People have been talking about the American Dream since the term was initially popularized by James Truslow Adams in 1931. Like most pithy sayings however, most people use it without understanding the original intent or the broader context.
“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and 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.” James Truslow Adams
The Epic of America (2nd ed., Greenwood Press, 1931), p. 404
My interpretation is that Mr. Adams is suggesting that the American dream was for each person to have an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless as to where they were born and how much money they have.
Let’s compare that to President Trump’s statement from the State of the Union:
“There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream. So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you’ve come from — this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve absolutely anything.” – President Donald Trump “State of the Union 2018”
Do you see the difference? President Trump is talking about the opportunity of anyone to succeed while Adams was talking about the the opportunity of everyone to succeed.
I feel as though the American Dream has gone the way of the grandfather’s axe. The meaning has slowly changed to reflect something that still exists, even though all of the details are gone. Rather than an expectation of prosperity for all, it is merely prosperity for some who are able to achieve it.
Often, this prosperity is achieved on the backs of others. Uber for example did it directly through managing the actions of drivers, and indirectly through the destruction of the existing Taxi industry.
Turing Pharmaceuticals did it by increasing the price of Daraprim, a critical treatment for Toxoplasmosis for people with weakened immune systems, from $13.50 a dose to $750 a dose overnight.
This is not a new phenomenon. Some economists have found that it seems to date back to the mid-1970s.
‘In the mid-70’s, we traded in our post-World War II social contract for a new one, where “greed is good.” In the new moral narrative I can succeed at your expense. I will take a bigger piece of a smaller pie. Our new heroes are billionaires, hedge fund managers, and CEO’s.’
Stan Sorscher Economic Opportunity Institute
What has resulted since has been injustice after injustice, from corporate raiders buying companies in order to drain their pensions and sell the rest for scraps to our tech sector’s drive to make billions at any cost.
Greed has become the norm, and that greed is clearly shown by our levels of income inequality. The median per-capita wealth in our country is just under $56k, including investment accounts with significant withdrawal penalties.
If we look instead at an average wealth per person, we see a very different picture. Instead of $56k people have $389k. To put that in perspective, more than 90% of people have below the average amount of wealth.
A full 14% of Americans have a negative net worth. These people could be unmotivated, over-spenders, dealing with a medical or other crisis, or maybe they were just unfortunate enough to live in an area where costs have been driven up far faster than wages. The truth is a mix of those things as well as other contributing factors.
In my opinion the quest for fantastic wealth is incompatible with the original form of the American Dream. It drives the poor to waste money on lottery tickets and drives the brilliant to build services to make them billions in the backs of their users.
Worse, it pushes for consolidation of companies and services.
In 1974 our Justice department filed an anti-trust suit against AT&T which resulted in the breaking up of the Bell System, splitting local and long distance calls into separate industries and removed a nationwide monopoly.
Today Ma Bell is largely back. There is very little competition in the cellphone world. The expense of running copper was replaced by radio spectrum, a finite and expensive resource.
On the home side of things we still have the expense of running lines, but we added in exclusive contracts in many municipalities, ensuring local monopolies, and there are very few of them out there. Worse, they also took control of TV service and even content.
They control the signal, the noise and means of distributing both. They can tell you what to think and suppress dissenting thought.
I suggest they’re doing it now, but even if they are not, they can. As industry gets stronger, the leverage of the people gets weaker.
Why do we allow this? Does anyone really think it has improved the experience of citizens in this country? Even now it took effort not to refer to us as consumers.
I think part of our issue is an infatuation with GDP, the gross domestic product. Both parties tout it as an indication of economic prosperity, but it does nothing to tell the story about the experience of the average American.
It would be possible to consolidate to a single corporation with everyone earning just enough to spend and still have a high GDP. That doesn’t indicate a country to be proud of though.
For a long time I viewed this type of consolidation as inevitable, even desirable, as a way to gain efficiencies of scale. In a world with fixed resources, waste is undesirable. This pushed me closer to socialism, since more efficiency does away with jobs at a high rate, and people need to survive.
What I’ve recently realized is that our system simply pushes people to consume more, and that consolidation in a capitalist society pushes only for work that improves the bottom line as opposed to making life better.
There is plenty of work to be done around us, and plenty of people to do that work. All the money is tied up in the ultra-rich though, making it impossible to use. And things will only get worse now that our country has decided that the rich pay too much in taxes.
But what if we decided that consolidation wasn’t the path forward? What if we stopped subsidizing large companies? Even made their tax burden higher than a small business?
If we didn’t give Walmart tax breaks to open stores, then they may be less profitable. A closed Walmart could mean newly opened smaller shops.
More taxes on Amazon could mean an oppertunity for specialized online stores.
Municipal fiber could be lit by a variety of small ISPs rather than allowing Comcast and Verizon to edge everyone out. Or if we don’t want to turn the wiring into a public commodity, just force a separation between the line owners and the service providers, much like the local/long distance split.
Capitalism can work if we start with an assumption that consolidation at the scale is bad. Monopolies are bad. Vertical monopolies are bad. Competition at a large scale is necessary.
In my opinion the American dream as originally envisioned is incompatible with a system of commerce that does not place restrictions on consolidation of power.
There are many tools that industry have created or changed to implement the system of economic inequality, and they all need to be dismantled.