Americans are Living Beyond Their Means

Big drop in the Dow yesterday…down 370 points. Gold fell hard too…minus $19.10 – to $890.

Everything falling…sinking….declining…dying downwards – deflation…deflation…deflation…

What is happening?

We explained yesterday that the great boom of the last quarter century was a bust for Americans. And we explained why:

1. Because Americans made a critical mistake – misled by their own financial authorities…by the reckless saving of Asians (in dollars!)…and by their own misguided belief in capitalism. Result: they spent too much, borrowed too much, and saved too little.

2. Because Asians (and other foreigners) entered the world economy. Aided by modern communications and government policies designed to encourage globalized commerce, this huge new supply of cheap labour lowered wage rates in the United States.

But we did not mention a key point. Americans misunderstood the nature of capitalism itself. It is not an “economic system” that makes people automatically richer. It is a moral system…a system that rewards virtue and punishes error. You don’t get richer because of Free Enterprise. Indeed, as the economic history of the last quarter century shows, you can get poorer. The market system merely provides the setting in which you get what you deserve. You could get rich – if you were to do the right thing: work hard, save your money, innovate, take chances, forgo consumption. But do the wrong thing…and you will pay for it.

We received this note from a Dear Reader today:

“My sister and her husband were the ideal success stories. She is in management at the state utility, my brother in law was an engineer at the local nuclear power plant and later got his law degree at about age 46; working and studying simultaneously, commuting out of state, resulting in an early heart attack due to stress and smoking.

“They had a beautiful 3,000 sq ft home with a pool, built in cherry wood finishes and top- of-the-line vehicles. After they sold their home to move to an ocean view, 1 bedroom property (that they gutted down to nothing and put in over $150,000), they realized that they owed more than the current house was worth.

“Here are two professionals with advanced degrees, one in business, the other in engineering and law working and studying all their lives with nothing to show for it. They now owe more than what they have is worth. My sister is sadly saying that now she won’t be able to retire. She is 55 years old, has worked hard getting up at 5am every morning, travelling one hour to her job. Travelling for the utility, working almost every weekend, taking extra courses, years and years of work and she has…nothing…absolutely nothing.”

That is why trying to keep the party going is such a huge mistake. Why encourage people do to the wrong thing? Why keep the bar open any longer? Providing more money…and more credit…and bigger government deficits only creates more drunks. It merely compounds the error, with more people fumbling for their car keys when the party is finally over. What good could possibly come from more consumer spending now? More credit card debt? Bigger houses…bigger mortgages…more new houses available for sale? Higher house prices? Higher stock prices?

Americans are already living beyond their means. What is the point of more stimulus? What could it stimulate them to do, but live even further beyond their means?

“Bill, you just don’t understand the wonders of modern macro-economics,” comes the response. “The authorities are simply doing what they should be doing; they’re putting more spending power into the economy to offset what appears to be a cyclical downturn. That way, they’ll be able to prevent a more serious slump. We don’t want to fall into a Japanese style trap, do we?”

Apparently the feds are geniuses. They’ve figured out how to harness capitalism…how to take out the downside…how to eliminate mistakes. They think they’ve taken Mr. Market off the mean streets and out of the wild slums. They think they have him behind bars…they think he’ll do what he is told. Now, thanks to their adroit management, we no longer have to worry about slumps, crashes or recessions. If Americans spend too much…no worries…the feds will just give them more and more cash and credit, forever and ever, amen.

Mr. Market can be an agreeable fellow. He’ll go along with a good gag…for a while. But he eventually gets tired of it. Eventually, he finds a way to break out. And it looks like he is now on the loose. And he’s armed.

Yesterday’s big drop in the Dow came as a consequence of a report from the service industry. Sales are falling more than forecast. But what would you expect? Capitalism rewards virtue and punishes error. It was surely an error for Americans (and British…and a few other Anglo-Saxon tribes) to spend so much and save so little. Now, they’re getting whacked for it.

GMAC says it lost $734 million as its home loans “went sour,” according to yesterday’s news.

And now comes a front-page story in the International Herald Tribune …

“Reality check: Americans turn thrifty.”

This is the story we’ve been following for the last year. Without new money from rising house prices, Americans are stuck. They have no choice. They have to cut back. Not even the checks from a generous Uncle Sam will be enough to offset a housing decline.

The feds may not know which way the wind is blowing, but consumers are beginning to notice the plastic bags in the air. For years, they had the breeze at their backs. Now, it is in their faces. They can’t help but realize that they made a mistake. And they’re beginning to correct it.

Look for consumer spending to fall…and savings to rise.

Bill Bonner
Markets and Money

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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6 Comments on "Americans are Living Beyond Their Means"

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they will be rudely awakened in America soon.

Danny in Perth


It ain’t just gonna be America awakening. Ever heard of globalization?

yes, but the rest of the world are use to living to a lower standing ,the Americans will indeed be rudely Awakened. They are bankrupted have no resources and are penniless. The North American Union will strip them of their dignity,Constitution, bill of rights will drop like a stone into a bottomless pit. They will be ruled from Toronto. Where the new laws will be made. Canada has all sorts of oil wells and other resources sitting there uncapped waiting .I never knew why ,now i do. Although the whole world will feel the heat, Americans will be shocked and… Read more »
Danny in Perth
I dont think Americans have any dignity left after Bush. The constitution? The governors don’t really follow it. I think that’s more of a guideline than anything really binding. A formality so to speak. I think the whole world is gonna go to a lower standing if the system keeps going south, not just the merkins. The Mexicans are already teaching them about whatever it is (poverty or something) as it full of Mexicans up there. I do agree with you though about the North American Union or something similar. That’s the whole point of this problem they created. It’s… Read more »
What Not to Spend « i press on

[…] While I believe that dressing for your body type increases self confidence and even productivity, life is simply NOT about dressing nice.   A cute $20 shirt from Target is a bigger accomplishment than a $300 shirt from Dolce & Gabanna, no matter how cute it may be. The last thing Americans need right now is encouragement and justification for living beyond their means. […]


Yup. The US is headed for another great depression. However this time, the generations present will not be able to deal like the great generation. We are so greedy, it is sick.

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