Vicki Robin

Thank you David Brooks for naming the need for an ethic of “enough”

In Uncategorized on September 29, 2009 at 9:44 AM

David Brooks and I don’t always see eye to eye, but his Oped in the NYTimes today is a ten. In The Next Culture War he speaks pragmatically and strongly for the moral imperative of material restraint – a stand that will make strange (and wonderful) bedfellows. He says:

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small…A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

Why the need for a “moral revival” now? Well, the signature of the US has been, since the beginning, two values that restrain one another: greed and frugality. We are material entrepreneurs, creatively and selfishly opportunistic in the drive for wealth. We are also willing to work hard and sacrifice and help our neighbors in order to build wealth. Liberty and justice. Self interest and community interest. Checks and balances. But now, Brooks says, the system is getting out of balance on the profligacy end, with everyone from day traders to farmers to unions jockeying for entitlements in a system that permits excess and protects profits over people. Hey, Brooks said it, I didn’t:

As William Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, in the three decades between 1950 and 1980, personal consumption was remarkably stable, amounting to about 62 percent of G.D.P. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of G.D.P. in 2008.

During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.

Over the past few months, those debt levels have begun to come down. But that doesn’t mean we’ve re-established standards of personal restraint. We’ve simply shifted from private debt to public debt. By 2019, federal debt will amount to an amazing 83 percent of G.D.P. (before counting the costs of health reform and everything else). By that year, interest payments alone on the federal debt will cost $803 billion.

We need a “moral revival” he says because:
It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.
In other words, if I might indulge in my favorite theme of the moment, we need an ethic of enough – and fair rule that make “enough”… well, enough, that don’t send everyone into a panic that if the other guy wins, they’ll lose.
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