The American Dream ain’t what it use to be

Thanks to commentator Mike M. for pointing out a fantastic observation from Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, yesterday.

In her column, How Obama Wooed the Middle Class, she writes about how The American Dream has changed over the past couple of generations:

There is pervasive confusion about what the American dream is. We seem to have redefined it to mean the acquisition of material things—a car, a house and a pool. That was not the meaning of the American dream a few generations ago. The definition then was that in this wonderful place called America, you can start out from nothing and become anything. It was aspirational. The limits of class and background wouldn’t and couldn’t keep you from becoming a person worthy of respect, even renown. If you wanted to turn that into houses and a pool, fine. But you didn’t have to. You could have a modest job like teacher and be the most respected woman in town.

When we turned the American dream into a dream about materialism, we disheartened our young, who now are forced to achieve what we’ve defined as success in a straitened economy.


Over the last generation, part of The American Dream was twisted to mean owning (I use that term loosely) a home. Owning a home previously meant establishing a pattern of responsible behavior by saving money for a down payment while paying your bills on time to build a good credit history so you could earn the privilege of obtaining a loan to buy a home. The American Dream then was about slaying those irresponsible and impulsive demons that cause people to live beyond their means. Owning a home resulted from the American Dream, it was not the American Dream itself.

But politicians, bureaucrats and community organizers — rather than encouraging folks to pursue the American Dream by adopting responsible behavior — thought it better to skip that altogether and take responsibility out of the equation as if being irresponsible was a basic right not be infringed upon by expecting them to be responsible. How dare we?

Now we’re seeing something similar with college education. Were told that people with college degrees earn more and that everybody should be able to get a college degree if they want, as if the latter would do nothing to spoil the former.

Having college degree is The American Dream. Before, earning it was. Even being expected to work hard and scrap to earn that degree was admirable. It was part of the process. Now, let’s skip that. We wouldn’t want anyone to have to struggle.

One way to do this is to put taxpayers on the hook for student loans, so students don’t necessarily have to be responsible for getting a degree that leads to good job opportunities and colleges can charge high prices for crappy degrees. That’s a predictable result when you loosen the tie between the future earning potential of holding a ‘college degree’ and the cost of the degree itself.

I think folks are duped into supporting replacement of behaviors with material things as the American Dream because they have an affection for the class conspiracy theories.

They hear that some certain cross sections of people aren’t as represented in the materialistic definition of The American Dream, like home ownership or college degrees, and they accept that as evidence as some systemic barriers — even if they are hard to pinpoint exactly.

And, there might be. But, how often do we then skip over a crucial step of first examining the behavior of that cross-section to see if there are any self-fulfilling prophecies and just jump to the systemic barrier conclusion?

11 thoughts on “The American Dream ain’t what it use to be

  1. SUPERB POST!!!! It gives me assurance that there are still pockets of integrity and clear thinking in America.

    I know we’ve all been conditioned to believe that a college degree is necessary for a better paying job, but here’s two points that I would like to pose:

    (1) I believe there are two broad purposes for schools. One is to provide what is called a liberal arts education and consists of those subjects or skills considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life. The aim of these studies is to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person. (borrowed from Wikipedia) The second is what one might term “vocational” education and includes studies more directly focused on a trade or profession, e.g. carpentry, accounting, etc. (although one can argue that every articulate person should have at least the minimum accounting skills needed to conduct his own affairs).

    My impression is that as a society, one reason we are seeing some people get uber rich is that technology allows them to “reach” more people. For example, in ancient times, an “entertainer” was paid little because he could only play to limited crowds and perform only in person. As times have progressed, entertainers – through the medium of radio, television, etc. – can reach large audiences and through recordings, they can perform once and earn royalties even while they are pursuing further income possibilities. Instead of collecting $1.00 from 10 people for an evenings work, they can now collect $0.50 from millions of people. We have also witnessed machines taking over a variety of human jobs and this is certain to accelerate with the exponential advances we are seeing in technology. Simultaneously, we have witnessed a generation of kids who, as Seth put it, expect the result of the American Dream (the material reward) without doing the hard work required. As a result, they fail to gain the skills needed to add value to what a machine could do. In other words, an employer has little or nothing to gain by hiring them and certainly not for any substantial wage.

    As we’ve noted before, everything has an opportunity cost. If Seth thinks his yard man is charging him too much, one option is for Seth to mow the grass himself. Of course, in order to do so, Seth must give up the opportunity to work at his regular job for those same hours. If Seth’s regular job pays more per hour than what he pays the yard man, he’s better of (financially) letting the yard man mow the grass. So, what does this have to do with the two functions of schools? OK, opportunity cost applies to the mega rich as well. Rather than mow their grass (or learn/do plumbing, carpentry, electrical work, etc.), they are better of doing whatever it is that makes them wealthy and hiring a (well dressed, articulate, clean, etc.) tradesman to do the other stuff. All that to say, trade school or apprenticeship may be a viable alternative for some in terms of ending up with a better paying career. Of course, I think that everyone – at least everyone who votes – should have a certain minimum liberal arts education (much of which the average high school graduate had 50 years ago).

    (2) OK, I’m gonna pull a Rick Perry and admit that I forgot the second point! Anyway, I ran across this:

    ……and I was bothered. I’m not advocating that people shouldn’t pay their taxes, but the government’s attitude increasingly comes across as, “it’s our money, we earned it.” The tail is wagging the dog. Government has come to view the taxpayers as existing to serve it rather than the other way around.

  2. “I think folks are duped into supporting replacement of behaviors with material things as the American Dream because they have an affection for the class conspiracy theories.”

    When you say class conspiracy theories, do you mean socialist thought? If so, hasn’t socialist philosophy (as well as communist and anarchist philosophy) been present in the United states (as a mainstream line of thought) since the rise of the Populist party in the 1890’s and then with highly visible events like the pullman strike, the haymarket square riots and Eugene V Debs running for POTUS in 1904-1920 under the Socialist party of America?

    It seems to me socialism as a movement was far stronger and more coherent in the 1890s-1920 than it is now. Am I on the wrong track here? Do the class conspiracy theories come from some other source than socialism? If so, where?

    • Hi Wally — I’m not sure I’m thinking about socialist thought. Rather, the idea that there are some built-in barriers in society that keep groups of people from achieving the American Dream, that government can provide primary solutions to overcome those barriers and that voting for politicians who push these ‘solutions’ is a good idea. I don’t think that’s socialist. Not sure there is a term for it.

      Maybe ‘governmentalist’? For people who are prone to support a government solution before they even consider a) whether the perceived problem actually exists (e.g. ‘the middle class is shrinking’, while suburbs continue to grow and sq. ft. per house is double what it was a generation ago), b) if the problem is even caused by what governmentalists say they are caused by and c) whether the government solution actually helps or hurts.

      • I like it. Governmentalist. I see what you mean.

        I think that throughout history, there has never been a shortage of people willing to give up their freedom for convenience, safety and the status quo. People who, as you put it, are willing to let the powers that be (whatever they may be at that moment in history: church, state, tribal elders, etc) find solutions to problems. People who, in the face of the Milgram’s authority experiments, shocked their test subjects to death. Of course there’s another wikipedia article for that (allow me to cede my freewill to the current king of the world, wikipedia):

        Perhaps governmentalists are a sub-category of these folks. Am I closer to what you’re thinking now? If I am, is this truly a recent phenomenon?

        • I think you are closer, yes.

          That’s a good question. I don’t think its recent. In, “A Conflict of Visions”, Thomas Sowell traces this tendency in writings going back for centuries. In his other writings, he touches on how pervasive it has been throughout history and in many other societies and recognition of it was present in the writings of some of the founders of this country (while others in that group were more prone to be governmentalists).

          However, one trend that I do think is relatively recent (within the last century or so) has been the underpinning of ‘scientism’ added to the argument to bolster government solutions — studies and empirical work that are viewed by the general and voting public as about as sound as physics. So, I think that might be one development that causes some people who may have been a bit more cautious about government solutions to be less so.

          You are correct. There never are a shortage of people who are quick to give up their freedom. And, while I consider myself a libertarian, it’s not just because of principle that I appreciate liberty. I also think that has best feedback loops. I think government has among the worst.

  3. Once again, we run into what has been named by some as “Reynold’s Law”.

    “The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.”

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