February 5, 2009
Americans Learn to Live With Less . . . and
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
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
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
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