Combatting the debt culture

David Brooks says we need to get ready for the next culture war. Not a divisive showdown over social issues to be dreaded, this is a battle, he says, to be eagerly welcomed. That's because he says it means finally reckoning with the long drift of American values that has helped drive the unrestrained consumerism and reckless borrowing for which we are all now paying a steep price. Conversation

In his Tuesday column in the New York Times, Brooks points to the countervailing American impulses of materialism and economic prudence. These have managed to keep things more or less in equilibrium for more than 200 years, driving tremendous growth in our economy while not allowing the sort of decadence and corruption to settle in that have been the downfall of great powers through the ages. The worldwide recession, and growing questions about America's long-term economic future, can all be traced to the fact that those forces now seem dangerously out of balance.

Brooks is part of a growing, but still hard to hear, chorus imploring us to reestablish a strong role for prudence and thrift — before it's too late. It is a call that social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead makes eloquently in the current issue of CommonWealth.

Whitehead, too, argues that we need a cultural shift that reasserts the social values of thrift and industry that have helped define the American creed since Benjamin Franklin's day. She is quick to point out that a culture war to reclaim those values must be accompanied by changes in the regulation of financial services and in the revival of savings-oriented institutions that have disappeared amidst the rise of the something-for-nothing ethos of the debt culture. "This is a character virtue or value — people practice thrift," says Whitehead. "But that value had been institutionalized in some very key institutions throughout American history that have now gone by the wayside."

Brooks is singing off much the same song sheet:

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

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.

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.

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.
Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

It's a persuasive case, but not a platform that many candidates for office want to run on. That means it will take a lot of voices joining the chorus with Brooks and Whitehead to get American voters — and policymakers — to see the light.

Photo of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead by Frank Curran.