosity so that more may participate in the mutually rewarding, mutually sustaining enterprise of being human in the same place at the same time.


  1. spot on Mary. . .buying locally, supporting carpenters, floor guys and the little lumber store down the street were all concious decisions this winter.
    These were ‘sustainable’ choices I made . . .

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