Friday, August 17, 2012

Breaking News: American Dream is a Myth

American Dream? (Image from Flickr, by OakleyOriginals)
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was recently on The Daily Show to promote his new book The Price of Inequality. In the interview, he told Jon Stewart that the life opportunities for an American youth are "more dependent on the income and education of his parents" than in any other wealthy country.

According to Good Education, Stiglitz’s observation is an indication that the American Dream “has become a myth.”

Good Education is wrong in a significant way: The American Dream has always been a myth. Sure, some people have transcended the backgrounds of their parents, moving into the middle class from humble working class or immigrant backgrounds. However, extremely few have ever gone on to become wealthy members of the ruling elite.

It is also true that middle class wealth has been shrinking dramatically since the economic meltdown a few years ago, making it much more difficult to enter into and remain in the middle class. However, wages and living standards for the middle and working classes have been sliding steadily since the 1970s and would likely be continuing to do so even without the economic crisis as a result of the capitalist class’ long-running assault on wages, union power and New Deal and Great Society entitlements.

Good asks why we accept an “institutionally driven system that lets people who have wealth play by and create a different set of rules.” Implicit in this question are the assumptions that the system could be otherwise and that it is acceptable for there to be a wealthy class in the first place.

The problem is that as long as there are class distinctions in society, especially ones as dramatic as those in wealthy capitalist countries, those with the wealth will necessarily have a monopoly on political and social power. In other words, it is not possible for the rest of us to have equal political or social power so long as a wealthy class persists. Indeed, both the political and economic systems exist precisely to facilitate their acquisition of wealth—hence different rules for them and us.

If the dream is to simply own one’s own home, eat at restaurants and take an annual vacation to Palm Beach, then the dream is still alive. One should remember, though, that this dream has always depended on the good will of the bosses to provide a job, a dependency that makes us all vulnerable and at risk of suddenly becoming poor—a rather unpleasant dream, when you really think about it. It forces us to make disagreeable compromises and sacrifices in order to keep those jobs and keep our bosses happy so they won’t lay us off or, if they do, so they will still write us nice letters of recommendation.

Furthermore, by accepting these jobs we also tacitly accept and promote capitalist class hegemony since our labor is the source of their wealth. Even those with “good jobs” are in this bind. Consider professional athletes (and the overwhelming public disgust they garner when they go on strike). Despite the millions that the highest paid athletes earn, they are still employees and, like us, potentially only an injury away from the unemployment line. Thus, they, too, are dependent on the good graces of their bosses.

The American Dream is (and always was) a clever piece of propaganda that promoted hard work and obedience in the present, by tantalizing workers with the hope of reaching easy street in the future.

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