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?

Politics is a group of people making a decision for you

Peggy Noonan discovers something Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell has known for a long time. In her column in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Noonan writes about her thoughts and experiences with Andrew Breitbart.  After getting the chance to speak with Breitbart in person and softening her opinion of him, she writes:

Afterward I thought again of something that has been on my mind the past five years or so. Longer, actually, but more so with time. In a way the argument between conservatives and progressives is that for the left, everything is about politics. Because they seek to harness government and the law in pursuit of what they see as just and desirable ends, everything becomes a political fight. Conservatives fought that narrow, constricted, soulless view of life: “We are not only political, we have other spheres, we are human beings.” But in their fight against liberalism and its demands, too many conservatives have unconsciously come to ape the left. They too became all politics all the time. Friendships were based on it, friendships were lost over it. “You agree with me? You’re in. You don’t? You’re out.” They became as good at ousting, excluding and anathematizing as Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, as Jacobins. As self-righteous, too, and as adept at dehumanizing the enemy.


I wrote about Williams’ and Sowell’s explanations of this here.  And Williams’ column, Conflict and Cooperation explains why, if we put anything into political sphere, we’ll fight about it.  We all have different preferences because we value things differently.  What’s right for you may not be right for me.

Economists call it public choice economics. You may recognize it as you and your friends deciding where to eat for dinner or what movie to see. In the process, most people compromise to please the group, but nobody ends up getting what they really want. The difference, however, is that you don’t always have to eat with your friends. You can choose your preferred restaurant next time.

But, when we shove anything into politics (i.e. categorical decisions made by crowds) we’re stuck with what the crowd wants and we end up creating major political divides over who’s going to pay for $9 prescriptions.  More on that in an upcoming post.

Bureaucrats and innovators, part two

This is from Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal today:

Then he turned to the rise and fall of various businesses. He has a theory about “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.” IBM and Xerox, Jobs said, faltered in precisely this way. The salesmen who led the companies were smart and eloquent, but “they didn’t know anything about the product.” In the end this can doom a great company, because what consumers want is good products.

I agree.  This reminds me of a few of my previous posts where I write about the secret of good business, bureaucrats vs. innovators and bureaucrats and innovators.

Jobs just uses the term salesman in place of bureaucrat and product engineers in place of innovator.

Salesmen stifle innovation by favoring their own projects and restricting other projects.  That lowers the chance that the company will discover something truly valuable for customers.

I’ve witnessed projects that showed early promise get nixed because they weren’t the saleman’s project.  I’ve also seen projects that show no signs of promise continue to get resources, because it is the salesman’s project.  The salesman can sell others (for awhile) that the project is working, even when all measures suggest it is not.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

In this week’s Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan calls attention to two politicians — Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and New Jersey governor Chris Christie — for their demonstration of leadership.

I bristle at the idea of referring to politicians as leaders — even the guys I think I like.   But, then again, my idea of leadership and politicians is probably different than most, though subjects of other blog posts.

Nevertheless, I  admit that I appreciate politicians who can deliver true and politically unpopular messages.  I especially liked Governor Christie’s:

He [Christie] introduced pension and benefit reforms on a Tuesday in September, and that Friday he went to the state firefighters convention in Wildwood. It was 2 p.m., and “I think you know what they had for lunch.” Mr. Christie had proposed raising their retirement age, eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment, increasing employee pension contributions, and rolling back a 9% pay increase approved years before “by a Republican governor and a Republican Legislature.”

As Mr. Christie recounted it: “You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced. I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. . . . So I said, ‘Come on, you can do better than that,’ and they did!”

He crumpled up his prepared remarks and threw them on the floor. He told them, “Here’s the deal: I understand you’re angry, and I understand you’re frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed.” And, he said, they were right: “For 20 years, governors have come into this room and lied to you, promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn’t keep, and just hoping that they wouldn’t be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here’s what I don’t understand. Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?”

The standard template of a politician is to deliver good news and avoid delivering bad news.  That’s goes for public and private politics.  I’ve witnessed it in private organizations.  It’s always fun to see the politicians scatter with bad news.

It’s refreshing to see a politician willing to give bad news.


Noonan Writes an Excellent Column for Independence Day

Today’s column from Peggy Noonan, A Cold Man’s Warm Words, would be an excellent column for everyone to read on Independence Day.    It’s the story of some of Thomas Jefferson’s words that didn’t make it to the final edit of the Declaration of Independence — the document and event we’ll all be celebrating this weekend with fireworks and flame-kissed brats.

In one of the most touching paragraphs, Noonan writes about “We might have been a free and great people together” being edited out of the Declaration of Independence:

“To write is to think, and to write well is to think well,” David McCullough once said in conversation. Jefferson was thinking of the abrupt end of old ties, of self-defining ties, and, I suspect, that the pain of this had to be acknowledged. It is one thing to declare the case for freedom, and to make a fiery denunciation of abusive, autocratic and high-handed governance. But it is another thing, and an equally important one, to acknowledge the human implications of the break. These were our friends, our old relations; we were leaving them, ending the particular facts of our long relationship forever. We would feel it. Seventeen seventy-six was the beginning of a dream. But it was the end of one too. “We might have been a free and great people together.”

Wow!  That certainly brings a personal element to the story.  That ties a bow on something that very many high school civics students I’m sure wondered silently while learning about the events in the late 1700s leading to the formation of our nation.  “What happened?  Did we hate each other?  Why are we good allies now?” To know that it was a tough break up is humbling.  Almost like a couple that goes through a bitter divorce to come out as reasonable friends on the other side.

Yet another interesting passage:

America and Britain did become great and free peoples together, and apart, bound by a special relationship our political leaders don’t often speak of and should never let fade. You can’t have enough old friends. There was the strange war of 1812, declared by America and waged here by England, which reinvaded, and burned our White House and Capitol. That was rude of them. But they got their heads handed to them in New Orleans and left, never to return as an army.

Even 1812 gave us something beautiful and tender. There was a bombardment at Fort McHenry. A young lawyer and writer was watching, Francis Scott Key. He knew his country was imperiled. He watched the long night in hopes the fort had not fallen. And he saw it—the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

That might help you appreciate those blooms and booms in the sky that much more this weekend.  It will for me.

Peggy Noonan is just figuring this out?

In her Wall Street Journal column, Road to the Nut House, Peggy Noonan seems to finally come to understand that politicians, or at least those vying for the White House, are crazy:

But lately I think maybe they [presidential office seekers] all are [mad, that is].

This has been known for a long time.  The guys who wrote the Constitution had a really good handle on this.   Do you know who is even crazier?  The people who don’t know this.

Noonan has been around politicians for a long time.  I’m amazed it’s taken her this long to figure this out.