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April 22, 2010

Save or Spend? A Mixed Message

Catherine New
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Last year, some economists expressed concern that the American consumer was in retreat. It would be a year of second-hand clothes and used cars, they predicted, and the lack of consumer spending would cause the economy to sputter and choke. At the same time, President Obama outlined ways that Americans should save more, advocating for retirement plans to be “opt out” instead of “opt in,” for example. Spend more or save more? That kind of mixed message, says Lauren Weber, has been par for the course. She completed the School’s Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism in 2007.

In her new book, In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Weber examines the history of thrift in the United States. Drawing from her coursework and conversations with professors Ray Horton and Morris Holbrook, among others, Weber has compiled an elegant history of Americans’ confused relationship with saving and spending — and the moral paradoxes of financial policy.

“We’ve always gotten mixed messages about this issue, especially lately,” Weber says. “The idea of saving is pretty muddled because it is economic and impacted by policy issues, and yet it also has a moral cast to it, partly because of our Puritan history. Appeals for people to either save or spend have often been a confusing blend of pragmatism and moralism.”

Weber will be signing and discussing her book at the Columbia Journalism School Alumni Book Fair on Friday, April 23, from 7:30-9:00 p.m. at Low Library.