As Dave Ramsey admits, all of the advice he gives is something that you would be able to get from your grandma. It’s a sad commentary on our society that this basic wisdom, that prudential use of money (i.e. thrift) is a virtue, is so alien to us.
Thanks to Clear Channel Radio, I was able to attend Dave Ramsey’s event in Grand Rapids last night. I used to listen to Ramsey on the radio quite a bit as a seminary student in Kentucky and I was always impressed by how much he was inspiring American families to live within their means and become better financial stewards of their resources and income. His own personal faith testimony is very real and inspiring and that brings me to another point concerning his presentation last night.
Last month, Acton’s director of communications, John Couretas, wrote a commentary titled “Obama and the Moral Imagination,” where he asked “If religious conservatives and free market advocates are to oppose Obama on those issues where there is fundamental disagreement, they will have to craft their own counter-narrative to ‘change the trajectory.’ No small task.”
One of my immediate impressions about Ramsey is his mastery of the narrative style of teaching and motivating. He effectively uses his own personal testimony to motivate people. By using his story in the fashion that he does, he disarms possible objections to his teachings and allows attendees to embrace and connect their story to Ramsey’s story. And I mean, not only his financial story, but also his own faith story as well. I would also add that his humor is far wittier and funnier perhaps than any stand up comedy I have ever heard.
How does this then relate to fiscal conservatism and the importance of free markets? Several times last night Ramsey stressed this by saying that “you are not going to spend like Congress anymore.” He uses the story and behavior of Congress to powerfully contrast that with a new found ability of a person to budget, save, and invest. Ramsey even expressed his strong desire to see Congress overturned. He expressed confidence in the long term benefits of the market, while simultaneously denouncing the stimulus bill. Here is a you tube clip of Ramsey on his radio show railing against what he calls the “spending bill.” Ramsey made a good point I stressed last week on a radio appearance of my own, and that is this: “When America is more financially responsible, they will demand more financial responsibility from their leaders.”
The entire event is a creative introduction to his financial teachings, what he calls the seven baby steps to get your financial future on track. He ended the event by sharing more about his relationship with God, and stressing that it is relationship with God that matters most, and it is the greatest life changing principle he teaches.
“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.”
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.
Is this supposed to be capitalism?
Geoff Colvin writes that a motivating factor in the recent crash in corporate profits, as well as the sharp decline in home values, was the phenomenon that “people began to believe that the more they borrowed, the better off they would be. Their thinking went like this: With the cost of capital so low and asset prices rising steadily, risk was evaporating.”
The precipitating cause of the downturn was that consumers “began to live within their means, shutting down the profit-growth machine.”
Any business or industry profit model that depends on consumers driving themselves deeper and deeper in debt is morally flawed and economically unsustainable. That’s not capitalism, that’s consumerism.
Compare the latter with the former, represented by this statement of a first principle of capitalism, “Thrift the First Duty”:
…thrift is mainly at the bottom of all improvement. Without it no railroads, no canals, no ships, no telegraphs, no churches, no universities, no schools, no newspapers, nothing great or costly could we have. Man must exercise thrift and save before he can produce anything material of great value. There was nothing built, no great progress made, as long as man remained a thriftless savage. The civilized man has no clearer duty than from early life to keep steadily in view the necessity of providing for the future of himself and those dependent on upon him. There are few rules more salutary than that which has been followed by most wise and good men, namely, “that expenses should be less than income.” In other words, one should be a civilized man, saving something, and not a savage, consuming every day all that which he has earned.
You don’t need to agree with Andrew Carnegie about everything to recognize the truth of these statements. Thrift is one of the things that separates civilized capitalism from savage consumerism.
One sector of the American public that hasn’t missed out on the government’s purpose for the economic stimulus package is the advertising and marketing industry. Savvy marketers are targeting sales and special offers to the federal rebate checks, which start to go out today.
One sector of the economy especially banking on how people will spend their stimulus rebates is the automobile industry. Here, for instance, is a local car dealer’s ad specifically targeted to the stimulus package:
I’ve seen another major car ad that is currently running nationwide featuring the advice of an economist to a young car buyer. The young buyer is presumably saving a great deal of money on the new car through a special cash back incentive or zero-percent financing or some such other offer. What should the buyer do with all the money he’s saving? Go out and buy something else?
No, says the wise economist. Save it or pay off credit card debt. Of course, the economist doesn’t give the really solid advice, which would be to forgo buying a new car in the first place and taking on all that new debt. Dave Ramsey, a guru of financial stewardship, consistently exposes the lie that financing the purchase of a new car, no matter what the incentives, is a good use of money. As Dave notes, it’s no coincidence that the financing arms of automobile manufacturers are generally among the more profitable aspects of the business.
It’s no surprise that auto sales are often an economic bellwether, since new car payments are typically one of the easiest things to put off in tough times. These are also precisely the kinds of payments that folks facing credit card debt and dwindling savings accounts should be looking to avoid when spending their stimulus rebate.
This might just be the best argument for increasing the minimum wage that I’ve heard yet:
It’s just not fair that Michelle needs to go deep in hock to “feed her Ninja Turtle obsession,” is it? Well, maybe such an “obsession” leads to making poor economic decisions, but to each her own I guess. How sad.
Mark Whitehouse reported in the September 25th issue of the Wall Street Journal that the living standards of average Americans will have to be adjusted downward in coming years because a larger share of our national debt is going to debt-service. He writes,
That means Americans will have to work harder to maintain the same living standards—or cut back sharply to pay down the debt.” Catherine Mann, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics notes, “Our net international obligations are coming home to roost. It’s as if on our personal MasterCards we have run up large obligations and never had to make personal payments. You can’t believe that is going to last forever.
I am not a professional economist but such news makes me wonder how we will really handle these things as a nation when the spend-spend-spend spigot is finally turned off. The pay day is coming, maybe sooner than later. Our prosperity is always one really bad cycle from a serious implosion and then the country will either adjust corporately, and grow stronger morally and spiritually, or it will begin to break down in ways that could be alarming over the long term. Let us pray that we learn how to adjust sooner than later. Churches that spend so much on themselves, and their upwardly mobile lifestyles, should take note. The kingdom calls for sacrifice and frugality, not lavish expenditures on empire building.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."