The psychology has now reversed. The bias is against extra spending.
Eat out? Try leftovers. Remodel the basement? Oh, leave it alone.
In the boom years, the personal saving rate (saving as a share of after-tax income) fell from 10.9 percent in 1982 to 1.5 percent in 2005. Now it's edging up; from 2010 to 2012, it averaged 4.4 percent. It could go higher, imposing a further drag on the economy.
Businesses have also retreated. They resist approving the next loan, job hire or investment.
Since 1959, business investment in factories, offices and equipment has averaged 11 percent of the economy (gross domestic product) and peaked at nearly 13 percent. It's now a shade over 10 percent, reports economist Nigel Gault of IHS Global Insight.
Note that these attitudes govern sectors accounting for roughly four-fifths of the economy: consumer spending is about 70 percent of GDP; business investment is the rest. They dwarf housing construction, about 2.5 percent of GDP.
The caution and risk-aversion aren't so great as to cause a recession, but on the margin they have limited the economy's expansion to rates - lately, 1 percent to 2 percent - too weak to absorb most jobless.
Pessimism produces a sluggish economy; a sluggish economy produces pessimism. That's the main explanation of poor job creation.
This psychological shift stemmed from the fact that the financial crisis and Great Recession were largely unpredicted.
Americans aren't just deleveraging. They're also building wealth to protect themselves against unknown dangers
Perhaps the stock market's recent assault on record highs signals restored confidence, but remember: The market is simply regaining levels of late 2007. A report from Credit Suisse argues that returns to stocks will average about 3.5 percent annually (after inflation) in the next 20 years, down sharply from 6 percent since 1950.
To compensate for lower returns, companies would need to contribute more to pensions. Wages would suffer. Consumption spending would weaken.
We are hostage to a stubborn, restraining psychology.
There's no obvious fix for slow job growth precisely because it requires a change in public mood or some autonomous source of added demand - a burst of exports, investment in new technologies - not easily predicted or controlled.
It could happen but is hardly guaranteed.
Politics does matter, to a point. Constant budget and tax feuds between the White House and Congress spawn uncertainty and subvert confidence. Obamacare's disincentives to hiring hurt, though how much is unclear.
But grandiose solutions, say infrastructure spending, founder on practicality. A meaningful level of projects would take time to start and add excessively to budget deficits. We wait and hope.