Are Cheap People Better People?

Americans have rediscovered frugality. But is cheapness a moral virtue or a hereditary trait? Two interesting takes.

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After decades of irresponsible spending, the Great Recession has prompted Americans to start saving again. Thrift is in. But is cheapness a moral virtue or a hereditary trait? The New York Times' David Brooks and New York's Adam Sternbergh ponder "the next culture war."

  • 'The Moral Revival the Country Needs,' David Brooks announces in The New York Times. He says conservatives were too busy waging silly culture wars over prayer in schools to stop the denigration of the nation's economic piety. "The old WASPs were notoriously cheap, sent their children to Spartan boarding schools, and insisted on financial sobriety. Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country's financial values." Now, he says a "crusade" is in order to restore our financial values.

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.

  • 'Born to Be Cheap.' New York Magazine's Adam Sternbergh says thinking about thrift in moral terms is useless if cheapness is inherited. "What if being thrifty is not a question of choosing between good and bad behavior but is instead akin to a character trait, like being shy?" he asks. He cites a study done by Professor George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon that found that "tightwads outnumbered spendthrifts 3 to 2" in the United States. In other words, despite of the debt the nation has racked up in recent years, cheapness may actually be a natural state for Americans. 

Loewenstein suggests that many of the factors that caused the bust--easy credit, unsustainable home prices, a falsely robust economy--have actually eased our collective pain. The downturn has brought restrained spending, rising savings, and tighter credit. That isn't forcing us to resist our natural tendencies toward cheapness. It's re-enabling them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.