Posts Tagged ‘American Dream’

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The American Dream is dead. Long live the American Dream!

Let me explain. The official American Dream, the one that has been produced and disseminated at least as far back as the transition from the farm to the factory (in other words, since the late-nineteenth century), lies in tatters. Americans have long been encouraged to believe that everyone gets what they deserve—and, with equal opportunity, those who start at the bottom have a real chance of working their way to the top. Within generations, all workers had a chance to “make it.” And, between generations, children would likely be better off than their parents.

That promise—let’s call it the capitalist American dream—is now in tatters. It is dead and (almost) buried.

It’s not the first time, of course, that the capitalist American Dream has been called into question. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, American capitalism was not able to deliver the goods, at least for the majority of the population. Widespread unemployment and poverty, as capitalists shuttered their factories were shuttered and banks foreclosed on farms, meant that most Americans were faced with an economic nightmare. And much the same happened after the crash of 2007-08 when, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, millions of Americans were unable to find a decent job or purchase (unless they went further into debt) the necessary goods and services, for themselves and their children.

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The one major difference, of course, is that, while economic inequality fell after the first Great Depression, it actually resumed its upward trajectory during the so-called recovery from the Second Great Depression.

We also have to remember that that American Dream was only ever partial and incomplete. It was a promise but it really only held during the immediate postwar period. And, even then, only for white working-class families; Blacks and hispanics were mostly excluded, at least until the Civil Rights movement took hold. It also depended on the hegemony of the American economy, Pax Americana, after the recovery from the economic collapse and the destruction elsewhere occasioned by World War II.

Those conditions ended in the 1970s and, with stagnant wages and growing inequality culminating in the crash of 2007-08, one American Dream has died. One response to that ignominious death was the election of Donald Trump, who arose from the carnage and stands over it with his enablers, who have no interest in doing anything but to enrich themselves.

But there’s another American Dream that has captured the imagination of farmers and workers, young and old, for at least as long as the official one. It’s a dream of democracy and equality, of collective solidarity, that has animated many political and social movements and become enshrined in myriad policies and programs. Let’s call this one the socialist American Dream.

That’s the dream Americans have invoked to organize labor unions and farmer- and worker-owned cooperatives. It’s what has inspired attempts to expand the political franchise—to women and ethnic and racial minorities—and to create government programs whereby citizens help one another and force those at the top to participate. As a result, Americans have created progressive income taxes, a minimum wage, food stamps (now supplemental nutrition assistance), health and safety regulations, Social Security, Medicaid and then Medicare, environmental regulations, and now Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

The ultimate historical irony is that the socialist American Dream made the capitalist American Dream possible. Without unions and cooperatives, and in the absence of social welfare programs whereby a portion of the surplus has been captured and distributed so that citizen-workers collectively could help one another, the official American Dream would have remained a myth. That is was a reality, at least for many and for a certain period of time, was due at least in part because of the existence of a socialist dream of betraying and moving beyond a capitalist logic of organizing economic and social life in the United States.

Moreover, the capitalist American Dream of individual success and intergenerational mobility began to unravel precisely when the socialist American Dream came under attack. The concerted attempt to weaken labor unions—not to mention, first, to halt the expansion of social programs and, then, to actively restrict access to them, accompanied by new ways of highjacking the electoral process—undermined American workers’ ability for themselves and for their children to get ahead. Ultimately, it ended any attempt they had at the official American Dream.

Why does the intertwining of these two American Dreams matter? Right now, it has enormous consequences because of the movement to unseat Trump and the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party. I’m thinking, in particular, of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, represented by the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and the radical populist Elizabeth Warren. As I see it, Sanders has long championed the socialist American Dream while Warren has been positioned, by her campaign and by those who see her as the capitalist alternative to Sanders, as rescuing the official American Dream with more progressive policies.

In my view, both Sanders and Warren would be better served by understanding the history of the two American Dreams. As I argued back in 2015, needs to drop the references to Canada and the Scandinavian countries and make the case that socialism—democratic socialism—has long been an American Dream.* And Warren, if she wants to live up to the aspirations of the Working Families Party (which just endorsed her), has to highlight the ways her policies will transform the economy in a manner that “fights for workers over bosses and people over the powerful”—in other words, that extends the socialist American Dream.

The death knell of one American Dream, symbolized tragically and with vengeance by Trump’s presidency, creates even more space for another American Dream, a socialist one, with its own long, rich history.

 

*During the third Democratic debate, in response to an inane question about the main differences between his “kind of socialism and the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” Sanders responded: “I’ll tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism. I agree with goes on in Canada and in Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right.”

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Lines

Posted: 4 December 2017 in Uncategorized
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How bad have things gotten in the United States? It’s now up to Nitin Nohria [ht: ja], the dean of Harvard Business School, to sound the alarm that “class lines. . .have become far more distinct and visible in recent years.”

Nohria published his essay at the end of the same week that the U.S. Senate passed its version of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which is nothing more than an enormous boon to large corporations and wealthy individuals under the guise of trickledown economics,  and Philip Aston, the United Nations monitor on extreme poverty and human rights, has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour to investigate the widespread existence of extreme poverty in the United States.

The inspiration for Nohria’s reference to class lines is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (which we taught in the spring, as the final text of A Tale of Two Depressions). According to Hochschild, the U.S. class structure once resembled an orderly queue: the premise and promise of economic and social institutions were that, if you worked hard, you would achieve the American Dream.

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Notwithstanding the large number of exceptions (for racial and ethnic minorities, impoverished whites, women, and many others), it was a story Americans told about themselves and their country. And it held a kernel of truth: until the early-1970s, workers’ wages did keep pace with growing productivity and the wage share was relatively stable.

Now, of course, the American Dream lies in tatters. In response, the members of the white working-class in Hochschild’s account are resentful that others at the bottom—especially minorities and immigrants—have been allowed, with the help of the government, to cut ahead of them in the line.

Nohria goes in a different direction:

As I read Hochschild’s analysis, my thoughts turned to a different sort of resentment the white working class is feeling. Even as it stews over people cutting into its ever slower-moving line, it also envies another faster-moving queue: the special one reserved for people with means—the ones who travel business or first class. The affluent people in this line believe they have earned their preferred status through a meritocratic process that has assessed and rewarded their ambition and enterprise. This group becomes accustomed to its special privileges and comes to expect them everywhere, from legacy admissions to college for their children to special seating at sports events to VIP treatment at theme parks. It begins to believe that there should be a special line for innovators and pioneers who have sacrificed time with friends and family to achieve their personal best—those who want to reach for the top, to be number one. Yet even preferred status is not enough; those on any fast track can always see a still-faster track. If the first-class line is short, flying on a private aircraft from a terminal with no security lines is even faster.

The result is that

Now there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people in different lines to ever encounter each other in person. They go to different schools, shop at different stores, and rarely interact. Yet they are hyper-aware of each other due in part to the ubiquity of social media and television. You can gawk at the lives of the privileged on Instagram, tap into the resentment of the white working class on Brietbart [sic], and see the plight of the disenfranchised on Vice. This ready visibility has unleashed a range of emotions, including resentment, entitlement, envy, and despair—and it’s tearing America apart.

Neither Hochschild nor Nohria offers an analysis of why those class lines are moving further and further apart—there’s no mention of how more and more surplus is being captured and kept by the small group at the top. And Nohria’s proposed solution, to allow more underprivileged students into Harvard Business School and to expose all business students to “cases that describe the challenges of the working class and the impoverished,” is derisorily inadequate.

In my view, we don’t need yet another effort “to better understand those who may not be in the same line as us.” What we need instead is an open and frank discussion of how the existing economic and social institutions in the United States are predicated on creating and reproducing those class lines—and how a different set of institutions would erase the class lines that keep Americans apart.

Let’s see them teach that lesson at Harvard Business School.

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One of the most pernicious myths in the United States is that higher education successfully levels the playing field across students with different backgrounds and therefore reduces wealth inequality.

The reality is quite different—for the population as a whole and, especially, for racial and ethnic minorities.

As is clear from the chart above, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent has risen dramatically since the mid-1970s, rising from 22.9 percent in 1976 to 38.6 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the share owned by the bottom 90 percent has declined, falling from 34.2 percent to 27 percent. And that of the bottom 50 percent? It has remained virtually unchanged at a negligible amount, falling from 0.9 percent to zero.

During that same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (pdf), the proportion of Americans aged 25 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 24 percent to 36 percent. (For the entire population 25 and older, the percentage with that level of education rose from 15 to 33.)

So, no, higher education has not leveled the playing field or reduced wealth inequality. In fact, it seems, quite the opposite appears to be the case.

And that’s true, too, for racial and ethnic disparities in wealth. As William R. Emmons and Lowell R. Ricketts (pdf) of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis have concluded,

Despite generations of generally rising college-graduation rates, higher education’s promise of significantly reducing income and wealth disparities across all races and ethnicities remains largely unfulfilled. . .rather than promoting economic equality across all races and ethnicities, higher education unintentionally has become an engine for growing disparities.

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Thus, for example, median Hispanic and black wealth levels decline relative to similarly educated whites as education increases until the very top. Moreover, only about 7 percent of black families and 5 percent of Hispanic families have postgraduate degrees, and wealth disparities remain large even there.

Darrick Hamilton and William A. Darity, Jr. (pdf), who participated in the same symposium, go even further. According to them, the United States has a fundamental problem in discussing wealth disparities according to race and ethnicity:

Much of the framing around wealth disparity, including the use of alternative financial service products, focuses on the poor financial choices and decisionmaking on the part of largely Black, Latino, and poor borrowers, which is often tied to a culture of poverty thesis regarding an undervaluing and low acquisition of education.

Thus, while they agree that a college degree is positively associated with wealth within racial and ethnic groups, it is still the case that it does little to address the massive wealth gap across such groups.

And yet the myth persists. American elites and policymakers still to choose to emphasize the economic returns to education as the panacea to address socially established wealth disparities and structural barriers of racial and ethnic economic inclusion.

The question is, why?

According to Hamilton and Darity, such a view

follows from a neoliberal perspective, where the free market, as long as individual agents are properly incentivized, is supposed to be the solution to all our problems, economic or otherwise. The transcendence of Barack Obama becomes the ideal symbolism and spokesperson of this political perspective. His ascendency becomes an allegory of hard work, merit, efficiency, social mobility, freedom and fairness, individual agency, and personal responsibility. The neoliberal ideology is not limited to race. It more generally places the onus on individual actions, and more broadly leads to deficiency narratives for low achievement, but this is especially the case when considering race and other stigmatized workers. Perhaps the greatest rhetorical victory of this paradigm is convincing the masses that implicit in unfettered markets is the “American Dream”—the hope that, even if your lot in life is subpar, with patience and individual hard work, you can turn your proverbial “rags into riches.”

And so the myth of college and the American Dream is perpetuated, while the unequal distribution of wealth—across the entire population, and especially with respect to ethnic and racial minorities—which has been growing for decades, continues unabated.

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Young Americans are caught between two contradictory messages. On one hand, they’re told to go to college, to maintain pace with new technologies and job requirements. On the other hand, they’re told to “get out”—because, for most, a college education is simply unaffordable.

The American Dream, for them, looks more and more like “the sunken place.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy [ht: mfa] is the latest group to document the unaffordability of a college education. While students from the highest income quintile (from families earning around $160 thousand or more) can afford most of the more than 2,000 colleges studied, low- and moderate-income students (bringing in around $69 thousand or less) can only afford to attend a tiny percentage of those colleges.

The Institute bases its conclusion on an “affordability benchmark” (the so-called Rule of 10, the idea that 10-year savings plus part-time earnings should cover the entire cost of a four-year degree) compared to the net price of a college education (equal to the cost of attendance minus grant aid). They then illustrate their findings with ten student profiles: five dependent students representing a different income quintile, and possessing attributes based on national averages for students in their quintile (Sonja, Hakim, Ava, Sergio, and Maria), and five independent students characterizing the diverse array of personal and family circumstances among independent students (Anthony, Traval, Aneesa, Jon Sook, and Mohammed).

As readers can see from the figure at the top of the post, while the student from the highest income bracket could afford to attend 90 percent of colleges in the sample, the low- and moderate-income students with fewer financial resources could only afford 1 to 5 percent of colleges.

Colleges were most dramatically unaffordable for students near the bottom of the income distribution, including all five of the independent students. Out of more than 2,000 colleges, nearly half (48 percent) were affordable for only the wealthiest student (with a family income over $160,000) and more than one-third (35 percent) were affordable only for that student and the next wealthiest (with a family income over $100,000).

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Not only do working-class students face financial barriers in attempting to enroll in most colleges, which they can only afford by burying themselves and their families under mountains of debt. They’re also far less likely to complete their students, often because working long hours to finance their education gets in the way of their studies (not to mention all the other activities traditionally associated with being in college).

As the authors of the report conclude,

This inability for low-earners to afford an education or improve their station erodes belief in a nation founded on the rejection of entrenched social stratification.

The only question for the nation is, will this educational horror film have a happy ending?