Acton Institute Powerblog

Encouraging a True Culture of Thrift

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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).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Given that the ‘fourth turning’ is upon us, a ‘Thrift Culture’ is now inevitable. May I suggest the works of William Straus and Neil Howe on generations and cycles? In a nutshell, Economic and Social behavior have consequences and they can be predicted, since man kind seems to be unconsciously locked in a bigger version of that Movie, Ground Hog Day. We keep going round and round and round the same cycle. Now is the time when a major crisis will present itself and this crisis will be such that it changes the mindset of the masses 180 degrees – overnight.

    Specifically: for the next two years, markets will eek out gains, but the dollar will continue to be debased, thus erasing those gains in real terms and making the population poorer. Oil prices will stay flat for 1.75 years more, but other commodities will continue to rise in price, thus squeezing household budgets further. In around 1.75 – 2 years, MAJOR WAR between Iran and Israel begins and the reserve currency of the world, the US dollar is struck from the roster, a victim of wild monetary stimulus – not unlike every other empire ever. This war will obviously unleash a move up in the oil price that will grind commerce to a halt. The populations of the West will be so very poor that, Thrift will have no choice but to become the most popular thing going.

    May I encourage you all, if you wish to revisit old Thrifty Ideas and learn some new ones, to visit, where we publish 5 days a week, ways to cut your household bills, in order to save your precious money so that you may Thrive going forward. We focus on Practical Skills which have fallen off over the last 50 years of debt fueled growth.

    Bear this in mind, the last time we faced a ‘Fourth Turning’, the thirties, Practical Skills were abundant. People could produce staples, trade them and survive. What can people today do? How TV and Video Game addicted teens in suburbia cope? How will the bazillion Sociology Degrees burn as fuel, Knowledge worth less than the paper printed on – not unlike the dollar.

    Thrift and Practical Skills are going to take the edge off for some. This is a normal correction in nature.