What Is This American Dream Anyway?

Recent events have got me thinking about the American Dream.

Here in our nation’s capital, a conference brought together a large group of well-known progressives under the rubric “Take Back the American Dream.”

The plan, we’re told, was to “channel … grassroots energy into an unstoppable force” that would counter corporate and Tea Party threats to “the fundamental pillars of middle class prosperity.”

One of the two sponsoring organizations was the newly-formed Rebuild the Dream — a nonprofit that “tells the story of, and acts as a hub for the emerging American Dream Movement.”

It’s got a contract that’s clearly a counterpoint to the Republicans’ Contract With America and the update Pledge version they issued last year.

Ten steps to get our economy back on track — mostly policy positions that progressive organizations have argued for at least since the last Presidential election.

It’s the preamble, however, that tells us what the American Dream means to the organization and the more than 306,000 people who’ve signed on to the contract.

“Liberty and justice … for all,” it says. “Americans who are willing to work hard and play by the rules should be able to find a decent job, get a good home in a strong community, retire with dignity, and give their kids a better life.”

We see similar sentiments in the We Are the 99 Percent stories brought to us, we’re told, by “the people who occupy wall street.”

As Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein observes, these generally aren’t rants against the system, anarchist manifestos or calls for revolution, though some of the movers and shakers envision the Wall Street occupation as a seedbed for radical change of some sort.

They’re “small stories of people who played by the rules … and now have nothing to show for it” — or “worse … tens of thousands of debt.”

Here again the notion of playing by the rules and the expected payoff.

The very fact there are so many stories tells us something about the distress that millions of Americans are feeling.

The home page summarizes many of their grievances. “We are getting kicked out of our homes … forced to choose between groceries and rent … denied quality medical care … forced to work long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all.”

Add to these the many references to large debts, mostly for college loans. These tell us something about the age group most actively engaged in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but also why.

The writers feel betrayed by the rules.

Get a good education and you’re on your way to a secure middle-class life. Who didn’t hear this during their growing-up years?

But the Heldrich Center reports that only 56% of those who got their degrees last year were employed in spring 2011. Stories of those who’re tending bar, pumping gas or flipping burgers at McDonald’s are unfortunately commonplace.

Many more figures on the American Dream blog, which proclaims that “millions of young Americans want what was promised to them. They want good jobs that will enable them to enjoy the ‘American Dream.'” And they’re “mad as hell.”

When the term “American Dream” was coined, in 1931, it referred mainly to equality of opportunity.

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” wrote James Truslow Adams, “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.”

Rebuild the American Dream’s contract reflects this vision in its reference to “liberty and justice.” But — and I think this is characteristic of the common understanding now — “justice” means reaping the economic rewards of “playing by the rules.”

The problems that have brought the American Dream to the fore are, in many cases, recession-related.

But they seem to have convinced many people that something is fundamentally wrong with our system — something that can’t be cured just by creating more jobs and getting the rich to pay their fair share.

And indeed, something is fundamentally wrong. But it’s something — or rather, some things — that have been wrong for longer than the American Dream has been part of our language.

There have always been people who worked hard, stayed out of trouble, honored their debts, scrimped and saved as best they could and yet never got anything like the payoffs that the current American Dream promises.

No “pillars of middle class prosperity for them.”

I would hope that any reforms that emerge from the groundswell of anger and frustration we’re witnessing would bring the American Dream within the reach of these people too.

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2 Responses to What Is This American Dream Anyway?

  1. […] in basic national values like the belief that hard work pays off — what we sometimes call the American Dream. Tamp down what seem to be some stirrings of social instability too, I […]

  2. Nalliah Thayabharan says:

    “Foreclosure of American Dream By Wall Street” – End of an Empire

    – Nalliah Thayabharan

    Wall Street is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises, gambling, bets and rampant speculations. Wall Street doesn’t manufacture or produce anything. Wall Street , however attractive it may appear, is built on paper.
    Wall Street speculation caused a 70% increase in the price of wheat from June to December 2010 and severed food crisis in more than 35 countries. However, there was no significant change in the global food supply or in food demand. The total value of Wall Street speculative financial derivatives reached more than $600 trillion – about 10 times global GDP. Wall street’s peculative derivatives are virtually untaxed and banks often avoid paying tax on profits from selling derivatives. Every consumer is paying more for commodities including food and fuel due to the excessive speculation by Wall Street.
    Modern day bank robbers are at Wall Street but they wear grey suits and not masks. Rampant speculators, propagandists and financiers of Wall Street are all given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers and the cumulative effect of the people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public’s trust in the present US government. There’s no question that Wall Street is rigged against the average consumers and taxpayers. Wall Street has a lot more information. Wall Street jerry-rigged the system so that Wall Street always win. If Wall Street loses trillions, the US Treasury will bail the Wall Street out so it can go back and do it again.
    50 trillion dollars in global wealth was erased between September 2007 and March 2009, including 7 trillion dollars in the US stock market, 6 trillion dollars in the US housing market, 8 trillion dollars in the US retirement and household wealth, 2 trillion dollars in the US individual retirement accounts, 2 trillion dollars in the US traditional defined benefit plans and 3 trillion dollars in the US nonpension assets. Greed, arrogance and incompetence created a massive meltdown, cost trillions, and still Wall Street comes out richer and more powerful.
    There are trillions dollars of new money taken again from Americans to make deals and hand out outrageous bonuses. And when these trillions run out, Wall Street will come back for more until the dollar becomes junk. The value of the US dollar declined very significantly during the last 70 years. The value of the US dollar in 1940 was worth 2,000% more than the value of the US dollar now.
    Many big US manufacturers are outsourcing to Mexico and China to increase their profits, adding more unemployment in the USA. Manufacturing jobs in the USA declined 37% between 1998 and 2010. Since manufacturing industries has declined in the USA, the US competitiveness in the global marketplace has also declined.
    Robust financial markets don’t imperil capitalism. In the early 1980′s Wall Street began to escape reasonable important regulations of the marketplace. The US government gradually adopted a “too big to fail” policy for the Wall Street, saving lenders with failing businesses from losses. The demise of Glass Steagall act helped spawn the credit crisis by allowing the Wall Street to create financial instruments that allowed them to escape reasonable limits, including constraints on speculative borrowing and requirements for the disclosure of important facts. The extremely lucrative hedge funds and other risk management derivatives including credit default swaps don’t fund or invest in successful growing businesses. The credit default swap market was the single biggest cause of the crash 4 years ago.
    Wall Street’s suicidal capitalism built on rampant speculation eventually posed an untenable risk to the US economy—a risk that culminated in the trillions of dollars’ worth of the US government bailouts and guarantees that the US government scrambled starting in late 2008. But in 2008 the US government was compelled to replace private risktakers at the Wall Street with government capital so that money and credit flows wouldn’t stop, precipitating a depression. As a result, these Wall Street became impervious to the vital market discipline that the threat of loss provides. Wall Street lenders of the financial markets continue to understand that the US government would protect them in the future if necessary. This implicit guarantee by the US government harms capitalism and economic growth.
    The top 6 US banks had assets of less than one fifth of US GDP in 1995. Now they have two third of US GDP. The financial crisis was created by the biggest US banks to consolidate power. The big banks became stronger as a result of the bailout by the US Treasury. The big banks are turning that increased economic clout into more political power. Wall Street has undue influence on the US government policies and this situation reflects a failure of democratic representation for the other 99 percent Americans.
    Oligarchy is the political power based on economic power. And it’s the rise of Wall Street in economic terms, that it’d turn into political power.Wall Street will then continue to feed that back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and capture trillions of dollars.
    Wall Street only has the lobbyists. Today more than 42,000 Wall Street lobbyists manipulate USA’s 537 elected officials with huge campaign contributions that fund candidates who support their agenda. It no longer matters who’s the President of USA.
    The political and economical leadership of the US has chosed to cartel profits and transformed the US economy to serve the colluding and unlawful oligarchy. The political and economical leadership of the US is bailing out failed paradigms with trillions of dollars while committing social injustice to its people. The political and economical leadership of the US including the US Congress have now become Wall Street’s “Trojan Horses”. The US banks are borrowing money at near zero interest from the US government, then lending it back to the US government at even mere fractions higher interest than they are paying. The net interest margin made by the US banks by lending the money back to the US federal government in the first 6 months of 2011 is 210 billion dollars.
    Due to the oligarchs’ rapacious looting and their purchase of a politically protected luxurious lifestyle, the people of the US are on the road to permanent serfdom under a police state. The democracy was not given to the people of the US on a platter. It is not theirs for all time, irrespective of their efforts. Either people of the US organize and they find political leadership to take this on or they are going to be in deep trouble.
    The failure of governance to address the current critical issues have already produced catastrophic consequences. Now we are experiencing a major global paradigm shift and it is still unfolding. Thirty-two US states including California, Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Michigan are on the brink of insolvency as their tattered and fading economy is now more dire than ever. Inevitably in very near future the US government will order police or military to martial law which may lead to a second American revolution.

    “There is no calamity greater than lavish desires, no greater guilt than discontentment and no greater disaster than greed”
    – Laozi
    “Greedy desire is endless and therefore can never be satisfied”
    – Buddha

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