Among citizens of the world's industrialized nations, Americans are the worst at saving their money. They sock away a much smaller percentage of disposable income than the Japanese, Germans, Canadians, British or French - all competitors in the glo-bal marketplace.
It is surely no coincidence that among those countries, the United States is the only one without generally available tax incentives to encourage its citizens to put money into savings accounts.President Bush has sought to introduce a "family savings plan" that would offer tax-free interest with some penalty-free withdrawal options and other variations. Present Individual Retirement Accounts already allow for tax-deferred interest.
But the mood in Congress - at least in the Senate - is to turn back the clock to the old IRA system. Before the 1986 tax reform law, individuals could deposit up to $2,000 a year into an IRA and not have to pay any taxes on the deposit or earnings until the money was withdrawn.
Some 72 senators, a veto-proof majority, are introducing an IRA proposal with three options. One would be the old tax-deductible IRA; a second would make interest tax-free if held in the savings account for five years or longer; or an account could be split between the two types.
The bill would allow penalty-free withdrawals to make a down payment on a first home, to pay catastrophic medical expenses, or finance a college education - all justifiable out-lays.
The Bush administration is against the Senate measure because it could affect federal tax revenues. While incentives to encourage savings certainly cut into tax revenue, the advantages make up for it.
Personal savings not only increase the financial security of individual Americans, they provide banks with more money for investment capital, help lower interest rates for borrowers and encourage growth and jobs. In turn, this produces more taxes.
If America is ever to have a sense of financial security, people must learn to save money and avoid debt. Living near the edge on borrowed money - whether done by individuals or governments - is asking for trouble. And sooner or later, trouble always arrives.