We usually don't think of "thrifty" as a controversial adjective, but a glance at the first five synonyms-frugal, miserly, parsimonious, provident, prudent-offered by thesaurus.com quickly shows the debate: The first is neutral, the next two negative, the last two positive. One reason for this fall's market crash and economic crisis: We confused prudence with parsimony.
David Blankenhorn's Thrift: A Cyclopedia (Templeton Foundation Press, 2008) provides a thoughtful, entertaining, and pro-thrift look at a surprisingly controversial concept. WORLD readers who have given their homeschooled children passages about thrift might wonder, what's the fuss? Well, listen to this Great Depression radio address by John Maynard Keynes: "There are today many well-wishers of their country who believe that the most useful thing which they and their neighbors can do to mend the situation is to save more than usual. . . . [That] is utterly harmful and misguided-the very opposite of truth."
Keynes wrote his famed Treatise on Money for economists in 1930 and hit the airwaves in 1931: "Whenever you save five shillings, you put a man out of work for a day. . . . Whenever you buy goods you increase employment . . . this is only the plainest common sense. For if you buy goods, someone will have to make them. And if you do not buy goods, the shops will not clear their stocks, they will not give repeat orders, and someone will be thrown out of work."
What? What happened to a shilling saved, a shilling earned? Here's Keynes' climax: "O patriotic housewives, sally out tomorrow early into the streets and go to the wonderful sales . . . have the added joy that you are increasing employment . . . bringing a chance and a hope to Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Belfast." And there, laid out by the most influential economist of his era, is the plea that launched a million slips into debt and poverty over the subsequent 77 years.
If spending equals patriotism, then taking out loans is super-patriotic, right? It took a few decades for credit cards to arrive and lead millions into temptation, but the stats now are awful: Americans have one trillion dollars in credit-card debt; one of eight families says debt payments (including home loans) exceed 40 percent of its income; one in seven families has filed for bankruptcy or sought credit consolidation.
So here comes Thrift, with its quoting of both Keynes and others like T.N. Carver, who criticized the "spend to create jobs" concept and said that "thrift consists in spending money wisely . . . in the long run, the thrifty man will spend more, because he will have more to spend than the thriftless man; and the thrifty community will be a community in which more money is spent than in the thriftless community."
Somewhat like Bill Bennett's The Book of Virtues, this look at one virtue contains short readings with pithy quotations and charming anecdotes like this one about British Prime Minister William Gladstone: "In 1895, when he was 85 years old and donating his some 32,000 books to nearby St. Deiniol's Library, which he had founded, Gladstone, no fan of extravagant spending and unafraid of hard work, reportedly took the books to the new library himself, using his wheelbarrow to transport them."
My favorite American contributor is John Wanamaker, who in the late 19th century founded what became the largest Sunday school in the nation and one of its most successful department stores. (For employees he created a benefits association, a foundation to provide health benefits, a savings program that included matching contributions by the company, a profit-sharing plan, and a school with courses on thrift and industrial education.) Wanamaker said his mission in life was "to do a full day's work every day in the year, and to use its product for the uplifting and bettering of my fellow-men."
What helped to make a man thrifty? Wanamaker said, "Robinson Crusoe was the first book I ever read, aside from the Bible." Those two books helped him to realize what today's debtors often learn, to their sorrow: "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender."