Long live the (new) American Dream

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Long live the (new) American Dream
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

— Langston Hughes

That's the question of the moment, isn't it? Does a deferred dream explode, and what form would such an explosion take? Hughes was writing about the African-American experience when he penned his poem in 1951. Now it applies to about 90 percent of Americans.

Is the American Dream merely deferred or has it died? Deferred is tragic. Death might be catastrophic.

The American Dream is the social covenant that says if we follow the rules, work hard, live as law-abiding citizens — in other words become team players — then it will pay off somewhere down the line. We'll move up economically and our kids will be better off than we were.

At the heart of the American Dream for many is homeownership, private property, a small stake worth 15 to 30 years of economic servitude, paying an inordinate amount of interest to have something all your own — or that at least generates a profit (leading perhaps to a larger, better home) when you sell.

But in the last three years, homeownership has gone bust. People who sank everything into their stake in hopes of an eventual payoff are now "short-selling" their homes (or walking away altogether) because they're "underwater." Their homes are worth less than they owe on it. Their homes will never pay off. All that work, all those rules followed, all those promises of eventual payoff? All for naught.

A lot of people are angry (or depressed, which is anger turned inward). Pissed off and deeply disillusioned is not how you want the bottom 90 percent of your population to feel. Tends to unravel the social fabric.

That's what the social covenant is about after all — preserving domestic tranquility.

Who turned the American Dream into a nightmare? The mortgage industry, the banks, the financial industry's reckless, greedy, utterly irresponsible behavior, aided and abetted by the Republican Party's free market/lax regulation policies of the last 31 years. The Democrats get a portion of the blame, too, in a supporting role. The private sector was the driving force, but government failed to do its job — protect us from the inevitable recklessness (and subsequent wreckage) of an unregulated, free-market economy.

The now-endangered middle class shares some of the responsibility too — for buying into the material excesses of the era. People consistently voted against their own self-interest, thinking it would lead to an even bigger payoff, believing that they, too, would someday be counted among the wealthy. Living in denial, we ignored the statistics that showed the immense wealth created by the free-marketeering of the last three decades was concentrated more and more in the hands of the top 10 percent while middle class incomes were stagnating, forcing most households to go to two incomes just to get by.

Now that this house of cards has collapsed, we're suffering from the shock of collective disillusionment. It has taken three long years for the anger to build. Protest movements are mobilizing. Unless we can create a better system, the suffering will continue — or get worse — and so will the anger. But the obstructionists in Congress are preventing all progress.

Many are mourning the death of their American Dream. But it was a deeply flawed dream to begin with, a dream that kept us sedated, complacent, passive, fearful and, therefore, easily manipulated. It kept us mired in economic servitude. It was not good for us.

Well, we're awake now, and we need a new American Dream, a more egalitarian dream, one that doesn't leave us begging for table scraps. We hoped that giving the greedy enough freedom would result in a rising tide that lifted all boats, but all we got was trickle-down.

We need a dream that is worthy of us, that protects and promotes the dignity of all, not just the top 10 percent — a dream whose cornerstone is community and the common good.

Disillusionment is difficult, but it can lead to better outcomes. Illusions are unhealthy. Being stripped of them, painful as that might be, is the first step toward a better American Dream, which in turn leads to a better America.

There's bad news and good news:

The American Dream is dead.

A new dream is being born.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 8:21 PM

Phil Pittman from Oak Park, the timing coincided with your career. If a person tried to succeed in what you do now, it would not have the same results.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 8:20 PM

john murtagh from oak park, you need to first understand that the ultimate rich know exactly what people would do when they lost their homes and jobs. Now with the wallstreet protest, it will not be allowed to grow as the 60's demonstrations in the streets over people not wanting to be drafted. Civil unrest would not do the rich any good.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 8:17 PM

Tom Broderick from oak park, the housing collapse was easy to predict. People who can't afford home ownership, where offered the opportunity to buy anyway. Then the mortgage came do, and now everyone is blaming others for selling them a home that they can't afford. Most people know they couldn't afford it, but wanted to believe their home would continue in value. It was a housing scheme that made the boys who handle many very rich, and they cried, "Broke", and received lots of more money.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 8:14 PM

Dave Coulter, we do not learn from history. If we did, then we there would be no need to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, or excuses saying "Who know that they would fight that way".

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 8:12 PM

TJ, you are not accepting responsibility for your post not posting properly. Your post did not post properly because you did not pay attention that you were over the 500 character limit. Start paying more attention so you don't make mistakes that you don't want to admit too. This is the problem with a lot of people.

Phil Pittman from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2011 4:09 PM

Ken, I disagree. The American Dream is not dead. In 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first Apple computer is Job's parents' garage. About the same time Bill Gates and Paul Allen were writing assembler language programs in a motel room in Albuquerque. At that time I was a senior level computer systems manager for a major Chicago area corporation. My experience moving from the old mainframes to PCs was not an easy task, but I am satisfied with my career.I achieved my American Dream.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 5:40 PM

I agree Tom. We are always living class warfare. It probably started when Adam gave Eve his rib to Eve. Most revolution, insurrections, and wars were started by class warfare. That's a lot of unfair deaths. Perhaps it is the ultimate capital punishment. Like all problems in our society, there is a solution. We just have to identify it and act on it. The events of Occupy Wall Street are a step in the right direction.

Tom Broderick from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 5:15 PM

We are always living class warfare. When the elite class feels threatened, it brings up the subject as something bad and unAmerican. When it fleeces the bulk of Americans, it represents itself as evidence of the success of capitalism. To rework the title of an old gospel tune: "I am a soldier in the army of class war." When does the 1% most enjoy a meal? When they can eat while watching others starve.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 3:43 PM

Just to make sure my view re Class Warfare is clear. I am opposed to all forms of it. I just don't think that the current economic debate is about Class Warfare. It is about inequities in tax codes, inadequate support for education, the financial elite's blinder, and the phenomena of wealth attainment being considered a social, cultural, and intellectual advantage over those less well off. We don't need warfare to solve the problem of inequity. We need better public policy.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 3:34 PM

Enuf - I am a big fan too!

Another OP resident  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 3:20 PM

I am a big fan of Enuf is Enuf. Nice brain.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 2:17 PM

Tom - The quote has been attributed at times as coming from Jay Gould, but it has also been attributed to others. Gould was a railroad baron in the late 1800's. If you are implying that the quote represents capitalism in the 21 Century, I think you are way off the track. Old quotes and generalized numbers add little. If you plan on continuing with Class Warfare quotes, don't forget to include some from Geronimo,Red Cloud,and Cochise. They were the ultimate underclass during Gould%

Tom Broderick from oak park  

Posted: October 28th, 2011 12:19 PM

It's called class war because a portion of the 99% have opted to fight back rather than suffer social darwinism in silence. The American financier Jay Gould is credited with saying: "I can hire half the working class to shoot the other half." Financiers today have managed to twist home ownership dreams to nightmares and the promise of a better life through more and better education into deep debt w/o relief. This debt finances the lifestyles of the 1% that are enjoying the times of their lives.

Dave Coulter  

Posted: October 27th, 2011 4:48 PM

Well written. We seem to be at a crossroads of history. I hope we can learn from these mistakes and do better.

T J  

Posted: October 27th, 2011 11:33 AM

My link didn't post properly; http://signon.org/sign/let-the-occupychicago?source=s.fwd&r_by=1449464

T J  

Posted: October 27th, 2011 11:32 AM

I don't believe 2% is that wealthy or religious. Hard work will get you far, but to make it to the top remember this formula- massive tax breaks on all categories: income property/ sales/ payroll, write your own legislation, eliminate any consideration for actual natural persons and you are there. See ComEd,Reinsdorf lease, taxbreaks for sears, cboe,CAT,new IL coal plant, GAO wage study, Appalatian Voices for more info. To support occupychi go to http://signon.org/sign/let-the-occupychicago?

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: October 27th, 2011 11:02 AM

Mr. Trainor assigns blame everywhere except on the news media, the Fourth Estate. Perhaps Mr. Trainor can prove me wrong by citing pre-recession columns he has authored that provide his same perspective as insight, rather than hindsight. Ironic that his column resides in the WJ, which is financially based on free market consumer and real estate ads, that are complicit in the mass consumerism and housing bubble that he now finds fault.

OP Dad  

Posted: October 27th, 2011 10:29 AM

So often we are set up with false comparisons. Either you studied hard, worked hard, and succeeded wildly or you are a lazy and looking for a handout. Ray, Luke and Michael, congratulations on your success. However, despite what you may believe, you didn't do it on your own. No one does. Michael, as for being a 1%'er "laughing all the way to the bank", most people don't resent your success. If fact, most of us celebrate it. It's your attitude we hate. Thanks for proving money doesn't buy class.

Luke ScottWalker from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 4:23 PM

The dream remains very much alive, and it was never flawed, Ken. First,wealth and income are two totally separate issues. Second, in both cases, there is a continuum, not some "stark divide". If you want to call some "the rich" or "the haves" and others "the poor" or "the have-nots", you need to make an arbitrary distinction by setting a stake somewhere on the continuum. There's no such thing as a clearly delineated gap; only promoters of class warfare and division pretend there is.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 3:00 PM

The best hope for the republic is real campaign finance reform. We've seen how special interests have been able to influence and corrupt the process. It's really remarkable how cheap it is to buy an elected official.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 2:49 PM

43% of respondents to a CBS/New York Times survey said they agree with Occupy Wall Street's goals, while, 27% percent said they disagree. 30% were unsure. While the movement is targeted at Wall Street, the anger is targeted at all banks, government agencies, and government officials (elected, appointed, and hired). They all have sought solutions that meet "their" needs with little evidence of concern for the taxpayers. Is OP a target of the movement? I'd bet Yes. 2012 is an election yr.

Michael Moore from Michigan  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 2:38 PM

I'm a 1%'er. Laughing all the way to the bank. Ha Ha Ha !

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 2:26 PM

Why is money spent to elect politicians by corporations despicable, while unions get a pass while pursuing their own best interest? Remember that most well off individuals got there by being smart. No matter what government does those people will still be bright enough to figure the system out and win. Like it or not, redistribution will only result in the same people getting the most marbles and those who "got theirs" without hard work will wind up poorer than before.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 1:34 PM

See the documentary "Inside Job".

Flash Gordon  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 1:29 PM

Kill the poor. They are in our way. Can't get a good job (or any job) by 25? You die. That should motivate these punks. So what if corporations can spend its money limitlessly to elect people to do its bidding? Get a job, make a lot of money and buy your own candidates.!

Darthvader   

Posted: October 26th, 2011 1:22 PM

I dont believe you that you are a 2%. I think OP, RF has only a few.

2 Percenter from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 1:16 PM

I'm in the top 2% and I worked my tail off, studied hard, got some lucky breaks, and prayed like crazy to get here. I'm far more offended by the entitlement mentality demonstrated by the Occupy Movement than I am by the avarice shown by millionaires and billionaires. Both are greedy in their own ways (make no mistake, but aren't we all to some extent?), but I'll take a motivated, opportunistic businessman over a lazy, spoiled child everyday of the week.

Darthvader  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 12:58 PM

Luke, you have it wrong. How many of the 1% worked their #$$'s off to get their wealth?Not too many. Connections and old money go a Loooooong way. May the force be with you son.

Ken Trainor Should Be Fired  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 12:33 PM

Need I say more?

Luke ScottWalker from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 10:40 AM

Ken, you miss the point again. There is no wealth divide. There is an ambition divide. Many of the Occupy types were born in the late 80's or 90's,raised in the "entitlement" generation. The true American Dream is the belief that hard work and dedication MAY pay off. There are no guarantees in life! None! It is both childish and obtuse of anyone to assume that all good things come to all people. Some folks succeed, some fail. It is through this struggle that greatness and innovation occur.

Dutch Elm  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 10:11 AM

An interesting argument. But Ken has left out the part about mortgage lending laws that forced banks to make loans to zombies. If gigantic crimes were committed, where are the prosecutions? Speculative bubbles are part and parcel of economic history. Some win, many lose. Caveat emptor.

Occupy Wednesday Journal  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 9:31 AM

The delusional Kenny Boy Trainor strikes again.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: October 26th, 2011 8:42 AM

If your view of the "American Dream" is correct, Illinois should be the best showcase for Government success. Republicans have had very little culpability for the last decade, yet, We are number 50 in almost every state comparison. Our neighbors, with Republican governors, are growing and getting a handle on deficits. Our governor seems to find the most irrational solutions to state problems, ignoring the successful plans in Wisconsin and Indiana, driving job creators over the line. The new "American Dream" seems to include smaller government, individual freedoms, encouraging creativity, and restoring honesty to Washington. How is that possible with Obama and Durbin in key positions?

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