December 16, 2008

Thrift Supervision

At the corner of 17thStreet and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is the Office Thrift Supervision. As federal buildings go, it is pretty nondescript – no soaring columns, lofty domes, or splashing fountains -- just a kind of blank fa├žade suitable for housing an anonymous bureaucracy. The purpose of the Office is to oversee savings and loan institutions, which are known in the financial industry as “thrifts.” But I find myself thinking that maybe we ought to have a federal agency actually charged with supervising thriftiness. What if all government spending had to pass a thrift test? Such scrutiny would certainly cut down on bridges to nowhere and special projects benefiting lawmakers’ hometowns. Federal employees would work long and hard, being thrifty with the money the government pays them. Programs to serve the poor would bypass all the red tape, eliminating the expense of multiple hands to pass the money along.

And what if this Office of Thrift Supervision had services for private citizens as well as the public sector? What if we could have our own expenses supervised by a wise and thoughtful entity, one that might whisper in our ear as we are considering buying yet another pair of shoes, or avoiding the car pool because it is slightly inconvenient, or getting a $4.00 cup of coffee instead of filling up the travel mug? And what if our personal thrift supervisor encouraged us to be thrifty with ourselves so we could be generous with others?

I heard a story on the radio recently about a man in England who had saved carefully his whole life. With interest rates slashed to compensate for an economy tanked by greed, at worst, and overextension, at best, he cannot rely on his savings for the income he needs to support his retirement. He was bemoaning the fact that there is no reward for the thrifty. It certainly seems that way, as institutions and industries that have blown through millions now get in line to be bailed out. But it isn’t just the “economy” because, after all, we are the economy. So I’m planning to supervise my own thrift, to watch over what I spend, what I save, to put my money in the places were it will be most useful (whether that is the offering plate at church or the drive-through window at the bank).

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