Bankers and other economic preachers have long praised the benefits of saving and the evils of overspending, repeating the theme ritualistically and almost religiously.
They succeeded. Immigrants who couldn’t read their prayer book knew every number in their bankbook, and as their tiny savings mounted they financed education, housing and businesses.
Such notions became embedded in the American psyche, and you can still hear the same sermons to savings and the same hymns of praise as in the old days - but it isn’t the same.
It’s more like a residual echo instead. We mouth the phrases and sing the hymns, and then go about our business, living a contradiction.
How long has it been since you heard from your banker about saving? But how recently did you receive a letter promoting the bank’s new personal credit line or mortgage refinancing plan or new checking-plus concept?
Bankers preach saving but promote borrowing. Economists worry about the low savings rate but urge more consumer spending as a spur to the economy. Washington lectures about the importance of savings, then taxes them.
All of which is a prelude to the observation that no matter how deeply they believe in the concept, Americans aren’t saving very much.
If the economy is to avoid recession and keep expanding, it isn’t likely to get much help from consumers.
Debt as a share of disposable income has been rising toward the 19 percent level of 1989, when the borrowing binge of the 1980s peaked. And in just the past 12 months, installment debt has risen $130 billion.
You might think that borrowing of that sort would accompany a buying binge, but retailers in most parts of the nation will tell you that sales growth is slowing. Car dealers and home builders can address the subject.
What seems to be occurring is that debt is being used to pay debt, or that new debts are being added at a faster pace than old debts are being paid down. All this is generally suspected, but oddly, it is broadly ignored too.
That is, forecasters still rely on consumer spending to help expand the economy. Bankers still seek ways to lift customer credit limits. Sellers, intent on raising sales, still plan big promotions.
Those promotions worked in the past, and rare are the financially pressed homeowners who resisted the temptation to take some equity out of their homes during the refinancing boom of the past few years.
Those billions of dollars helped finance purchases during the early months of the economic recovery, when consumers satisfied a good deal of their pent up demand for goods, such as cars, and services, such as ocean cruises.
Now, however, there are signs of a return to the old-time religion. The personal savings rate, which plunged from 8 percent of disposable income in 1970 - even then, not high - seems to have settled around 4 percent.
If consumers have reached their limit, it is not because the temptations of the devil aren’t there.
It is simply because they have decided to say “no,” the same little word they used in times gone by.