April 26th, 2006

Voted for Dean

Definition: "The American Dream"

OK, I want to write a book review in the next journal entry, for a book I want to recommend. But one of the things that keeps slowing me down is a longish digression I'd have to make, to define a term that I want to use repeatedly in it. I'd need to explain, first, what I mean when I refer to "the American Dream." So let me lay that out, first.

Back in the 1620s and 1630s, the Puritans accidentally discovered a uniquely American formula for living. Long after the Puritan experiment in government collapsed in 1640, the descendants of the Puritans kept that formula, that system. They passed it along to their children, and so on. It was just as important to, and just as beloved by, the much more libertine and deist or atheist "Sons of Liberty" generation that won independence for the American colonies, and who created yet a third form of government but enshrined that model for living in their system, too. Over time, it acquired its own name, and became the cornerstone of the only intellectually honest argument that can be made for "American exceptionalism." And the way "the American Dream" is supposed to work is this:

You can live however you want, and take your own chances on outcomes. But if you ...
  1. stay in school as long as you can, study as well as you can, and learn as much as you can, and ...
  2. stay out of trouble and avoid those who want you to get into trouble with them, and then ...
  3. join the church of your choice, and associate with those people instead of trouble-makers, and ...
  4. get married, settle down, and stay married, and ...
  5. get a good job and do everything that your boss and/or your customers expect of you, plus go a little bit beyond, and then ...
  6. spend little or no money on personal pleasures, and instead spend that money on the only two things that are allowed if you're going to pursue the American Dream:
  7. invest in a home with room for improvement in a good neighborhood, so minor improvements by you can improve your investment, and once you've done that, take good care of it, and improve the community you live in, and do what it takes to get along with your neighbors and protect their property values as well as your own, and ...
  8. invest all of the profits and all your remaining money into getting your children the best education you can afford, then it will have been worth all you did and all you did without because ...
If you do these things, all of which you were told to do via advice passed on through American families and American society for almost four hundred years, then America offers you one long shot, one safe bet, and one guarantee. The long shot is that you may be able to improve your own quality of life. This is not a promise. You might spend your whole life slaving away and doing everything you were asked and getting in no trouble and still, despite all of that, end up right back where you started. But the possibility exists.

The safe bet is that if you do these things, and try to raise your children to do these things, you will not lose. If your parents raised you according to these rules, you will enter your adult life in their social class and you will have to work hard to fall below it. But then, that's a safe bet in almost every society; that's the purpose of social class, after all. A social class can most easily be defined as a collection of habits, mannerisms, possessions, attitudes, and behaviors that signal to other people from the same social class that you're one of them, and that it would be a tragedy if you were allowed to sink any lower than they are. That if you do what you're told you won't fall from the wealthy to the middle class, or from the middle class to poverty, isn't a very "exceptional" bet. For all that even America can't guarantee it, it's a safe bet in almost every society in history.

However, the traditional, societal, inter-generational, agreed-upon promise, the oath that our national ancestors swore among themselves that is at the heart of American exceptionalism, is that if you do all of those things, your children will live a better life, at least one and perhaps as many as two levels of social class higher, than your own. The son of a day laborer that does these things can at least become a brick layer. The son of a brick layer can get an office job or a sales job. The son of an office worker or a salesman can be a middle manager. The son of a middle manager can be (as Bob Seger sang) "a lawyer, doctor or professor, member of the U.M.C." (Upper Middle Class). The son of a professional can become a CEO or a Senator, can join the nation's wealthy elite.

The American Dream does not say that this is the only way to achieve these things. If you think you can make it in your own way while breaking any of those rules or all of them, you're welcome to try and hey, some of those who do might actually make it. After all, our popular musicians and our most innovative artists and our "discovered" movie stars and our up-from-poverty athletes and our self-made entrepreneurs and our populist politicians come from somewhere, so if you want to take a long shot on the possibility that you will be so lucky and talented as to beat the odds and achieve wealth through celebrity, you're welcome to try. But what the American Dream promises you is that if instead you do the things that Americans are taught that they can count on, and avoid the things that Americans are taught will impede that way of life, then supposedly we promise each other and our ancestors promised us that this, at least, will almost always work. It will work no matter what color your skin is, no matter what language your parents or grandparents spoke, no matter what church you attend, no matter which party you vote for or campaign for, no matter what social class people with your last name have traditionally belonged to. Regardless of any or all of those things, if you follow the American Dream and so do your children, then whether or not you yourself get ahead, they will get ahead.

Is it always true? No. At least twice in American history, generations have inherited a worse life than their parents no matter what their parents did, and the generation born from 1960 to 1980 or so might be the third. Or might not, but even if it does happen, that's at most 3 out of the 14 or 15 generations in American history. And no, it has almost never applied to African Americans, and only intermittently at best for households headed by women, and somewhat intermittently to many ethnic and religious minorities over the centuries. But my point is that when exceptions have happened or existed, we as Americans have agreed for 400 years that it is appropriate to react to those exceptions with anger and outrage, the way you would react to any broken promise. I am saying that it is entirely fair to judge any economic policy, any law, any political position or platform, any exercise of power of any kind against the promise, the inter-generational compact, called the American Dream. If any exercise of power, law, or policy enables and assists those who play by the rules in passing along the American Dream to their children, then it is fair to say that that, at least, is a good thing about it. If, however, any exercise of power, law, or police impedes and impairs those who obey the rules of the American Dream, that robs their children of the promise, is at least in some regard evil.

Tomorrow: Howard Karger, Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy reviewed.