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Culture of consumption

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Mark Brown wishes his clients would think more about the future. But when deciding whether to buy a new Chevy truck or to set aside $300 a month for retirement, they more often opt for a pickup over peace of mind.

Mr. Brown, owner of the Brown Insurance Agency in Biddeford, Maine, says even people in this blue-collar town, who have struggled to make ends meet for most of the past century, have little instinct to save.

"Unemployment is higher and incomes are lower, but they still want to use the money now," says Brown, "and they can't foresee a day they might be sorry."

It was against this backdrop of day-to-day consumer behavior that Brown viewed President Bush's successful push to cut Americans' taxes by $350 billion over the next 10 years.

And it was with disbelief that Brown listened to Bush consistently say the tax cut would, first and foremost, allow consumers to go to malls, department stores, and car dealerships - and spend.

"My fear is we'll continue to borrow and borrow and spend," says Brown, who expects to use the $800 he'll receive this summer in child tax credits to pay for his oldest son's college tuition. "It's not part of our political culture now to tell people to tighten their belts."

And yet many experts believe the call to spend might be sounding increasingly hollow. With the US boldly deciding the fate of nations overseas, and assuming record levels of debt at home, the temperament of the nation, say experts, seems more suited to a message of fiscal prudence.

"As a country, we also have an ethic of frugality," says Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates balanced budgets. "Americans always feel you should pay your bills, and I think this tax cut was pretty much forced on them."

Without calling for an immediate downshift in spending, some observers are growing increasingly critical of what they describe as the nation's knee-jerk culture of consumption.

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