By Ken Trainor
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.
Answer Book 2018
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2018 Answer Book, please click here.
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