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?