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All set for thrift culture?

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By Chris Bowlby

Save or spend? It's partly a matter of personal instinct or family upbringing. But there is a cultural battle going on too - should we still enjoy a consumer society, or do we deserve a sobering dose of austerity?

Those who have lost their jobs must spend less. But those still in work, who may have more money in their pockets thanks to lower inflation and mortgage payments, seem more cautious too.

For some, such as Baroness Kingsmill, a lawyer and Labour peer who has worked for the Competition Commission, Royal Bank of Scotland and British Airways, this signals a change in morality. What she calls "a flight to frugality" seems "the right moral stance to take in these difficult times".

Analysis: The Threat of Thrift is BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 8 March
Or listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

This should be good news for advocates of thrift, another word, like frugality, now heard more often. Peter Heslam, director of Transforming Business at Cambridge University, says thrift is about "the ability to delay gratification, to put off doing what you would like to do with your money today for a better tomorrow".

He wants to challenge what he calls the "anti-thrift" institutions dominating our society. Practical suggestions include selling "savings tickets" alongside lottery tickets in newsagents.

Although thrift may have strong roots in European religious ideas about the wise use of wealth - think of the famous "Protestant work ethic" - Mr Heslam says it is now much stronger elsewhere, especially in Japan and China.

'Punish savers'

But this is where thrift can suddenly seem threatening. Mention Japan and thrift in the same breath and you send economists racing for cover. Japanese households cutting spending have depressed their economy since the mid 1990s. Many other countries fear something similar now.

JM Keynes
When you save five shillings, you put a man out of work for a day
JM Keynes

This need to keep people spending in hard times is what economist John Maynard Keynes famously called "the paradox of thrift". "The best guess I can make," he said in the 1930s Slump, "is that when you save five shillings, you put a man out of work for a day".

"Patriotic housewives" were urged by the eminent economist to "sally out tomorrow" to the sales, doing themselves good and "adding to the wealth of the country".

Chief economic commentator for The Times, Anatole Kaletsky, has been urging something similar. In a recent article entitled Time to Punish Savers, he suggested the government should tax bank deposits to force people to spend. Savers, he told me, "may think that they're doing the right thing by their own families, but undoubtedly they're doing the wrong thing for the country as a whole".

This angers champions of saving like Ros Altmann, pensions specialist and former government adviser, as "an incredibly dangerous continuation of the short-term thinking that has got us into this mess in the first place".

She learnt her thrift from her parents, who "instilled in me the idea that when I got presents, you save it, you don't just run out and spend it all". Thrifty ideas came naturally to many who lived through the 1940s and 1950s years of rationing and scarcity.

Knitted dishwashers

"Children of that generation know very well the familiar signs of looking in parents' fridges and seeing things past their sell-by dates" says David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain. But then the new "ease in material life" was welcomed. And for those born in the last 40 years, he suggests, "the notion of make do and mend and so on is a sort of fairyland".

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Days of 'relative' austerity - bad clothes and knitted dishwashers

Environmental worries might make thrift more appealing - saving cash while saving the planet too.

However Solitaire Townsend, chief executive of the green marketing company Futerra, warns a new thrift won't appeal if it is seen as "stepping backwards to a sepia age where everybody was badly dressed and people were knitting their own dishwashers".

Plastic bags may now be out, but plastic money and consumerism is still very much in. Nor do current interest rates encourage saving rather than splurging on that shiny, non-knitted dishwasher.

And the messages from on high are mixed. There has been some encouragement of saving for pensions in particular. But politicians don't want a shift to thrift to undermine economic recovery, and their electoral prospects.

Labour peer Baroness Kingsmill concludes that "all of us will be scarred" by the recession, and that will affect our behaviour. No-one knows how far the balance between consumerism and thrift will tilt.

Contemplating the wreckage of old economic certainties, the decision now - for individuals as well as leaders - is what, and how much, to save.

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