jamessaft1.jpg–James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Rest in peace, Great American Consumer. We will not see your like again.

“Cash-for-clunkers” aside, consumers seem bent on actually paying back debt rather than racking it up, a change that if sustained, as it is likely to be, will dampen economic growth not for months but for years, and not just in the U.S.

Outstanding U.S. consumer borrowing fell by a jaw-dropping $21.6 billion in July, according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve, five times more than analysts expected and the second largest monthly drop since the end of World War II.

June’s borrowing was revised to negative $15.5 billion from what had been an impressive minus $10.3 billion.

Over the past year, the stock of consumer loans outstanding has dropped by 4.2 percent, or nearly $110 billion, leaving the total now lower than it was before the crisis began in 2007.