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Culture of consumption

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Business and government have come to portray consumption as a panacea for a variety of public ills. Consumer-confidence data, which many economists say are at best ambiguous, are now examined like tea leaves by marketers and media.

More important, the spending boosterism has ensnared, in part, a record number of Americans in bankruptcy and debt.

In response, experts are reexamining the context in which the nation's consumer culture was born, and asking whether it might be time to shape a more balanced ethic of saving and spending in America.

"This pattern isn't sustainable even in the short term," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. "There's a lot of anxiety [among the public] over how consumers are spending their money."

For the most part, they are spending too much, say some experts. Consider the drop in Americans' personal savings. In the 1980s, consumers saved about 10 percent of their disposable income. Last year, they tucked away only 3.7 percent.

One consequence: Personal debt has soared. Consumers owed an average of $8,940 in credit-card debt last year, up from $3,275 in 1992. Overall, they owe more than $1.7 trillion in credit-card bills, up from $1.1 trillion in 1995.

Partly as a result of tax cuts to fuel spending, the federal government's debt also is growing dramatically. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2005, say observers, the government will accumulate about $400 billion in added debt.

The endemic fiscal risk-taking probably exceeds many Americans' level of comfort, say experts. "It's all very disquieting for people who have traditionally believed in the importance of balancing their accounts," says Mr. Bixby.

Western notions of frugality and fiscal prudence have held a significant place in American intellectual thought from the 17th century to present day. Adherents of the ethic often make their voices heard on the public stage in cycles. Many observers cite the 1992 presidential campaign of Ross Perot, fueled largely by public distress over government debt, as one of the most prominent contemporary examples.

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