Terrance Heath

The American Dream Deferred

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 18, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: American Dream, economic justice, health care reform, langston hughes, unemployment

Langston Hughes once asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?"; LangstonHughes.jpga rhetorical question answered with still more questions. The current economic crisis raises a similar question: What’s happened to the American Dream? According to-- a recent survey, less than one-third of us are confident of reaching "the American Dream."

The survey is a depressing review of how people view their situation and the nation in general. Among the findings:

- Only 23 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction with 67 percent saying "things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track."

- Just 27 percent say they are "extremely confident" of reaching the American Dream, down from 40 percent a year ago.

- 78 percent say they have less trust in government.

- 69 percent feel it will be harder to reach the American Dream than it was for their parents; 73 percent say it will be still harder for their children or grandchildren to reach the American Dream.

- 23 percent believe America is a country on the rise, down from 32 percent last year. Only 39 percent believe America represents the future, with 57 percent saying that the world looks to other nations now. And 52 percent say it's China that represents the future.

Most of us feel it’s out of reach, and our kids have even less of a shot at it. Can you blame us? Financial gurus like Suze Orman declare the American Dream DOA and advise us to get used to it. The Republican budget that all but finishes it off. If the American Dream isn’t dead it’s at least in the ICU, and the priest has been paged.


What Dream?

What is the American Dream anyway? Perhaps a better question might be "What was the American Dream?", because in this economy it ain't what it used to be.

The idea predates the United States, actually. Going back to the first Europeans to reach the Americas, it originally embodied the possibilities and opportunities of the "New World" -- opportunities to own land and establish businesses that would yield prosperity and happiness; opportunities not offered in the old, established class systems in the "old country," where wealth and power tended to stay concentrated among the already wealthy and powerful.

It wasn't until 1931 that James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream in his book The Epic of America:

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

How's that working out for us? That depends on who you ask.

If you ask William Rivers Pitt, this is the Golden Age of the American Dream - if you are wealthy.

If you are wealthy, you are living in the Golden Age of your American Dream, and it's a damned fine time to be alive. The two major political parties are working hammer and tong to bless you and keep you. The laws are being re-written - often by fiat, and in defiance of court orders - to strengthen the walls separating you and your wealth from the motley masses. Your stock portfolio, mostly made by and for oil and war, continues to swell. Your banks and Wall Street shops destroyed the economy for everyone except you, and not only did they get away with it, they were handed a vast dollop of taxpayer cash as a bonus prize.

The little people probably crack you up when you bother to think about them. Their version of the American Dream is a ragged blanket too short to cover them, but they still buy into it, and that's the secret of your strength in the end. So many of them walk into the voting booths and solemnly vote against their own best interests, and for yours, because the American Dream makes them think they, too, will be rich someday. They won't - you've made sure of that - but so long as they keep believing it, your money will continue to roll in.


In that American Dream, corporations like GE, Chevron and Exxon make huge profits, pay no taxes, and sometimes still get tax returns; banks like bank of America and Citigroup get a tax payer funded bailout, make record profits, and also sometimes get tax refunds. Meanwhile politicians like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor want to cut programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- that have gone a long way towards ensuring better, richer and fuller life for millions of Americans. In the name of "shared sacrifice in the face of the economic crisis, some of these programs "cant exist," as Cantor said, and then said again.

Whose fault is that? Pitt writes of the "little people" who "walk into the voting booth and solemnly vote against their own interests." So did those American workers, those "little people" aid and abet this revision of the American Dream, by pulling the lever and electing lawmakers who seek to cut the very programs that made their middle class lives possible? (How many working families could absorb the cost of grandma's nursing home care, or the cost of home nursing in the absence of Medicare?)

Did they get what they deserved, as columnist Ray Bursma wrote? I tend to agree with Dave Johnson.

So is it the fault of American workers that their wages and benefits have declined as jobs are shipped overseas?

I don't blame working people. After all, they're working! So they're busy, and stressed, and focused on work. They can't be expected to keep up with the little details and facts and nuances -- especially when they are attacked daily with a barrage of well-funded and professionally crafted corporate/conservative propaganda!

This assault on information and truth has been going on for decades. Under Reagan there was a dramatic shift toward "market" -- one-dollar-one-vote -- sources of information and away from objective, citizen-oriented democratic -- one-person-one-vote -- sources. This market-sourced information necessarily reflects a conservative/corporate view because it is driven by money and profit instead of humanity and humanity's needs.


Working- and middle class Americans didn't define the American Dream downward. Ask most of them, and I doubt they'll say that our current economic state is where they were hoping we'd end up. They were sold a bill of goods that redistributing wealth upwards via tax cuts would yield prosperity, and are now being sold a bill of goods that cutting discretionary spending -- destroying Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- will yield fiscal solvency.

In some sense, it's testament to the power of the ideal of the American Dream -- the part which holds that in a land of equal opportunity, anything is possible through hard work and perseverance -- that so many Americans voted as they did through decades of increased productivity and declining wages.

Author Craig Comstock points to Harvard Business School survey showing how radically Americans underestimate economic inequality.


Here are the figures from their survey:

  • The sample regarded as fair a 32% share of the national wealth for the top fifth of the population ("quintile").
  • What they thought is now the share of this same group: 59%
  • The actual share at the time of the survey: 84%
The gaps here are so extreme as to raise the question: in a country proud of its democracy, how does the top fifth get away with owning 84% of the national wealth? Even more startling, how is the top 1% of people allowed to own nearly 50% of the wealth?

In the last 30 years, since around the start of the 1980s, we have witnessed, apart from the rich, only a "stagnation" of income. So far, this "plateau" has been disguised by more than one member of the household working, by the availability of cheap goods from abroad, and by the magic of inflation (when dollar income rises; but purchasing power does not).

Comstock pinned that apparent economic blind spot on "the little people not suffering a noticeable decline in purchasing power."

Chrystia Freeland, writing in the NY Times last month, blamed it on what she called the "lottery effect."

Aside from faith in American national excellence, the other main reason Americans seem so unperturbed by the widening chasm between the rich and everyone else is what I like to call the lottery effect. Buying lottery tickets is clearly an irrational act -- the odds are hugely stacked against us. But many millions of us do, because we see the powerful evidence that an ordinary person, someone just like us whose only qualifying act was to buy a ticket, wins our favorite lottery every week.

For many Americans, the nation's rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman. The current leading exemplar of self-made billions is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and he may soon be outstripped by the even more instant cyber-star Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon.

But the problem with lotteries is that there are only a few winners. That is the story the numbers tell us about American capitalism today -- and unless that underlying reality changes, at some point all those folks who think they already live in Sweden will realize they live in a winner-take-all society, and that most of us aren't winning.


The lottery is as good a metaphor as any. I'd probably have labeled it the "casino effect." I only had one experience with a casino, years ago, but it was enough. A friend of mine who frequently visited Atlantic City took me there for my birthday. I was just a few years into recovery, and a bit wary of the idea, but I went anyway. Fearing a gambling, I set a dollar amount above which I would not gamble.

I was overwhelmed by the marble floors and flashing lights of the hotel and casino. My friend had been there many times, and so our meals and drinks were complimentary, and we got a discounted rate on our room. I quickly reached my the gambling limit I'd set for myself. Having come so close some sizable wins, only to lose, I wanted "just one more try." I was on my way to the ATM in the hotel lobby when I overheard someone crying.

A woman sobbed into the pay phone, telling someone she'd lost all of her money, including ticket fare home. She wasn't alone. A desperate sounding young on another phone asked a friend or relative to wire money. More people were anxiously awaiting their turns on the pay phones. Still others paced lobby, talking into mobile phones. They were all telling the same story; some only to go right back for more.

I realized then what should have been obvious when I walked into the casino. There are only a few really big winners. The rest of us were lucky if we broke even, but we weren't winning. At that point, I decided to cut my losses. I stayed away from the ATM and my money staid where it was. But I realized the hotel and casino basically ran on the hopes and dreams of those people I saw in the hotel lobby, that they might win big -- despite the odds. I had been of them, after all, placing bets and ignoring the odds.

Most of us keep placing bets and keep buying lottery tickets, even when its not in our best interests, because we've bought into the idea that we have an equal chance of winning big. There's a certain degree of personal responsibility there, sure. I made a choice to gamble, and then made a choice not to go to the ATM and place more bets.

Yet, there's enough responsibility to go around. In the Barnum & Bailey world of American conservatives, there's a sucker born every minute and almost no wrong way to make a buck. There's no shame in being a scammer, but plenty in being scammed. As Rick Santelli said, "You can't cheat an honest man." So who cares that predatory banks? Right?

When someone keeps buying snake oil over and over again, it may be because they don't know any better. Maybe the don't know it doesn't work. The same doesn't apply to the snake oil salesman. The snake oil salesman almost certainly knows his product doesn't work, and thus designs his pitch to distract his customers from asking too many questions lest they figure it out and ruin his business. That, and his customers own desperate for relief from their afflictions, is what kept the snake oil salesman going, after all.

Well, if the American dream is struggling, it's because (a) we've been treating it with snake oil for too long, and (b) we keep buying the same snake oil. It hasn't worked yet, but the GOP keeps selling it to us in different packaging -- now, with the new Tea Party label -- promising that this time its new and improved, and sure to work. The economy, and the American Dream along with it, are sick enough that they just might be able to sell it to us again.

Eric Cantor wasn't speaking specifically of the American Dream when he talked about the need to cut Medicare, but he was selling the same snake oil that's hastened its decline.


But, reading between the lines of Cantor’s words and the GOP agenda, Digby saw a redefinition of the American Dream.

You see, it’s the spending mandate that’s causing the low quality of care. If states have less money to work with the poor will be much better off. Isn’t that how it works in your family? Isn’t your life always improved when you lose income? In fact, I think the Republicans have come upon an excellent new theme: The new American Dream —doing more with less!

That reminds me of something I said a while back.

Anti-unionization, deregulation, and increased outsources are all hallmarks of contemporary conservatism. So, at least we know who to thank for our current situation. But that’s the unspoken message of conservative economic philosophy in a globalized economy: the only way Americans can "compete in a global economy" as envisioned and delivered by conservatism is to accept a lower standard of living. As low as the market demands. How low? Read up on working and living standards in just about any country you can find on any label on just about anything in your own house.

Whose dream is that? Better question: Whose nightmare?

img wikipedia; cross-posted at Republic of T


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The American Dream died for middle america around the time of Reagan.