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Monday, February 13, 2012
The Dream Police
A headline caught my eye the other day: "The American Dream: Going, going...gone?" This scared me. How could the Dream be gone when I have yet to achieve it? I felt empty inside. I was being denied my birthright, and someone was the villain. Could I blame Bush? Could I blame Obama? How about the Chinese? The Kardashians? Oh no, not the Nazis!!!
The American Dream has become a campaign issue, but this is nothing new. Working towards the American Dream, or fearing that the American Dream is slipping away, are ideas created to elect people. Obama will help us fulfill the American Dream, he tells us, while Romney and his merry band of competitors remind us that Obama has stolen the American Dream away from the people. All this dream talk is making America sleepy. Fortunately, unlike many Americans, I read the entire article beyond the headline. It didn't make me feel better so much as it left me with questions. The main question was about a common definition of the American Dream. You can't pursue it, or lose it, if you don't know what it is. So what is the American Dream? I am not sure that there is agreement. Is it marriage and family? That may not be slipping away, but it is certainly changed. According to Census data, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of young adults (those between 25 and 34) who have never been married exceeds those who are married. The average number of children per family has gone down for a generation. It appears that our youth are not pursuing this version of “American Dream”, although gays would like the option.
Is it to climb the corporate ladder, and head towards that elusive corner office suite? Not so much. Workers today are more interested in balance and meaning in work. The status symbols of yesterday, the pursuit of the life portrayed in Mad Men, are no longer the prime motivators, regardless of what Mitt Romney thinks.
Is it buying your own home? It used to be. Today it is the American nightmare. There was a time not too long ago when paying off your house and hosting a mortgage burning party was the ultimate achievement of the American Dream. Now, more people dream about burning their home, collecting the insurance and renting.
Is the American Dream the ability to send your kids to college? Good luck paying for it and good luck getting the kids admitted to the college of their choice. Tuition continues to rise ahead of the rate of inflation and kids are graduating today with mountains of student loan debt. Your dream of sending them may haunt their dreams for the next 40 years of payments.
For many, the American Dream is to be left alone. This is the Dream that Ron Paul and his libertarian acolytes are promoting. According to recent statistics, 32 million Americans live alone between the ages to 34 and 65. Presumably, these alone individuals are not lonely if they have a high speed Internet connection. Ironically, while they dream of being left alone, their privacy is being eroded at a geometric rate and usually with their explicit consent on Facebook, LinkedIn, or some other fast growth sharing platform. Today, you may be alone but you are never alone.
I think that the real answer is that the American Dream still exists, but it exists with 320 million separate paths to 320 million separate destinations. The American Dream can now be customized and personalized, and no longer needs to be mass produced. I call it “Micro Dreaming” because Americans need a dream as unique and as exceptional as they believe that they are. The American Dream is like a winter snowflake. No two are alike, they look very pretty at first but melt quickly once you come in contact with them. Global warming is liquifying the American Dream. The American Dream doesn’t exist. Your own dream is the only thing that exists, and good luck finding a politician who will make your dreams come true (unless your name is Donna Rice, Monica Lewinsky, or Callista Gingrich). I’m looking for a pol who will state as Erza Klein did recently: “The intelligent way to deal with the deficit problem is to come up with a credible long-term strategy that protects short-term economic recovery and does not rely on short-term “fixes”—i.e., more tax cuts—that likely won’t help the economy but will vastly boost the deficit and/or force spending cuts that will immensely damage the economy, not to mention our society.”