A survey last month by the Pew Research Center on Social & Demographic trends found that only 47% percent of the respondents considered a microwave a necessity rather than a luxury, down 21 points from 2006. This is just one curious finding from a much broader survey relating to how the population is weathering the bad economic climate. After commenting that people who have been hit the hardest over the last year or two are more inclined than others to take steps to brace themselves for the future, the authors of the report note that "this distinction doesn't apply to changing perceptions about what's a luxury and what's a necessity." That shift is widespread, they maintain. I'm encouraged by their analysis. There are few necessities, hordes of luxurious baubles. (I count high-end audio among the former, by the way, in which respect I am woefully undernourished.)
That is, I'm encouraged until I read the New York Times story reporting on the Pew survey and others' views of the trend not to spend. Beginning with the lede there is squishy talk of a "culture of thrift" and financial virtue, and then a bit later, "the forces that enabled and even egged on consumers to save less and spend more—easy credit and skyrocketing asset values..." Of what does this culture and its virtue consist? Whence these forces? One sentence coyly avoids making the connection: "American businesses have become so dependent on consumer spending that any pullback sends ripples through the economy." There's no mention here of business' dependency on other businesses, or of savage competition among businesses for consumers' dollars. That might intimate a more systemic problem, worthy of systemic repair.
If I had read it only in the NYT, I would not have accepted that people are saving more. For one thing, it doesn't make any sense. Perhaps we're trying to save more, or planning to do so, but I know the more I think about bolstering savings, the clearer it becomes I won't be able to do so. (For me this means no upgrade to my turntable's suspension, power supply, or onboard phono stage, not to mention no new amplifiers, no new CD player... Oh, yeah, and then I have a wife and kid and self to feed and stuff.) Since Pew says it's so, though, I'm more inclined to accept the trend. Still, the Times and its tapped experts ought to cool the analysis a bit. It's obvious that saving for contingencies is a good thing, Keynes be damned.
Today being Mother's Day, I dedicate this post to my mom, who knows how to save. Yes, she owns a luxurious microwave, but it surely must by now be an antique, and she's too thrifty to buy a new one.