Killing the Goose, Dreaming the Dream

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American History

I have just a couple of quibbles about Digby’s otherwise excellent rant about the death of the American dream. One is that she doesn’t clarify that the American Dream was pretty much exclusively owned by white people until relatively recently. Here’s the other:

In a time when people feel they can’t keep up or are falling behind, it’s hard to have faith in the idea that everyone can achieve a base level of security and provide for their kids to do better than they did. That was always the deal for working-class Americans, immigrants and middle-class alike.

That may always have been the ideal, and it worked out for a lot of folks, but I’m not sure even most white people born in the U.S. in the 19th century thought of it as “the deal” and expected to achieve a greater degree of security than their parents. They may have reasonably hoped to, and a lot of them did, but the experience that made the dream an expectation was really what happened from the late 1930s until about 1972. Digby’s a boomer too, although I think slightly younger than I am, and white middle class boomers really did expect a financially secure and ever more affluent life, because that had been our parents’ experience and we saw no reason for it to stop. And for some of us that happened,and for some of us, it didn’t.

In the 19th century, the Dream was largely crafted from the Western Territories. If you were an ordinary white working-class shlub or farmer living in the East you probably were not going to improve your situation much, but you could always Go West. That didn’t always work out, but the possibility was always there and made life seem less desperate.

Also in the first half of the 20th century ordinary working people and farmers, white and black, often lived very meager lives in the U.S., but people ignored them. (My mother used to tell stories about her very white poor cousins who sharecropped watermelon in the Ozarks in the 1920s, whose standard of living probably wasn’t appreciably different from what their parents’ had been in the 1890s.) Large parts of the U.S. were sunk into terrible poverty during the “Roaring 20s” but we remember the Gatsby lifestyle, fueled largely by speculation and bubbles, because that’s what was recorded in the magazines and in films.

The New Deal, GI Bill and other great liberal 20th century programs that did things like improve working conditions and reduce black lung in coal miners really created the Middle Class that we think of today as the Middle Class. And just as we all got complacent and began to think this is the way things are always going to be, the malefactors of great wealth started to persuade some of us that everything would be so much better if we dismantled some of those awful government programs that got in the way of wealth creation. We didn’t remember that those awful government programs had made the Middle Class possible. We really have become people who got greedy and killed the goose who laid golden eggs.

As Digby points out, part of our problem is that today Democrats and Republicans conceptualize the American Dream very differently.  Democrats think in terms of a decent and secure standard of living; Republicans want to get rich. And what’s happening is that the more modest “dream,” which might be achievable for most people, is being sacrificed for the sake of the fantasy one.  And, ironically, data tell us that southern working-class whites, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, are the biggest losers here. But you can’t tell them that because guns, gays and God.

Reactionary “conservatism” has put us on a course that is not sustainable, and I honestly don’t see what’s going to change anything, especially with our corrupted election system. So there we are.

Update: See also Krugman

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small — perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

Back to my premise, that from the last years of the Depression and until about 1972 — the point at which real wages for working American peaked and began to decline — the U.S. enjoyed the smallest degree of wealth inequality in its history. The rich were not so rich, and the poor were not so poor. A lot of factors killed this situation, but more than anything else “Reaganomics” has seen to it those conditions can never come back.

Update: See also “The most important chart about the American economy you’ll see this year”

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. goatherd  •  Sep 26, 2014 @3:02 pm

    I often think of the concepts of our country, our history and our future as I formulated them in grade school. It seemed that we truly were exceptional and that nothing would stop our progress. It was a childish view constructed under the influence of the post war euphoria and cold war propaganda. But, for the early part of our lives something seemed to be working. We had a nearly one in four chance of climbing out of the class we were born to, a college education was affordable and we seemed to be addressing some huge social issues like racism and sexism. All of those perceptions and the naivete were possible for me because I had the right skin color.

    Now all of that seems like a cruel misunderstanding. To begin with, racism and sexism seem everywhere, we’ve had so many cruel reminders that the fact is impossible to ignore. The right has sold enough shinola and wolf tickets that many people are buying into some Randian fantasy when we should be squarely facing some very big environmental and economic problems before it’s too late. Our government, which was the “envy of the world,” according to our school books is now reviled and dysfunctional. Higher education is for the rich, unions are nearly busted and some people get shot and killed for being the wrong color while others open carry sporting a traitor’s flag. As the economic part of the American Dream dies, it’s taking the rest with it.

    That small part of myself that is the surviving essence of my childhood is asking, “How did this happen?” The “adult” part of me isn’t quite sure how to answer. But, we were definitely among the most fortunate beings in the whole expanse of humanity. Now, feudalism will again take the stage, with a “new look.”

    At the risk of seeming like a complete buffoon, I sometimes think the best way to describe our situation is being at a fork in the road of history. At the ends of the forked roads are a “happy Star Trek” and an “unhappy Star Trek.” Our advances in technology, surveillance and destructive hardware will make the deep division between the very rich and the very poor like some dystopia on a distant planet.

    Wow, I think it might be time to have a wee dram of something strong.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 26, 2014 @4:22 pm

    All forms of bigotry, from racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious discord – as well as some others – have been used to “Divide and Conquer” Americans.

    And it has been remarkably successful, because there are a lot of scared, fearful, and bigoted white people in this country.
    And, as you said maha, most of those people vote against their own best interests, and support Republicans.

    I don’t see an end to that – except, of course, for the changing demographics. But that will motivate the Republican base for this years election, and the next few.

  3. moonbat  •  Sep 26, 2014 @9:38 pm

    Reactionary “conservatism” has put us on a course that is not sustainable

    Sadly, I have to disagree. A robust middle class is the exception, an aberration, if you look at history. The default condition, extremely common throughout history, is the pyramid where the top 1-2% own everything, another 10% are their flunkies and retainers, and everyone else is destitute. This is quite sustainable, in much the way that a pyramid is the most stable physical structure. It takes certain conditions (mainly a lot of wealth), laws, political will, to create and sustain a middle class. It’s a like a rare flower that only blooms every few decades and then is gone.

  4. Doug  •  Sep 26, 2014 @10:42 pm

    The original concept of ‘Democracy’ was flawed. It institutionalized slavery, denied rights to women and only gave the voting franchise to landowners. It sucked. Decade by decade, the dream became more inclusive, though it’s never been close to perfect. Not even close, but always closer. That’s the dream. I don’t think the ‘Dream’ was about income alone, it was about inclusion, equal rights under the law, not equal income, equal opportunity, not equivalent outcomes. Education has always been key to making opportunity more equal, less of a scam.

    We’re fighting a funded and systematic crusade to roll back democracy and game the system for the few. Don’t lose heart, my friends – demographics favor us IF we keep the power of the popular vote. My fear is that we are being driven to revolution with the intent of restoring the original view of the framers – restore slavery (under a different name), deny rights to women, limit the right to vote, and enforce it with the aid of technology and terrorism. We aren’t there yet.. and if we only delay our opposition,the tide of demographics guarantees that father time will take the foundation of the opposition.

  5. goatherd  •  Sep 27, 2014 @8:40 am

    I think Doug has it right, the ultimate target is democracy itself. Maybe this is because Democracy and Capitalism limit each other and the trick is to strike a balance, which, it seems we nearly achieved for a few decades. Capitalism would never have allowed collective bargaining or safety regulations, had they not been imposed by democratic fiat. When the economic system stumbles and crashes, the Galtian overlords grudgingly accept the reins of Democracy, but the bit soon begins to chafe and they immediately start work on overthrowing the bonds. When the bailouts and benefits run out, they no longer have a use for the inconvenience of government. The dukes and barons have purchased the media and most of the government, they write legislation and pass it on through their employees in congress.

    The assault on Democracy is broad spectrum, from voter suppression, to “Citizens United.” The “Great Recession” brought very little reform, very little redress from the people and entities that caused it and very little resolve to change and improve the system, in short, bupkis. If Democracy held the upper hand, the case would be different.

  6. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 27, 2014 @8:50 am

    I’ve been saying this for a long, long, time – the worst thing to happen to the working people of America, was the fall of the USSR, and its competing economic philosophy.

    After Wall Street had its Great Depression, the rich were willing to go along with unions and democratic changes because the USSR looked strong and very competitive in the 1930’s.
    And so, they gave their workers concessions so that they wouldn’t stage their own Communist Revolution.

    When the USSR fell, and China went from Communism to Plutocracy and Oligarchy, our rich felt they didn’t need to give any concessions to workers.
    That, and the fact that they had new global markets for what they were selling meant that the US workers could lose their standards of living, because the companies profits would remain high.

    Our only hope is demographic change.
    But our Reich-Wingers are countering that, with voter suppression.

    Keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

  7. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 27, 2014 @8:50 am

    I’ve been saying this for a long, long, time – the worst thing to happen to the working people of America, was the fall of the USSR, and its competing economic philosophy.

    After Wall Street had its Great Depression, the rich were willing to go along with unions and democratic changes because the USSR looked strong and very competitive in the 1930’s.
    And so, they gave their workers concessions so that they wouldn’t stage their own Communist Revolution.

    When the USSR fell, and China went from Communism to Plutocracy and Oligarchy, our rich felt they didn’t need to give any concessions to workers.
    That, and the fact that they had new global markets for what they were selling meant that the US workers could lose their standards of living, because the companies profits would remain high.

    Our only hope is demographic change.
    But our Reich-Wingers are countering that, with voter suppression.

    Keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

  8. erinyes  •  Sep 28, 2014 @4:42 am

    Things will improve when Joe six pack realizes he was thrown overboard nearly 40 years ago and decides to fight back by doing nothing. The wheels don’t turn unless the frightened workers do more for less. And that’s the truth.
    One right winger I know said McDonald’s is going to employ robots to make burgers and fries because the no talent workers are demanding more money. I asked him if they’ll also be using robots to clean the restrooms. They will be my only use for McDonalds, a pit stop for potty breaks, and my aim ain’t what it used to be.

  9. c u n d gulag  •  Sep 28, 2014 @7:44 am

    erinyes,
    More importantly to the company, will the robots buy what McDonalds sells?

  10. paradoctor  •  Oct 3, 2014 @11:09 pm

    cund:”I’ve been saying this for a long, long, time – the worst thing to happen to the working people of America, was the fall of the USSR, and its competing economic philosophy.”
    I concur. This reminds me of a tale:
    Once, in Czarist Russia, the yeshiva students asked the Rabbi, “Which is better, global socialism, or socialism in one country?”
    The sage replied, “It is better to have socialism in one country, and to live in another country.”

  11. c u n d gulag  •  Oct 4, 2014 @8:16 am

    GREAT ONE!



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