Sunday, November 6, 2011

That’s not the American Dream...

I’ve had people tell me that the so-called “American Dream” is about the idea, however false, that anybody can get rich.  Therefore, they argue, if your politics tries to clip the wings of the very rich, people feel you are choking off their dreams, and they won’t support you.

I won’t deny that there’s some truth to that, and if the issue of class fairness is presented the wrong way, you might get that reaction.  But I don’t think the American Dream is really about the ability to get filthy rich, and I think if you frame your arguments the right way, you can get around this obstacle.

Now, everybody has occasionally fantasized about what it would be like to be just stinking rich.  But I don’t think Americans feel that helping some people to get rich is a matter of justice.  I had to frame that sentence carefully.  If I had said “allowing some people to get rich”, a lot of people would think that was just.  To arbitrarily prevent some people from getting rich, “just because”, would be seen by many of us as simply mean.  But if you frame the question in terms of what others would have to give up for that person to become rich, then people hear a different story.

The American Dream is really about the idea that anybody, maybe even everybody, can do well.  It is about prosperity, not opulence.  You should be amply rewarded for a lifetime of honest work, and if you’re especially clever, or work especially hard, you should have a proportionate increase in your level of well-being.  That just strikes most of us as fair.  You should be secure in your enjoyment of these things.  You should do well enough that you can enjoy a few hobbies, and leisure time with your family.  When you’ve paid your dues for 40 years or so, you should be entitled to a comfortable retirement.  You should also have the right to feel confident that your children, and your children’s children will have the right and ability to enjoy the same comforts and opportunities that you have.  This is what the American Dream really means, to most of us.

What we need to get people to understand is that some people’s ability to become super rich, if it is realized, chokes off this dream of prosperity for the rest of us.  When 1%, 2%, even 10% of the people receive half of the total income produced by society every year, and lay claim to more than 70% of the total wealth, they do this by squeezing it out of our paychecks, out of our public or common goods (parks, roadways, schools), out of our healthcare, our retirement – lately, out of the equity that could have accumulated in our homes.
The vast wealth of the lucky few has been justified to us on the basis that they are somehow the engines of economic growth, that they are “job creators”, that their enormous wealth is somehow necessary for the rest of us to be prosperous.  We have now had nearly two generations of experience to prove that that is a lie; that policies to benefit the super rich not only don’t help the rest of us, but actually do us harm.

Since the mid-1970’s, when neoliberal talk of “job creators” and “trickle down economics” began to take hold, the richest 10% increased their share of national income from about 1/3, where it had held pretty steady since the early 1950’s (and which already meant they made between 4 & 5 times, on average, as much as the rest of us), to reach 50% about 2007.  Did this make the rest of us better off?  Total employment did grow a little, at the beginning of that period, before it crashed at the end of it, but it had been pretty stagnant for nearly a decade before the crash.  And how much of that “expansion” in jobs represented low wage, no benefits “Macjobs”, replacing the good “middle class” jobs that people had lost?  And our sense of security in a prosperous future for ourselves and our children has virtually disappeared. 

Trickle down economics does not, and never has worked.  Many, if not most, of the people who originally espoused it never really believed it would.  It was a convenient lie to justify their rampant looting of the economy.  It’s time we put an end to it.  We must put an end to it, if we are ever to reclaim the real American Dream.

“I have seen good working people,
Throughout this mighty land.
I’ve prayed we’ll get together,
And together take a stand.

“Then we’ll own those Banks of Marble,
With no guard at any door.
And we’ll share those vaults of silver
That we all have sweated for.”

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