I was speaking to someone this morning about how American culture is in decline in fundamental ways, specifically, the American Dream and how we see ourselves as a nation.
Once, America was a place widely known for its hands on ability to fix its own equipment, engineers that only had experience working on farm tractors. It was once a place known for people who mowed their own lawns, changed their own tires and raised their own kids. Today, even middle-class people have a gardener, call AAA to change a tire and have nannies to raise their children. Ironically, these jobs are largely filled by workers of questionable citizenship. Yet the point is that Americans have gotten too lazy or too busy to do the hard work that was once part of the American Dream. You know, owning a house and living a decent life. Today it seems like it’s working 2 jobs 70 hour weeks and never seeing your children. Where is the dream?
So what is the American Dream anyway?
The American Dream began its life as an explanation for the ‘rags to riches’ transformations of people like Andrew Carnegie and Norman Rockefeller. It was the sense that anyone in this country could get rich because hard work and a little bit of luck could turn anyone into a billionaire. This era was coined “the Gilded Age” by people like Mark Twain because that dream was nothing more than a gold-plated dream, as just beneath the surface lied a world of extreme poverty, deplorable living conditions, child labor and workers losing their lives to unsafe conditions. It sparked an era of unprecedented reforms often called “The Progressive Era” which outlawed monopolies, child labor and unsafe working conditions while improving sanitation, schools, election laws and created the 8 hour work day.
This lay the foundation for another boom, the Roaring Twenties, which saw lifestyles improve and business boom. The 3 Republican administrations did almost nothing in this time and allowed the growing corruption, due to prohibition and a society gone wild with promise, to rot away at the new American Dream: A turkey in every pot and a car in every garage. Well we all know how that turned out.
The Great Depression forced Americans to rethink that Dream. Individualism can only go so far, at some point we are all in this together. Roads, bridges, dams, schools and the military that fought off the Nazis and the Empire of Japan in World War II underscore this need to work together. Social Security was created to stop the large amounts of seniors that were dying in deplorable conditions and government agencies gave people jobs and hope. My Grandfather was part of one such New Deal agency, the CCC, The Civilian Conservation Corps. He helped build our National Parks, create trails and roads, all of which helped keep his farm from bank foreclosure, gave him a sense of purpose and taught him valuable life skills. All of which paid off for taxpayers, when the US government employed him again in WWII.
Times were unbearable during the Depression. People were starving, jobs were nowhere to be found, yet children have to eat. Folks who were once too proud to ask for help were living on government assistance to stay alive. Meanwhile, the Dust Bowl was ravaging across the Great Plains, due to the
over farming of cash-crops and a drought. Once Arabian style dust storms were hitting Texas towns, the government stepped into action, hiring citizens to build windbreaks and better irrigation. By the end of the decade, the Dust Bowl was contained and much of the New Deal had made a significant impact in people’s lives. The real possibility of a revolution was averted and the economy was improving.
However, Republicans did everything they could to stop the New Deal, succeeding in many ways, even talking FDR into pulling much of the program back. This caused another recession, which they so graciously named the Roosevelt recession. Programs were reintroduced, though funding levels for government projects remained fairly low until America entered World War II.
World War II made the government spend unprecedented levels of cash and taxes were raised to their highest levels to that point. Yet this ended the Great Depression, as businesses were payed to make tanks and C Rations, jobs were created. When the war ended, a new level of comradely existed and people began to see a new American Dream. One with the Montgomery GI Bill that gave soldiers an education and a pension. A dream where unions and businesses cooperated and wages were high. A dream where a single income could feed a large family. If you worked hard you were rewarded.
The following decades saw the largest expansion of the Middle Class in history. Union wages were high and workers could afford homes, a disposable income and college for their kids for the first time. Good pensions were waiting for many, while Medicare made sure the elderly were living longer, better lives. Welfare and food stamps were enacted to stamp out poverty and hunger. While these were noble efforts, they were not without flaws. They became symbols of a backlash that objected to Civil Rights reforms, Women’s Lib and social libertarianism. Big Goverment was demonized by people like Reagan, despite increased military spending, that created a standing army nearly as large as the one during World War II, and grew in spending to the point of half the US discretionary spending budget.
Somehow, however, America lost its way. Conservatism made a comeback, and unions were demonized. Pensions were turned into 401ks, which was a scam to avoid taxes to begin with. Unions lost members, wages plummeted, and individualism rose again. The rich began creating a culture of cult worship around themselves. Success can be yours if only you’re not some lazy bum. Taxes were cut for the rich, supposedly to spurn growth and reward success. They grew, in wealth, yet the middle-class did not.
The explanations were thrown at the middle- class by the rich: You are poor because you deserve it. You don’t make enough money because you are lazy. I am successful because I deserve it. At least you aren’t a bum on welfare, it’s THEY who are soaking up all the money. It’s THEIR fault. Blame the Unions! Blame the illegal immigrants! Blame anyone but the wealthy because that is class warfare and we wouldn’t want that. Just get off your lazy ass and work 3 jobs!
The American Dream became YOUR personal success. It was no longer the collective experience of us all. Paying Social Security and Medicare became a burden not help. Businesses deceptively hired women at lower wages and did not raise wages for men. The two income family became the standard. Little by little, the successful class got smaller and smaller, yet richer and richer. Record amounts of billionaires were
met with a shrinking middle-class, record poverty levels, increased government assistance that faced shrinking funding from Republicans in Congress.
Meanwhile businesses were given tax-cuts for shipping jobs to China and India and jobs were reduced to part-time positions to avoid giving health care or pensions. The corporate culture got greedier and greedier until finally, the dam broke.
Under the weight of an unregulated executive corporate culture that was paid a thousand times it’s average worker, and given huge bonuses even if they utterly failed at their job, the dam gave way. These failures in the executive corporate class began making money on a real-estate industry that was hopelessly over important, and handing out shady loans to people who couldn’t afford one. Those loans were packaged into larger bundles and sold around the market. The companies that sold them knew they were scams, yet as these Mortgage Backed Securities returned large profits, the same banks invested in the same scam! When reality set in, and the loans began to default, the banks went under.
Suddenly, these too big to fail banks were crying about how we are all in this together. Socialism was needed to save capitalism. Oh but just for them of course. Over a Trillion dollars was given to the banks. They took the money, gave themselves bonuses and swallowed up the smaller banks, getting even bigger. Meanwhile efforts to save the families who were suckered into homes that were now worth less than what they paid for, were dubbed “socialism” and encouraging bad behavior. You can’t just bail out these families, where is the penalty for making mistakes?
The irony was lost on them.
The American Dream was practically a joke at this point. Then we were forced to endure the Tea Party. Who claimed that the rich people were saviors and job creators who should not be punished for running the economy into the ground, it was Obama’s fault, even though he didn’t preside over the law that passed the bailouts and it was the job creators who created the problem in the first place. Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party idiots finally put an end to the worship of rich people that was so ingrained in our society. The idea of the 1% having most of the wealth became common knowledge. A leaked tape of Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s discussion with a bunch of super rich elites revealed a delusional wealthy class that was out of touch with America and blamed the 47% of “takers” in our society for all the problems, even though they were mostly seniors, veterans and the disabled. It was a wake up call and helped to sink Romeny’s chances.
Today we are faced with a society that is dominated by the agenda of billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, who with their billionaire buddies, all together spent half a billion dollars trying to defeat Obama. The Stock Market is booming yet it has little effect on the average person. Many still defend rich people they never met because someday, they will be joining them. It’s a dream, the American Dream, that is just that, a fantasy, like winning the lottery.
The American Dream, has returned to its early roots. NO longer is it a chance at a house and a loving family with a decent retirement, but rather an explanation for why you are poor and the rich are so successful. However, the will of the people is returning, soundly rejecting conservatives across the board in the 2012 election. People are waking up to the scams of stock investing and real estate (unless you have capital) and starting to see that we are all in this together. Americans love Social Security and Medicare they know that wages are too low and costs are too high. They know that it takes luck to be rich and that it isn’t just hard work. You know how I know that? Because I have met people all over this country who work their asses off and still struggle paycheck to paycheck. Americans are also putting things together that the old saying “It takes money to make money” really is also the greatest secret the rich are holding. Most billionaires like the Kochs and Mitt Romney, inherited great deals of money from their parents and used it to dismantle businesses and sell off assets to get even richer. The American Dream, in their eyes, is just some bs that you tell the unwashed masses.
The American Dream doesn’t have to be a Darwinian explanation for the rich children who inherit daddy’s money, it can be a rallying cry for the Middle-Class once more. The call for decent jobs, laws that punish job exporters like Romney’s Bain Capital and reward those who actually do create jobs, unlike the big pro-corporate, corporate banks. It can be a call for small business and those who make money in the small market place, it can be a call for affordable homes, health care and fairness in race, gender and sexual orientation. It can be the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. where people are judged on the content of their character and division among race is no longer a clever dodge the upper classes use to keep societal discontent out of their gated communities. It can be the promise that the American Dream is supposed to embody, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It really can be all of those things, if we wake up from the American Dream that has been crammed down our throat the past 30 years. It can be those things if we stop blaming each other and start throwing the people who tanked this economy in jail! We need to wake up from this halcyon induced American Dream that’s been crammed down our throats and start making the American Dream the American Reality.
After all, We really are all in this together!