America: a Land of "Extreme Saving"

Over at his new Atlantic Correspondents blog, Edward Tenner says that America is a land of extremes:

We consumers can't get it right, living beyond our means during bubbles when we should be saving, and throttling back in downturns, putting each other and countless people overseas out of work. In January the award-winning British economic journalist Anatole Kaletsky even wrote a column with the ferocious headline "Punish Savers and Make Them Spend Money" -- and a Harvard counterpart, N. Gregory Mankiw, has recently made similar suggestions.
The paradox of thrift originated may have originated with John Maynard Keynes, but extreme saving, like the hypermiling that began even before the crisis, is an American specialty. In fact, extreme behavior of all kinds is both our glory and our potential downfall. [...] We are the opposite of the ancient Greeks, with their motto "Nothing in Excess" inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

That first paragraph seems just about right: The savings pendulum has indeed swung back. But I also think it's interesting that America's saving behavior might be characterized as "extreme." That probably says more about our extreme penchant for debt -- that certainly characterized the past couple of years -- than any objectively dramatic levels of saving! Here's how savings has fluctuated over the past couple of years:

american savings rate BEA.png

So the savings rate in the first quarter of 2009 was a little over 4% and rising. That is high by American standards -- we had a negative savings rate for some of 2005 -- but not especially high by any other standard. Savings rates in Europe and Japan are often above 20%.