It’s become the conventional wisdom that the U.S. economy is built on Americans’ endless appetite to buy lots and lots of stuff. Household consumption makes up about 67% of GDP. When the economy falters, we’re told spending is our patriotic duty. But suddenly, Americans can’t spend like they used to. Store shelves are emptying, and it can take months to find a car, refrigerator or sofa. If this continues, we may need to learn to do without — and, horrors, live more like the Europeans. That actually might not be a bad thing, because the U.S. economy could be healthier if it were less reliant on consumption.
After all, Americans haven’t always acted like this. We’ve entered an age of overabundance. We consume much more than we used to and more than other countries. Consumption per capita grew about 65% from 1990 to 2015, compared with about 35% growth in Europe. Household consumption makes up only about 50% of GDP in Germany.