David B.




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February 5, 2009

Americans Learn to Live With Less . . . and Like It


One of those tiresome little statistics that few of us can be troubled to pay attention to is the rate at which Americans save money rather than spend it, measured as an average percentage of personal income.


Economics, it is said, is a dull science, and such a colorless slice of arcane usually wouldn’t merit notice beyond the pocket-protector set – especially since it has scarcely changed in decades, shriveling only a touch at a time in the years since the 1980s, finally arriving at an inconsiderable 0.6 percent during the majority of the Bush Administration.


So why bother bringing it up now? Well, an evident seismic shift in the public mindset has led to something of an uptick in the savings rate, to 3.6 percent. A six-fold increase, in other words.


Such an increase seems a bit more dramatic when you consider that savings, such as they may be, are culled from discretionary income – the money that’s left over once the food’s bought, the house note paid, the car filled with gas, the electric company and the tax man satisfied. That extra 3 percent Americans are trying to sock away is coming from the tiny percentage of their incomes left to them once the butcher, the baker and all and sundry have taken their inevitable cut. In a lot of cases, that 3 percent likely represents all that is left.


That means a lot of unbought movie tickets, restaurant meals, health club memberships and flat-screen TVs.


Americans are learning – finally – that not only can they live without a lot of the stuff that Madison Avenue has told them is indispensable for the last several generations, but they can live without it and like it. Fear of rough economic times may have triggered the savings uptick, but in the end, to save or spend – at least insofar as HDTVs and Blackberries and RVs are concerned – is a matter of personal choice, and Americans are simply choosing not to.


Hence 7,000 layoffs nationwide at Macy’s. More tellingly, 26 million additional unemployed in China in the space of a single month as the factories that typically manufacture the worthless baubles we buy at Wal-Mart either slow down or shut down.


In his 1960s book To Have Or To Be, pioneering psychologist Erich Fromm posited that contrary to the consumerist indoctrination all of us receive, the impulse to acquire was in fact in direct opposition to the achievement of personal happiness and satisfaction, rather than supportive of it. The “having” impulse, Fromm posited, resulted in an anxious, fearful mode of existence: When not struggling to acquire more, we were busy guarding what we’d already gotten, and in doing so, precluding ourselves from fully appreciating the interactions, sensations and experiences taht make up the texture of daily life.


As evidenced by the glut of consumer items on which we have gorged ourselves in the years since, it wasn’t a message we were ready to take to heart. At the same time, despite our frenzied trips to the mall and our orgy of one-click Amazon shopping, we have shown ourselves to be innately as miserable – if not more miserable – than ever, as measured in divorce rates, suicide rates, and alcoholism levels.


Maybe a good sharp recession was precisely what was needed to knock sense into thick American heads. Apart from the assumed virtue of saving for preparedness’s sake, we are individually and collectively reaping the psychological benefits of stepping off of the consumerist hamster wheel for a while, taking stock and assessing whether we really need or want the mountains of expensive junk the television is eagerly trying to sell us, and whether or not our time, resources, and attention might better be directed to pursuits other than the endless aquarium-filter style accumulation of consumer flotsam.


Just maybe, if we try a little, we can find a better reason than “buying stuff” to exist.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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