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The recession has American families cleaning up their balance sheets. Households paid off nearly 1 percent of their debt in the third quarter of this fiscal year. For the year, household debt shrunk nearly 1 percent, the first such shrinkage recorded. Credit card balances are shrinking as well, though perhaps because credit card companies aren't lending so easily anymore, and mortgages certainly aren't growing. This household balance sheet repair is the first such showing in more than 50 years.

Despite January's unexpected 1 percent rise in retail sales, Americans are paying off their debts. Reuters reported in November, "Consumer spending excluding autos fell 3.8 percent last month on a seasonally adjusted basis, steeper than the 1.5 percent decline in October." American families increased their savings to 3.6 percent in December, according to Charles Schwab, up from almost zero a year before.

Consumption goes underground

While the uber-consumption of the last 18 years has ended, old habits are hard to break. While people are spending less because they have less, shoppers are still spending what they have.

During the last recession, it made sense (to some at least) to encourage shopping, traveling, and theater-going. "Get on board [airplanes]," former President George Bush said. "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." (The approach apparently continued to have appeal in the Bush White House during the current recession, though Bush's economics adviser admitted that "the president going out and telling people to go shop probably would not get the financial sector back in shape.") ...

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