Home Economics 101

From the pages of the May 30, 1925 New Yorker, and the pen (or typewriter) of one John C. Emery, a mildly funny bit on how Calvin and Grace Coolidge practice what they preach in terms of thrift:

I have just returned from a week-end in the White House with Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge and of course you want to know if Calvin is as economical in running his household as he is in running the government. Well, he is – or even more so. After two days with him, I thought I’d never go back to my old lavish ways. I mentally resolved to cut out smoking so many expensive cigarettes – think of it, fifteen cents for only twenty of them – but I guess my old habits were too much ingrained. Anyway, I’m smoking Pall Malls now instead of Camels.

The President’s invitation – written on the back of a used laundry list- was not to be denied, of course, and I arrived in Washington early the following Saturday morning and took a cab up to the Coolidges’ although I could just as well have walked.

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A penny saved…Coolidge thrift in the White House

TIME Magazine reported in its issue of Mar. 2, 1925 that Coolidge practiced the thrift he preached. While some of the orders may seem somewhat petty, I do wonder what Coolidge would think of the truly imperial and bloated White House organization of today. No doubt he would find plenty of room for cutting waste and extravagance:

The press headlined “Coolidge Feels Saving Lash,” “Coolidge is Victim of Own Thrift,” etc. apropos of the fact that the President has had the White House budget reduced by $12,500. Incidents of the retrenchment: replacement of paper drinking cups by old-fashioned glasses; no free pencils for newspaper correspondents; reduction of the number of towels placed daily in White House office lavatories from 175 to 88; orders that all lights be turned out promptly when not needed; repeated use of manila envelopes for documents to be carried from one department to another; rationing, by weight, of food in the White House kitchen; replacement of a torn White House flag by a new one, with the understanding that the torn one be mended and used elsewhere. When the President turned in a dull eraser, the stockroom returned it with the comment that no new ones had been provided.

Dateline Northampton, June 19, 1931

80 years ago on this day, Calvin Coolidge devoted his daily column to a subject near and dear to his heart ( as it ought to be to ours), namely, government debt.He scarcely could have anticipated the day when the national government would be debating ever more extravagant debt ceilings. I wonder if his thinking really is so old-fashioned and outmoded or whether we might do well to follow his advice regarding the virtues of thrift and economy.

As the income and earning power of the people decline, due to depression, governmental debts and expenses become a real problem. We have been going through an era when nearly all the public debts except those of the national government have been increasing. The expectation was that the general expansion of business would make it easy to pay them. Now the opposite condition prevails.
Ba retiring and refunding its debt the national government is saving nearly half a billion dollars annually in interest. The only other course would have been more extravagant spending or reduction of taxes. Either one of these would have aggravated the present serious situation of the Treasury.

When money is borrowed by a government or an individual to pay current expenses it means living on capital. If carried far enough, disaster results. When debts are paid it means capital is restored. If carried far enough, prosperity and plenty follow. Some of our municipalities borrowed too much in the day of plenty and are not able to meet their obligations. The national government economized some, though not enough, in the day of plenty and is now able to get credit to take care of the day of adversity.

Thrift and self-control

In a previous post I noted that thrift is something of a forgotten virtue. But in the day of Calvin Coolidge, it was most assuredly not forgotten, and the president was its spokesperson and champion. Here is a brief presidential statement that White House secretary Slemp sometimes sent out in response to requests from the general public:

It is not so much what we earn today as what we save today that determines our position tomorrow. The people of past ages did not fail to work, oftentimes they put forth great effort, but what they produced they at once consumed. They did not get ahead. They made no progress. There came a time when they began to accumulate a surplus. From that hour civilization began to appear. The foundation of it all was thrift. On it was built character. It is the test of the power of self-control. Out of self-control by the individual grew the principle of self-government by the people. But the basis of it all is thrift. No man is so poor that he cannot begin to be thrifty. No man is so rich that he does not need to be thrifty. The margin between success and failure, between a respectable place in life and comparative oblivion, is very narrow. It is measured by a single word, THRIFT. The man who saves is the man who will win.

Interestingly, especially to me as a psychologist, is that there has been a growing amount of evidence linking self-control to a number of desirable outcomes and competencies. The famous “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by the Stanford team of Walter Mischel simply gave small children a choice of one marshmallow “right now” or more marshmallows at a later time. Those children who by means of various strategies were able to resist the lure of the single marshmallow showed, upon testing more than a decade later, significantly better results on a number of cognitive and social competencies. What else is thrift but the postponement of pleasure and consumption towards later, and greater, rewards? And what does it say about the prevailing culture today, which not only does not encourage thrift, but actively encourages the opposite – getting into debt for the immediate gratification of some wish, thereby jeopardizing the future?

Thrift – the forgotten virtue

Writing a Presidents’ Week column in National Review this week, Amity Shlaes rightly calls Calvin Coolidge the “prophet of thrift,” also pointing out that thrift is the most neglected virtue in modern life. Whatever happened to thrift, anyway?

The generation of Calvin Coolidge, perhaps particularly those of that generation born and raised in New England, were weaned on the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, to whom thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. After all, “thrift” finds its etymological root in the verb “to thrive.” Franklin’s thrift became the cornerstone of a new kind of secular faith in the ordinary person’s capacity to shape his lot and fortune in life, exemplified by later works like Samuel Smiles‘ treatise on Thrift. Smiles starts out his 400-some page opus by observing that “some of the finest qualities in human nature are intimately related to the right use of money – such as generosity, honesty, justice, and self denial – as well as the practical virtues of economy and providence.”

Most people shared the view that thrift is both a private virtue that helps to develop the best in human character, and a public virtue. Indeed, as Smiles writes, “it is the savings of individuals which compose the wealth – in other words, the well-being – of every nation. On the other hand, it is the wastefulness of individuals which occasions the impoverishment of states. So that every thrifty person may be regarded as a public benefactor, and every thriftless person as public enemy.”

On the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, the leaders of the nation’s major civic organizations began to think about how they could support preparedness efforts for the battle ahead. The YMCA launched National Thrift Week, to be observed every year starting on January 17th, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, to teach children – and adults – habits of saving money and using it wisely. Though it was endorsed at its founding in 1916 by Herbert Lord, later the second director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the popularity of Thrift Week grew significantly in the years to come. Here’s a New York Times article on Thrift Week 1922.

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Dateline Northampton – Jan. 17, 1931

Calvin Coolidge devoted his column of January 17th, 1931 -80 years ago today- to a subject near and dear to his heart both as an individual and as a public person: thrift, which he is careful to differentiate from parsimony and miserliness. I’ve stated before on this blog my belief that the drive for economy or thrift in the operations of the government was perhaps the one big theme of Coolidge’s presidency.

The third week of January has been designated as a time for considering the advantages of thrift, perhaps in part because it follows the birthday of Benjamin Franklin.

Thrift does not mean parsimony. It is not to be in any way identified with the miser. The thrifty person is one who does the best that is possible to provide for suitable discharge of the future duties of life. In its essence it is self-control. Industry and judgment are required to achieve it. Contentment and economic freedom are the fruits.

Most frequently we identify the thought of thrift with various institutions that have been provided to make it effective. We associate savings banks and insurance companies prominently among its agencies. But the main principle is saving today something that will be useful tomorrow. The whole theory of conservation is included. Money is only an incident.

Just at present we need to apply the principle to saving and increasing the strength of our governmental and social stucture as well as our economic fabric. We must not squander those precious possessions. And, above all, a wise thrift now calls for the expenditure of money to save people.