Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Did You Think The American Dream Was? And Now What?

Circuit City is following the trend of having better financial numbers by trimming labor costs. Like the short-sighted retail idiots that they are, CC decided to do that by firing their best paid -- and thus supposedly highest achieving -- floor staff. The Slashdot write-up about it is not particularly interesting except that it included the phrase 'American Dream'. That is not interesting by itself either, a bit maudlin actually, but it did spark very interesting comments about what posters though the words 'American Dream' means.

I am not sure what the concept classically means, although of course the Wikipedia knows all. I am aware that the phrase has been explored a lot in many venues.

For me, I always thought it was about upward mobility, as some posters do, and I have mixed feelings about the state it is currently in. A number of flist readers have achieved it by clawing their ways out of grinding poverty to where they escaped their trailer-bound destinies and now live in homes of their own, raising children or pets, and the two I am thinking about did it both by hard work and smart choices, very American Dream, even if the choice was slightly smarter at the time than the same choice would be now with deployments to war-torn Iraq. There are very mixed statistics out there, though, about whether much of this upward mobility is still available. I keep thinking that hard work alone is less important and luck keeps getting more and more to do with it, especially since the twin behemoths of un-insurability for health-care and a credit industry intent on squeezing every dime they can from the lower economic strata by exploiting information imbalance seem to keep more and more people down.

If the American Dream is about being able to achieve a house of your own, a car, support your spouse and kids, stay comfortable, the American Dream in most places is just plain dead. Unless there is a huge correction in housing prices that could only be termed 'deep recession', or the US worker stops being thrown around like cattle to be pleased at getting 7 bucks or barely more an hour with no municipal or government services like cheap public transport or free higher education to go with it, owning many of those markers is just not going to happen, unless you are willing to enter dangerous deals with the credit industry.

For some, the words mean the ability to make it huge. Further upward mobility, from, say, where I am, into the stratosphere. I am not even sure that is any more achievable through just plain hard work than it used to be. Supposedly I have better access to it than most people because the latest success stories concentrate around the IT industry, but when I look who made it, hard work is not the only common thread. We all get to constantly work hard in IT, our schedules demand it because production is both so unpredictable and always behind what the market actually wants. The other commonalities I see for people that ascended is also access to all forms of capital (human, financial, creative), and, hoping I don't sound jealous or something, simply being at the right place at the right time. Which product takes off, which product could handle taking off, which product was not killed by the company that had it. It is completely unpredictable to me which products those are before they get big, and what it is about the people that make them. Being the smartest cookie in the bunch barely helps; there's tons of smart cookies out there without high-flying IPOs to look forward to. Or just look at the dot-com flotsam trying to have a second act after the first one was over: Marc Andreessen comes to mind. Jobs did it, though. But again, does anyone want to say that Jobs got there by just hard work?

But going back to the dream being about being able to become and stay comfortably middle class, I just don't know anymore. It seems to me The Netherlands is far better at achieving that version of the American Dream than the US is. Of course, the people in the US when told about what it takes in The Netherlands to maintain that, reject it, because, as I have been told, they think more equality through taxes and national ethos would hamper the second part of the dream, that of reaching the stratosphere. I find that the basic idea of rejecting unions and socialized medicine is that, by having them, you hamper getting obscenely rich. When I hear that verbalized I always think of homeless people using money to buy lottery tickets instead of vitamins. And really, are there per capita so many fewer really rich people in The Netherlands? Should anyone care? Sometimes it feels to me the promise of class mobility to the sky is as much an opium to the masses as religion ever was deemed to be to the person who coined the term. Just make sure the hope stays alive and the masses won't revolt to demand health, safety, solidarity, education.

So what does the phrase American Dream mean to you, more or less personally? Do you remember being in school learning about it, or listening to your parents going on about it? Did you believe in it? Is it happenning? Did your belief about what it means change? It that new belief happening?