What has become of the American Dream?

Although I tend to run long on posts, I’ll try to keep things simpler and shorter.

Before I answer the question posed in the title, perhaps another question needs to be answered: What IS the American Dream? The two part answer begins with a quote from “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” from Delmar. Laying on the ground near the fire, the three compatriots are discussing what they’ll do with the ‘loot’ from the non-existent ‘treasure’ they are seeking. “Gonna buy back the family farm”, Delmar says. “You ain’t no kinda man if you ain’t got land.” So the first part of the answer is: property. Not every man wants ‘land’ in the sense of actual acres. Some want a townhouse or a tract home or some other description of the same thing: a place to call home that is yours. Yours and the bank, most likely. But yours on some paperwork. Something that you can’t be thrown out of on a whim of the owner.

The second part of the answer is more complex, because it varies according to the person asked. For parents, invariably the answer is ‘a better life for my kids’ – with better needing definition. For non-parents, it’s ‘a better life than my parents had’. In all cases, the idea is to have something ‘more’ than what the previous group had.

That, in itself, is a unique expectation. Most in pre-America times simply wanted either the status quo or not to decline in status. They didn’t expect that each generation would get more than the generation they belonged to. It could be argued (and perhaps successfully) that folks from times before America were regularly ravaged by plagues or wars and that a feudal system existed that didn’t foster the idea of upward mobility. Food was often scarce and heat and shelter were main desires during the colder months. The very concept of all that they had being a base and that the next generation should expect to add to it was completely foreign.

The American Dream began truly with America. America started, for the new settlers at least, on one coast of a vast continent. Expansion (difficult in populated Europe) was always possible. If there were too many neighbors, land was too expensive or you wanted to break free, just move West. (OK, so that’s vastly oversimplified, but it is accurate in the bigger picture.) So both the ideas incorporated in the American Dream – property to call home and a better existence – were not only possible, but probable. Further, there was no feudal system, no lord to pay off, to make these things real. (Again, arguments can be made about the rich landholders and mortgages and … and those are accurate, too. We threw off the yoke of feudal lords and exchanged it for the yoke of bankers.)

For the first 150 years or so following independence, the realization of the American Dream was possible and happened. Once we reached the West Coast, things began to change. Reality changed, but the dream did not. The free land of the expansion of the country ended, but the industrial revolution changed the method of achieving the Dream. We went from simply grabbing a piece of land and building it up piece by piece, to exchanging our labor and time and lifes for security and a future – the middle class had arrived.

The Dream was still a place to call home and upward mobility. That was now achieved by getting a good job in a company that offered benefits and perhaps a retirement and then saving. You saved for a bigger house, a new car and your children’s college educations. The low cost of living combined with the high wages that many jobs paid and the benefits they offered. Steelworkers, factory workers, construction trades of all types offered the Dream in a job. A package of wages, vacation time and retirement.

The Dream became crystallized as a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a dad who worked and a mom who took care of the two or three kids. They paid a mortgage and saved money and went on vacations and sent their kids to college. For perhaps three or four generations, this was a reality. Of course not for everyone – that’s why it was called the middle class. Some fell below for any number of reasons. Laziness, bad attitudes, poor parenting, they were black when black wasn’t ok, they never got the education for whatever reason, the parents were spendthrifts or drifted from place to place. Increasingly, as time marched on, drugs and drink also became huge detractors from the Dream.

There are other factors: as we reached the borders and built the industries, we were also involved in two world wars. These fueled, like nothing else, the demand for our goods that in turn, fueled the Dream.

There is a problem with perception, whether about this subject or most any other that has its roots in history. The perception is that this is something that has gone on forever and is only now changing, disintegrating. It’s not so. First, the Dream is at most, 200 years old. Second, the Dream has had interruptions – some, very long. Even those are integrated into the perception of the Dream, however. The Great Depression, which affected nearly everyone, everywhere, is viewed not as an interruption, but instead an obstacle that was overcome. Ask those that lived through it if that’s how they view it. Ask the thousands of farmers who escaped the Dust Bowl. Ask now, the steelworkers or factory workers if this is an interruption. Interruptions are only viewed that way from the 50,000 foot model – at ground level they are the end of the Dream, not simply a postponement or delay.

So what of the Dream now? The Dream  is like growth in any mature corporation in modern society, it is in trouble. Since the Dream and growth are both intertwined and each considered the only true measure of success, each is considered indispensable. The mature corporation ends up reaching all of its consumers, just like America has reached all of its borders. In the past, corporations simply expanded overseas. Countries did too – whether through annexation or colonization. That has changed too. Not only have corporations and countries matured, so has the opportunity to grow through expanding the target base. Every inch of the planet is owned. Most every consumer reached.

Since the Dream was financed by growth and growth is stagnated, what happens? Americans have chosen, over the past 30 years, to have cheaper goods (and therefore more of them) rather than stability and jobs. They complain endlessly about the loss of jobs, but they themselves caused it. They demand cheaper prices – yet higher wages and more benefits. The corporation, squeezed on all sides by the endless search for growth, began to consume from inside. It cut out every person, plant, benefit and machine it could. It sent jobs to places where the workers didn’t ask for benefits. Growth came not in earnings but in cutting expenses.

America itself doesn’t seem to have the same stomach for that and frankly, doesn’t have to follow the model. Unlike a corporation, the country that needs more money prints more money. Simple.

But again, where does that leave the Dream? For the first time since “America” began, the Dream is faltering. One could argue that the Depression saw the same thing. True, but both the country and industry had not fully matured. That occurred during the second world war. Leaders since then have tried war as the mechanism of growth. But wars of the scale of the two world wars aren’t really possible anymore. No one could afford them. So we fight smaller, more expensive wars. Those don’t contribute much to the Dream, however. WWII allowed for anyone who wanted work to obtain it.

The move of jobs overseas hasn’t been the only thing killing the Dream. Mechanization has done the same thing. From computers than can do the work of dozens of accountants or secretaries or filing clerks to robots that make cars faster – and better, jobs are lost in every sector of the work force. Economists say this allows workers to seek better opportunities. The reality is much different. The 45 year old factory worker can not, in most cases, seek “better opportunities”. Since many lived paycheck to paycheck, the loss of that paycheck meant the end of opportunities. He cannot pickup and move to where the jobs are. Here in our country, there aren’t many places where ‘the jobs are’ to move to. And most of the ones that are seeking workers are very specialized. He cannot go to school for years to acquire those special skills – and he couldn’t compete with the kids coming out of college who do have those skills.

So many decisions, corporate and state, are made on the basis of economists predictions. But most models that economists use don’t take into account real people. It’s one thing to say that a displaced auto worker who earned $50,000 a year and has lost his job can now seek a job in computer programming or mobile application development – because he’s been freed of having to work in the factory. It’s quite another for that to actually happen. And very few of the decisions that are made incorporate the money or programs needed for that worker to make that transition.

For many, perhaps for most, the American Dream is just that right now – a dream. A fantasy. Homes may be at very low prices in some places. But low is relative – and they are still expensive. At the same time, lending has tightened so that many who could pay the payments are frozen out of the opportunity since lenders don’t want more toxic assets. Because those that can have played out virtually every possible tool for speculation (commodities, stock market, homes), the resultant industries have squeezed over possible job out to remain in that growth column.

If education was offered to all, this might be, like the Great Depression, a generational thing. We might lose one generation to poverty and decline, but we’d take up the slack again with the new generation, educated for the new economy and ready to take the new jobs that economists predicted would arise.

After all, robot-izing the modern factory means robot fixers are needed and robot programmers are in demand. So the guys who used to turn wrenches can now push buttons (again, according to the economists). If education was offered to the new generation, they’d come out ready to do those jobs. They would move from physical to mental jobs. We’re smart enough – we did come up with this stuff, right? The new computers all over the accountants offices and filing clerks and secretatries desks would all need fixing and programming, too!

Except for one thing: education, which is available in almost every single advanced society on the planet, is not free in America. Further, the ability to get an advanced education is based almost solely on the learners ability to get funded. Credit scores are king. So the rich kids, they move right into the best schools.

There is another thing. As the middle class has become decimated by the loss of security, health care, jobs and homes, the family unit has dissolved. Primary schools have devolved into structured babysitters. There is little to no emphasis on learning or ensuring that students have learned. Teachers are fighting hard against any program that punishes – or rewards  – them based on student performance. The students themselves are more concerned about what cell phone they have, what apps it contains and what clothes they wear than what classes they take or what they have learned.

American media plays right into it. We have a half-hour ‘news’ program at 6pm with 2-4 minutes of news, then lots of fluff. Americans don’t travel outside America anymore and most view every other culture as not just foreign, but not connected. Bombs exploding in Gaza are something someone else needs to worry about – the new Samsung phone is out!

So those that are needed to move from their old jobs to the new jobs have little incentive to do so. The kids are not motivated and the schools do nothing to motivate them. They know their choices are limited once high school is over: work at menial jobs in food or retail, or aquire massive debt in pursuit of a degree. Which, more and more, seems to not guarantee success, either.

The hard truth is that we, as a society, have lost our motivation.

The other truth is more problematic and no one wants to talk about it. We don’t have enough jobs for the number of people we have. And since so few are educated for the jobs we do have, we need to import smart people to do them. The low end of jobs in our country is increasingly filled by illegal immigrants who are desired and supported by both political parties since they fill a critical need – low cost labor. The same thing that moved our manufacturing jobs to other countries. The high end jobs are filled by the rich and by foreigners. The middle class is not just under attack from the outside, but the inside as well.

We have too many people who don’t want to work to get what they want.

That is what is killing the American Dream.

– Too few good labor jobs.

– Too many loafers.

– Lax immigration controls based on actually wanting illegals to work and not become Americans.

– Too many people.

– Decisions based on economists models that don’t take into account real people, real situations or real results.

The Dream, like Growth, is now largely beyond the reach of most people. The real question is what are we going to do about it.

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~ by Mad Prophet on November 23, 2012.

4 Responses to “What has become of the American Dream?”

  1. I enjoy your deep thoughts and many of your ideas are similar to my own. I think your blog is refreshing to read! 🙂

  2. I don’t recall any guarantees that any dream.. be it “American” or any other label, was somehow guaranteed for everyone. A dream is simply that.. a dream. The question is less about how we are going to “spread the wealth” in some form for everyone to achieve their American Dream, and more about your personal ability to achieve your own dream on your own. You say it yourself in your last sentence… the Dream is beyond the reach of “most” people. Well, of course it is. If everyone got their dream there would be no need to dream. Our Constitution… our Bill of Rights… says nothing about guarantees that you will get your dreams realized. All it does is set the rules of the playing field. If your dreams are all wrapped up by cyclical limitations in the complexities of a current political or economic environment then either change your dreams or adapt to conditions and endeavor to achieve the best way you can. The whole purpose of the Constitution is that no one person is entitled to anything yet everyone is entitled to try.
    Think less about what economic villain to blame for your failed dreams and focus more on the dream itself.

    • As always, excellent comments Doug! Personally, I feel I have achieved many of my dreams. In fact, I would say I continue to do that.

      As a long time conservative (some used to say I was so right, I couldn’t make a left), I feel the conservative movement has moved so far to the right that it no longer serves the people. No matter what else we do as leaders or citizens, caring about (which is more than just saying ‘aww, poor guy’) those who cannot reach for the Dream is part of what we must do.

      I’m not sure I said anything was guaranteed – you’re not guaranteed to make it out of the womb, must less to Cannes in your own yacht. But, for all those physically and mentally able, the Dream should be something that, if they work for it, they can realize. I don’t think that’s true anymore. To be honest, I’m not sure it EVER was. I only live in my times and other times are typically recorded by the victors or the victims – rarely by a disinterested third party.

      I’m finding it hard to understand how our leaders can find $1.8T for TARP and continuing “quantitative easings’ yet cannot fund even basic services. The Feds took on education and other services which, according to the 10th Amendment, should have been left to the states. They took them on to increase their power. (I say that so their won’t be a retort of “that’s not their role” – I agree. However, you assume the mantel, expect to wear it.)

      Thanks again – and I look forward to your remarks.

  3. My family members all the time say that I am wasting my time here at net, but I know I am getting experience all
    the time by reading such fastidious content.

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