Money: the greatest seduction

Stephen Smoliar has an interesting post today in response to my own Barcelona commentary in which he argues that it's the culture of consumerism, and not politics, which has ossified America:

Thus, I think that what Europeans perceive as the "death" of America may have less to do with the "ossification" of the political system and more to do with the cultural values that now support all of our institutions, whether they involve politics, business, technology, or education. Indeed, it may very well be that the current state of our economic health (which certainly bodes ill for any signs of "reinvention" in the institutions of business, technology, and education, let alone politics) is probably a reflection of that general infantile lack of responsibility.

I wonder if Smoliar has been reading David Brooks. In Tuesday's New York Times, Brooks argued that the great seduction of American life is irresponsible consumerism. Americans, he suggests, have been corrupted by the decadence of our easy lending culture:

The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality. Millions of parents, preachers, newspaper editors and teachers expounded the message. The result was quite remarkable.

The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.

So what is to be done? For there to be a rebirth of American frugality, industriousness and ambition, Brooks is suggesting, Americans need to return to the Puritan ethic. We need to take strict control of ourselves, of our financial appetites and desires, once again. The new new thing in America has to be what Brooks calls the "bourgeois virtue" of Puritanism. Money must again become a symbol of moral goodness rather than simply a thing of utility.

American innovation, Brooks seems to be saying, is moral and cultural. It has it roots in our values. Thus, to reinvent America, we need to reinvent ourselves. And to rebuild this country, we need to rebuild a moral structure around money. So we need to go back to old Benjamin Franklin then -- back to his thirteen anti consumerist virtues:

  1. "TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
  2. "SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
  3. "ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
  4. "RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
  5. "FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
  6. "INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
  7. "SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
  8. "JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
  9. "MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
  10. "CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation."
  11. "TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
  12. "CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
  13. "HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates."