Confucius said: “Just as extravagance can lead to arrogance, frugality can lead to meanness. Be mean rather than arrogant.”
Confucius wasn’t an economist by training, but in two short sentences he succinctly encapsulates the inherent contradiction that has plagued the history of human economic development: when the good times roll, people go crazy and the whole system goes out of whack due to their excesses; when the system crashes down to earth, people have to pull in their belts and deal with the trials and tribulations of what these days we call austerity.
This of course leads to numerous cases of “meanness” in which governments, companies, and individuals are forced to cut their spending with the unfortunate result that people lose their jobs and access to support and services just when they most need them.
Confucius was way too realistic to expect that a state of harmony can be achieved between these states, and judged meanness to be the lesser of the two evils. This makes sense to me, but he’d have an uphill battle convincing the growing number of critics of austerity and – for very different reasons – the titans of Wall Street.