Sheldon Garon, a professor of history and East Asian studies at Princeton, is the author of “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves.”
CHRISTMAS is nearly upon us. Americans, once again, are told that it’s our civic duty to shop. The economy demands increased consumer spending. And it’s true. The problem is that millions of lower- and middle-income households have lost their capacity to spend. They lack savings and are mired in debt. Although it would be helpful if affluent households spent more, we shouldn’t be calling upon a struggling majority to do so. In the long run, the health of the economy depends on the financial stability of our households.
What might we learn from societies that promote a more balanced approach to saving and spending? Few Americans appreciate that the prosperous economies of western and northern Europe are among the world’s greatest savers. Over the past three decades, Germany, France, Austria and Belgium have maintained household saving rates between 10 and 13 percent, and rates in Sweden recently soared to 13 percent. By contrast, saving rates in the United States dropped to nearly zero by 2005; they rose above 5 percent after the 2008 crisis but have recently fallen below 4 percent.
Unlike the United States, the thrifty societies of Europe have long histories of encouraging the broad populace to save. During the 19th century, European reformers and governments became preoccupied with creating prudent citizens. Civic groups founded hundreds of savings banks that enabled the masses to save by accepting small deposits. Central governments established accessible postal savings banks, whereby small savers could bank at any post office. To inculcate thrifty habits in the young, governments also instituted school savings banks. During the two world wars, citizens everywhere were bombarded with messages to save. Savings campaigns continued long after 1945 in Europe and Japan to finance reconstruction....