The contradictions of social commentary: too much and too little saving and moving is bad

In this week’s column, Gregg Easterbrook points out two interesting contradictory social messages regarding the behavior of the American public:

Ten years ago the fact that Americans had a negative savings rate — by borrowing, most spent more than their incomes — was said to be very bad. In the last three years the personal savings rate has gone steadily up as Americans react to the unsettled economy by spending less and building up reserves. That was supposed to be bad, too. Prominent commentators blamed “higher personal saving” for dampened demand, which in turn slows GDP growth. So not saving is bad, and saving is also bad.

Wait — the latest indicators are that not saving is on the upswing again, and of course, that’s bad. The sudden surge in not saving “raises the question of whether consumers are returning to their old spendthrift habits.”

In the recent past, the fact Americans move often has been decried as rootlessness and a barometer of too many unconnected to the life of their communities. “Bowling alone” and all that. Now comes word that the Great Recession has led to a sharp decline in moving. Previously, moving was said to be bad. Now not moving is bad, being spun as evidence of “loss of mobility.”

Here are several possible interpretations of these conflicting takes:
1. Commentators have moved to generally seeing only negative traits in people’s behaviors.

2. Most commentators genuinely don’t know what is good or bad for the economy or larger society so they always suggest the opposite. Sometimes they may be right, sometimes they may be wrong.

2a. An added bonus: when the situation appears to be “bad” (which is often a social construction itself), commentators want any action that attempts to reverse the trend. Doing nothing is seen as worse than trying something that you perhaps think has a reasonable chance of failing.

3. Americans themselves live with these tensions. Take the mobility issue. We have always had a running battle in the United States between rootedness/community and mobility. We say we value civic organizations and discussions but we also are willing to drop everything and leave if a great job offer comes along. Plenty of people wrestle with this on a regular basis. These commentators simply reflect true tensions in American culture.

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