“It’s true that American consumers have long been living beyond their means. In the mid-1980s Americans saved about 10 percent of their income. Lately, however, the savings rate has generally been below 2 percent — sometimes it has even been negative — and consumer debt has risen to 98 percent of G.D.P., twice its level a quarter-century ago.
Some economists told us not to worry because Americans were offsetting their growing debt with the ever-rising values of their homes and stock portfolios. Somehow, though, we’re not hearing that argument much lately.
Some background: one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.
In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.
At this point, however, the instructor hastens to explain that virtue isn’t really vice: in practice, if consumers were to cut back, the Fed would respond by slashing interest rates, which would help the economy avoid recession and lead to a rise in investment. So virtue is virtue after all, unless for some reason the Fed can’t offset the fall in consumer spending.
I’ll bet you can guess what’s coming next.”