Saving grace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am

As the global financial crisis has unfolded, we have been offered much commentary on its causes. One recurring explanation tendered by analysts from North America and Europe is that, when you dig deep, and think even more deeply, you discover that a root cause of the global financial crisis is excessive Asian saving and dismal Asian consumption.

A recent, rather colourful, version of this thesis likened Asia to 'an alcoholic's wife who keeps her husband furtively plied with booze while managing to avoid thinking about exactly what she is doing'.

In tort law, there is a concept known as the but for test. We can usefully deploy it here to test the line of argument above: but for the 'alcoholic husband', there would be no 'alcoholic's wife'. In other words, even if we assume that the alcoholic's wife is a genuine aggravating factor with respect the condition of the alcoholic husband, without the alcoholic husband, there is no alcoholic's wife.

Over the past 40 years, across the developed world (and especially in the Anglo-developed world), we have witnessed an unremitting, mass erosion of respect for thrift and financial responsibility. In tandem with this, we have seen growing mass veneration of the quest for accelerated gratification. It looks like we may have discovered the alcoholic husband.

In the typical argument laying serious partial blame at Asia's feet for the onset of the crisis, the alcoholic husband is normally all but invisible, however. One searches in vain, in the average Asia-is-to-blame article, for any serious analysis of how, in less than two generations, the developed west has managed, so comprehensively, to trash its collective ability to save.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking why people in Asia save so much. Consider China, a huge, still very poor, country. Wrenching economic changes have pulled hundreds of millions out of abject poverty over the past three decades but those changes have also left hundreds of millions more than ever personally responsible for the basics of day to day life - not to mention family health care and education. In this case, people save, above all, because they have no choice.

But even in wealthy Japan, savings rates have remained very high. It seems that there is a more general foundation - beyond sheer necessity - for maintaining a savings culture: provided you comprehend the meaning of responsibility, it is very likely you will understand the wisdom of saving.

It is true that this savings tradition has underpinned cheaper finance elsewhere but, let's be clear, this custom is not fundamentally driven by some Asian desire to dangle endless lines of cheap credit before addicted western consumers.

Finally, it is worth reflecting for a moment on that other aspect of the argument for Asian responsibility - lack of home consumption. It is commonly agreed that perhaps the major longer-term threat to stability worldwide is fallout from global warming and resultant climate change. It is also widely known that the highest per capita contribution to global warming derives from the developed west - and a key factor in that contribution is excessive consumption. It seems to follow very clearly from these findings - and the onset of the crisis - that lower consumption and higher savings are a good thing. Who is more on the right track here - Asia or the developed west?

The TV programme Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In ran from the late 1960s through until the early 1970s. This very successful US comedy show featured Flip Wilson, a fine comedian, in a regular mini-spot. Almost every week, his cross-dressing character Geraldine would be caught red-handed in the middle of some self-serving mischief. Each week, Geraldine would neutralise all notions of personal responsibility by claiming, large eyes widening, that, 'the devil made me do it!' Alas, poor Geraldine convinced few - apart from herself.

Richard Cullen is a visiting professor in the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong