The American Dream: Time to Wake Up

(@ 12:15 – promoted by pfiore8)

An interesting article over at Alternet asks what happened to the American dream, and provides some evidence that it is exactly that: a dream. Essentially Americans are not increasing their social and economic mobility even as they believe they still can. I would argue that the persistent and pervasive belief in the American dream is what undercuts both serious talk about class and it acts as a safety valve to protect our current system against peaceful but radical change. Indeed any social/political movements that have been moderately successful ( and certainly I think we all have opinions about whether the goals have been achieved and not for lack of trying) in the post WWII era in the phase of American capitalism have been largely about gaining some acceptance, respect, and equality within the dominant culture not an attempt to dismantle it. Capitalism in the United States has survived to some degree by allowing moderate critique and limited rights for those who were previously denied them. Inevitably, once moderate gains were made those very groups have been forced to defend themselves against cultural reactionaries which might explain why some of the more radical notions that emerged from the activism of black, gay, the transgendered community and feminists that did challenge the structures of consumer capitalism were silenced. People are still fighting on the inclusionary front. It is ironic that issues like gay marriage, partnership, and parenting rights are very much about joining the American dream, the myth of harmony, not trying to disrupt or replace. Many on the cultural reactionary right are pushing back not against radicals who want to attack capitalism and American myths but those who to varying degrees might actually  embrace some of them. At least the myths that say we are a family oriented society.

Joshua Holland argues that free wheeling mobility does not exist noting that the greatest predictor of how much an American will make is what their parents make. Add to that one other factor Holland does not mention but is worth considering: fixed pensions are disappearing. Both of my parents have fixed pensions ( retired teacher and retired nursing college instructor), so while my income approximately matches theirs at comparable times in life even with adequate savings for retirement I might be lucky to equal them. I am not crying the blues, many Americans in my age group cannot set aside money in a 403B or something similar, nor will they have fixed company pensions.

According to a presentation by a member of the Brookings Institute at the start of 2007,

Americans have had a negative personal savings rate for six straight quarters, a figure that has been unmatched since the 1930’s. Despite our persistent belief in the American dream of getting ahead and making sure our children do as well, many of us cannot even put a little in savings, never mind retirement. In 1983, 88 percent of workers with pension coverage had a defined plan linked to earnings and tenure not the individual investment made by the worker. In 2004, the trend had reversed. About 80 percent of workers had a plan similar to a 401k in which the benefit would be determined by how well an investment fund performed, and about 37 percent of workers had a traditional company pension. Many well known companies are simply not offering traditional fixed company plans based on years of experience to new workers. Although, I am not an expert, I suspect that in the future world tales of defined company pension plans will sound as mythical as unicorns. After all, expensive retirement plans with expensive health care benefits have been cited by automakers in the US as one of the reasons for declining profits. Never mind the post WWII social contract between workers and capitalists, when workers aren’t working, they are a cost.

By 2006, 40 percent of American workers were working for a company that did not have any form of pension coverage. Workers who do are being asked to make complicated financial decisions with little guidance and subject to the whims of the so called “rational” market. A Brookings economist is quoted as saying,you shouldn’t have to be a mechanic to drive a car, and you shouldn’t need a PHD in financial economics to navigate the pension system.

Despite disappearing pension plans, negative savings, and some evidence that American are not doing better than parents and cannot offer that dream to their children we still persist and cling to infantile myths that make us feel good about ourselves and our country. While some research shows that this generation is doing better as a whole than the previous one the nation’s income is distributed less evenly than the prior generation. And much of that can be explained by the fact that household income has increased because women have joined the work force in higher numbers. It is not hard to imagine that effect has or will level off. In fact, several other countries enjoy more worker mobility than Americans including Canadians, Danes, the French and Norwegians.

A decrease in unionization, and a weak educational system also contribute to that stagnant or downward mobility. Americans  students tend to perform poorly on international assessments and colleges are often forced to do remedial work with freshmen and sophomores to make up for prior deficits. College has become more expensive at a time when jobs that pay a living wage for those who don’t go to college have all but vanished.

At the close of 2007, we have hit the iceberg and we still don’t have enough lifeboats and the wealthy are still making sure they grab them first.

Americans persistently project their own delusions, in surveys, they are twice as likely to believe that people get rewarded for intelligence and skill than workers in other advanced economies.

They are also less likely to believe that it is the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income. They were apparently unbothered by the fact that CEO salaries increased 35 times between 1978 and 2005 to be nearly 262 times the average worker’s pay. An overview of the mobility issues can be culled from this Brookings paper.

Why do Americans continue to believe? Perhaps, it is because consumerism has become prized above older quaint notions about freedom and democracy. Democracy and capitalism are no longer wedded to one another. China has provided a recent example of a country that has accommodated some acceptance of capitalism without much in the way of democratic expression.

Bruce E Levin asserts we live in a culture that demands happiness and that in itself has led to increases in depression. In a consumer culture such as ours we are constantly trying to buy our happiness. He notes that before pharmacology overtook the practice psychology and psychiatry philosophical and critiques on capitalism itself were often respected sources analyzing the state of man. Fromm in particular linked alienation and unhappiness with consumer cultures, the desire to have acquire and control ultimately alienated ourselves from authenticity. We are a fearful culture that clings to myths that leave us more fearful and paradoxically less economically secure. Consumer capitalism has left us both exhausted trying to prove the American dream is real and philosophically bankrupt. We believe if we believe it enough, it is true.

 America capitalism has been able to absorb protest, challenge, and minimal toleration of out groups by reluctant inclusion with a perpetual not withstanding clause. We have passed the time in which moderates can negotiate a workable peace between workers and elite classes. Moderates are not irrelevant in our political climate but disemboweled because they to believe in the myths of America. The problem is we have not reached our tipping point, I don’t know what radicalizes Americans any more, because while many of us like to see the cultural right as being radical themselves, they are fundamentally pre-democratic and actually incapable of being radical. Radicalism is participatory democracy, something the Democratic Party leadership actually recognizes which is why they are effectively shunning progressives, leftists, and even libertarians. Without an outright coup of the belief system of the Democratic party we will always be left asking why, why, why. We will always feel betrayal and we will never be able to mobilize for those general strikes many of us wish would materialize.

Until ordinary Americans can be pried away from the American dream and encouraged to formulate a new one, they will always view progressives with fear and distrust and our ability to build coalitions will be hindered. Ordinary Americans aren’t stupid or unaware. They know something is wrong. They suspect long held deals have been trashed, but articulating an alternative requires them to reject long held notions. In the end we are all addicts avoiding pain only to prolong it. No, I am not eternally pessimistic. I have guarded hope not in particular party or institutions but in the combustible arena of ideas. My guarded hope is that some of them will break free in a way none of us could ever predict.

45 comments

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  1. tell a fable…..

  2. for a new reality.

    Leaving the matrix is hard!

    • kj on December 16, 2007 at 3:24 am

    hahahahahahahahahahahah   what. a. joke. on. us!

    • kj on December 16, 2007 at 3:26 am

    there is always hope more will break free.  It does happen, bits and pieces of flotsom drift up, now and then. Whether worn off or cast off, well, doesn’t really matter, does it?

    Thanks for this. Ideas stewing around.  G’nite, all.  🙂

  3. I love the ideas about working outside the system rather than just trying to get into the same old same old. It reminds me of my very first diary here. But you said it much more completely and thoughtfully.

    Here’s another video for you. Makes me think of a current day Marvin Gaye.

  4. …the “combustible arena of ideas”.  That’s like, a burning theatre, right?  Great phrase!

    Lovely essay.  Still thinking about it…

    Not all american readers will resonate on what, exactly, a not withstanding clause is.  Knowing the context I thought it was rather deft, not sure how others would read it.

    • pico on December 16, 2007 at 8:30 am

    is there something missing or out of order in the paragraph beginning “Bruce E. Levin asserts…”  The third and fourth sentences didn’t make sense to me?

  5. survival within a global, ecologically sustainable, society.

  6. in 1973 reading in the newspaper that on average mine would be the first hs graduating class that could expect to not do as well as their parents generation…..

    it has only gotten worse….

    I have heard that the “working poor” are the fastest growing economic demographic in the our country…..

    people who work more than 40 hrs a week and are below the poverty line…….

    the american dream is the single biggest feat of self enslavement a culture has ever pulled off….

    welcome to wage slavery…..

    post technological feudalism……

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