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November 2, 2008

question for you : the American Dream


Some quotes that I think are interesting:

James Truslow Adams first talked about the American Dream in The Epic of America (1931) ::

"that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

...and in the Federalist Papers, James Madison writes: “Men of greater ability and talent tend to possess more property than those of lesser ability…”

...and Joe the plumber says he is "being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream" (regarding a potential tax increase for those who make more than $250,000 a year.)

My question is this: when the phrase was coined, the American Dream seemed to imply something beyond the accumulation of wealth. It was a dream about a society, not a special individual within a society. But for many people the American Dream is more about personal wealth. So how does the accumulation of wealth relate to the American Dream?

UPDATE: thank you for a really interesting collection of posts...i know it was a very broad question but I learned quite a bit from your responses. let's try this again sometime, yes? perhaps we could tackle a question a week...you could help me with the questions as well...

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Comments (86)

I think it is a common misconception that when one person gets wealthy it necessarily means that another person is getting poor, a very mercantilist perception.
More often than not the opposite is true. Competition breeds wealth in a free market, wealth not only for the competitors but for the consumers because the price of living decreases. so the actual dollar amounts that an individual claims may not be high, but they can live a fulfilling comfortable life on less because the people who are getting wealthy are putting their money back into the system which will shift prices down.

(From Ze: So are the wealthy putting money back into the system? Is what you describe above actually working? Or are you just outlining what a free market is supposed to look like?)

"for each according to ability or achievement." another problem is the american trend toward credit. we purchase and purchase because it's the "american dream" to own whatever you want, but they have not earned or achieved that level of prosperity and so they go in debt and then can never achieve it. We have become a immediate-gratification society, which is not what the founding fathers of this nation saw coming. They believed in wealth and prosperity at the cost of hard work. Now americans think that wealth and prosperity is due to them simply by being american.

(From Ze: So it seems like you are saying that 1) the American Dream does have to do with the accumulation of wealth and 2) That dream is realized through hard work. Can I ask: Do you think that wealthiest people are also the hardest working? What do you mean by hard work?)

Posted by: fopah at November 2, 2008 4:45 PM

I think with the american dream being wealth for many, I think its just a higher standard of living. Having money, Being able to buy what we need, Sometimes things we want and dont need. You see some people in the country and world cant afford what they NEED. Nevermind what they would like. Nice cars, Nice clothes, Fancy junk, All this is a dream, But in reality I think what was meant was the ability to live, comfortably. Comfort is what keeps us happy, Alive, And well. Suicide, Poverty, Depression, All byproducts from those cant afford their happiness. I would have to say some people think money makes us happier than just the basics these days. I feel wealthy by having friends, A job and food in my stomach. Simply put.

(From Ze: My question to you: Would you be comfortable in a society that provided for everyone's needs as you define them, but limited the amount of wealth that they could accrue)

Posted by: Timster003 at November 2, 2008 4:53 PM

the American dream is simple. Wake up and make it happen.

(From Ze: what do you mean?)

Posted by: markie at November 2, 2008 5:26 PM

In these two contexts it seems decently clear to me. The first talks about a society in which those who work hard and have talent will succeed no matter what their starting positions. A perfect meritocracy.

In this case those who are deserving gain wealth

Combine that with the fact that it has been shown that those who come from poor families are very likely to stay poor (despite their abilities)

Gaining wealth against the odds, aka coming from poverty to riches, more specifically the fact that going from rags to riches is possible, is a fulfillment of the American dream as a meritocracy.

(From Ze: Cool. The Dream is about a meritocracy. So what about the people you mention above - the likely to stay poor despite ability? What role does the Dream play there?)

I also agree with fopah, that wealth is not an inherently zero sum gain. When someone gains a dollar it does not mean someone else loses a dollar.

This is especially true when we utilize nearly infinite resources (on human scales) like solar power. when someone uses solar power to generate wealth it does not limit another persons ability to also use that same resource to generate wealth in a different way.

Also, another example, disruptive innovations like the internet have certainly made the world whole world wealthier by reducing transactions costs.

(From Ze: Agreed. Not an *inherently* zero sum game. I am no economist...I changed the wording in the post. But there is a distribution of wealth - Zipf's Law - the 80/20 rule that keeps popping up. It may not inherently be zero sum, and there may be other forms of renewable wealth, but you can't deny that most wealth creation relies on other people being not as wealthy...or can you?)

Posted by: Joshua at November 2, 2008 5:30 PM

I think most people dream of being wealthy- that is, not necessarily having a large income, but letting their money do the work for them. We want to be able to do whatever we want, whenever, without having to work for it. I think that may be innate in most people.

(From Ze: Nice! I call this the American Idle Dream. Get it?)

Posted by: Mayra at November 2, 2008 5:32 PM

I think work makes us happy, but in this new America many jobs are not very gratifying. Making something with your hands has been replaced by purchasing goods.

Purchasing things is an empty well that can never be filled. The minute you have one thing you want the next. The reason that even the wealthy are unhappy and feel they always need more is that buying things is basically not very satisfying.

Feeling that you make a difference in society by transforming it for the better or by actually doing real work with your hands are things that can fill a well.

Possessing things is not very gratifying. Possessions are a trap. The more you have the more you have to take care of. Americans have fallen into the trap of going into debt to have possessions they don't really need and can't afford.

The work along the journey toward success should be as gratifying as the success at the end. Often times it is more gratifying. The happiest people still wake up and do work everyday even if they are financially well off.

Americans have so much of everything that they don't know what the hell they want. well except for maybe more of it.

(From Ze: Interesting...but aren't you romanticizing handiwork just a bit? I'm not sure that the American Dream - if there is a shared one - necessarily involves a constant barrage of manual labor)

Posted by: John P. at November 2, 2008 5:32 PM

The problem is that the acquisition of property and wealth is now the ONLY measure of the American Dream that we're conditioned to want. So everyone wants it. And we want it fast. And will behave badly to get it. And then people congratulate us for it. I'm not a religious person, but I've been re-reading the New Testament recently. The people who are so quick to rally to the defense of unfettered capitalism are the same ones who claim this is a Christian nation. What was that about a rich man and the eye of a needle?

(From Ze: I think you are on to something. In the original formulation of the dream it seemed to be about removing barriers that had nothing to do with your potential. Caste and Class. It seemed to be about the possibility of gaining respect in the world for who you might become. A doctor, a poet, etc... Is this right?)

Posted by: jenjen at November 2, 2008 5:34 PM

Your query is made invalid by your assumption:

If it is accumulated, it is accumulated at the expense of others.

If I offer a product to the public, and they purchase it, and I become rich, I've done so because they CHOSE to give me their money, not because I injured/damaged/exploited them in some fashion.

(From Ze: edited to reflect your concerns - even though they are questionable - if most resources are controlled by very few, the word "CHOSE" becomes fuzzy. Now answer the question)

Posted by: Liberty Girl at November 2, 2008 5:35 PM

you and my english teacher would be friends. the american dream is all she's asked me about since school started.

(From Ze: Be careful. She may be a spy)

Posted by: digdag88 at November 2, 2008 5:36 PM

Honestly, I just want to go to school and get a degree to make more money to live comfortably. But I can't get more money without a degree and I can't get a degree because I can't afford to pay for school and rent and bills.

(From Ze: Hmmm...I'm guessing there might be people that would argue that you could get money if you wanted to - what do you think?)

Posted by: strayfarce at November 2, 2008 5:38 PM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ4SSvVbhLw

As Carlin said, "They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.

Cheers.

Posted by: Robbo at November 2, 2008 5:39 PM

I think the American dream exists well below the level of hyper-wealth, and I think it's less about material success than capabilities, in Amartya Sen's sense.

To me, the dream is about expanding opportunity and capability. It's the idea that each generation (and I do think it's fundamentally generational) can have more, and better, choices than the one before it. Each generation can do the things the generation prior only dreamed of. Each generation can, in some ways, redeem the generations before it.

It's especially palpable in the stories of first-generation immigrant families, but it applies to all of us.

And note that these big increases in capability are more often big shared social advancements than they are private gains in wealth. One person getting rich? Big deal.

But a plan to help millions of kids get a better education? A system to make all of us healthier? A slow but steady change in our shared assumptions about race or class? Those are the foundations of the American dream. Those are the things that increase the capabilities of millions.

We need wealth to support many (not all) of those things. So it's not irrelevant. But individual wealth is almost beside the point, except to the degree that our ideas & policies about individual wealth can affect the grand total. But the real question is, how do we increase our shared wealth? And not just in terms of dollars in the bank, but all the other kinds of capital that economists recognize: human capital, material capital, intellectual capital, environmental capital, and all the rest.

If all of that doesn't sound distinctly American, I think that's the point. The appeal of the American dream -- and America at its best -- has always been its universality.

Posted by: Robin at November 2, 2008 5:40 PM

I think the accumulation of wealth is only one possible, specific interpretation of the (ideal) American dream. To me, the American dream is more general, and has to do with the potential and opportunity everyone ought to be afforded, regardless of background etc, etc.

Unfortunately, I feel like the accumulation of wealth has gone from being the most common interpretation to the only interpretation for most people. Furthermore, it's been sullied by everyone trying to accumulate as much wealth as possible, as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. Now that's not to say that everyone is willing to something illegal, simply that they'll work within the system and even bend the rules when they can. Case in point: the ridiculous number of frivolous lawsuits in our society.

As I just heard last night in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the American dream has become about suing Walmart and becoming "Oprah rich"

Posted by: DigitolMuse at November 2, 2008 5:40 PM

The American Dream is to be able to do an honest, hard-days work and get fair compensation for that work so that you can scrimp and save enough money to give your kids a better education than you had so that they can repeat the same process.

Unfortunately, what we see is that people like Andrew Carnegie worked hard and dishonestly and cruelly and rose to be one of the wealthiest men in America. He crushed his workers and his competitors, not by providing better service or a better product but by threats and graft.

Those of us who believe that this behavior does not make the world a better place but believe that if we all work together, teaching each other, sharing ideas, providing help, and working together competitively, we can make the world a better place and still make a living and send our kids to get a better education than we were able to get.

This is what I have found works for me -- I help you, you help me, we both get ahead, we both get a reasonably-sized piece of the American Dream.

Posted by: AJ at November 2, 2008 5:42 PM

I believe the American Dream is that if you put forth the effort, you can accomplish whatever you set out to do --- and you can do it without fear of government interference. Whether that means being a small business owner, running a Fortune 500 company, or owning a home and filling it with a wife and 2.5 kids.

When Adams says you should be "able to attain the fullest stature of which they are capable," he is talking about just that. That ability to choose your own adventure.

Unfortunately, a socialist society won't allow for that.

By the way, the $250,000 claim is a lofty dream. I'm surprised that you, Ze, an intellectual, would buy into that line of bull. I'm not saying the other side is right, either, but Obama's numbers just don't add up.

Posted by: Fuzz Martin at November 2, 2008 5:47 PM

You know what I love? George Bush saying 'Merkin instead of American. I imagine you know what a merkin is (a pubic wig), so I always think of the 'Merkin dream having something to do with getting crab lice and replacing our diseased pubic hair with a wig so we can continue to be respectable-looking prostitutes.

Posted by: Alex at November 2, 2008 5:49 PM

One of the founding principles of this country was that a person was free to pursue their own actualization in whatever path they chose--mainly in religion early on but later in trade and thought. Because of that I feel like the American Dream has always been more of an intrinsic goal in its purest.

In the sociocultural interpretation (which I think is more of what you're focusing on) I think it's guided more by socioeconomic standing than wealth alone. Wealth seems to be the catalyst instead of the goal.

For the poor, the American Dream might be achieving financial stability. For the middle class it might be having children and sending them to college. For the wealthy it might be starting and profiting from your own business. While wealth is necessary to facilitate that I don't necessarily think it _has_ to be the goal.

Of course, the American Dream™ is probably more centered around wealth and financial independence. That's probably a by-product of our consumerist society though.

Posted by: Justin at November 2, 2008 5:50 PM

As a observer of and long-time frequent visitor to your country, I'd always understood the dream to be the ability to succeed based upon a perceived equality of opportunity. Quite a socialist concept really.

Posted by: John at November 2, 2008 5:58 PM

I think the essence of the American Dream is that we all have the opportunity to work hard to accomplish our own definitions of success.

And I think the class warfare rhetoric of late is in opposition to this sort of opportunity.

Suddenly, we have a glass ceiling on the American Dream On one side of the aisle) - it's great to pursue wealth and security, but if you pass the threshold of $250k, then you magically convert from a dreamer to Henry Potter from "In's a Wonderful Life."

Posted by: Shawn Collins at November 2, 2008 5:58 PM

the american dream is essentially working to one's full potential and reaching the highest level of achievement for one's capabilities through hard work and determination, after having started from nothing.

The original concept of the american dream was originally of a society where every person within it could achieve this status, but in an effort to achieve it, and because wealth is limited, its achievement often involves preventing others from succeeding, because wealth by nature is accumulated at the expense of others. This is simply because it has to be gotten from somewhere, and someone has to provide it. (although this is only an immediate effect, in the long run it might not be neccessarily so)

the american dream became associated with the accumulation of wealth in the first place because those who do fit the definition above usually end up becoming very wealthy as a reward for their hard work. The satisfaction used to come from working to one's potential and being the best in one's field, but since that is not as easily appraised by those outside a field, a better indicator became the wealth that stemmed from it, so of course people began bypassing the actual goal and began working towards the indicator instead.

does this by any chance have to do with your potential accumulation of wealth from disney?

Posted by: digdag88 at November 2, 2008 5:58 PM

I understand the American dream to be a life absent of oppression.

As for wealth, I liked what someone said somewhere a week or so ago, the more you volunteer in your community, the less tax on you.

Posted by: slo at November 2, 2008 6:00 PM

I think the accumulation of wealth relates to the American Dream in terms of freedom.

For a lot of people, more money means more options. It means better food. It means nicer belongings. It means more security. It means more pleasure. It means more vacation. It means less work. It means giving to others. It allows people the freedom to decide for themselves what they need/want/can do to make themselves happier.

I don't think the dream has anything to do with "money can't buy you happiness" or all the misery and downward spiral we see with people who accumulate large quantities and are unhappy, I think that's a personal problem with the individual and has nothing to do with the perceived American Dream. I believe it is that they’ve yet to find what gives them the freedom to live the dream, and that can just be emotional stability or a good friend.

I come from a heritage of poor immigrants who migrated to work sugar cane fields in Hawaii in the 1800s. While it wasn’t America yet, my ancestors moved for the American Dream. The dream to earn more, struggle less, starve less, and to have children with more options. It took a few decades to get there, but with wealth and hard work we've definitely been able to tap into the American Dream. Now I get to live mine -- make enough to not have to work anymore.

As for limited resources and accumulation at the expense of others; I’d say that without the contrast to know the difference it’s possible the Dream wouldn’t exist. If there was no poverty to rise above and the possibility of wealth and freedom people wouldn’t know what they’re working towards. I think it’s necessary. I think perspective changes everything. If everyone had everything what would we dream about?

Posted by: jamie at November 2, 2008 6:00 PM

I tend to think of the dream as dream for a society as a whole.

The dream is of a place where one can accumulate wealth, or friends and family, or what ever it is that makes your life, your dream.

You can make your life your dream on your merit. You will not be constrained by society which says "these people can not be your friends - you are from a different caste." Or should you prefer wealth, the society will not prevent one little means at birth from having great means to pass on to his children, should you have the skills.

It's about building a society that is flexible, that changes, that does not limit people, but rather lets them meet their potential no matter what that potential might be.

Posted by: nmcfarl at November 2, 2008 6:02 PM

It seems to me that the American Dream was bastardized not because of the credit economy and the casino mentality of Wall Street, rather thanks to the economic resurgence a decade post-depression, and again as each wave of immigrant population landed on our shores. Then, America promised that which they did not have: opportunity. Opportunity to prosper from hard work. Opportunity to prove ability over states which did not support free working class. Opportunity to drive Buicks.

Thanks to sound conditioning, generation after generation have forgotten what the American Dream meant in 1929. Or 1875. Or 1776. That there is something magical about people coming together for a common good, helping others, building infrastructure and innovating communally.

As a result -- and I'm just spit-balling here -- seems to be that the American Dream is something we only aspire too when all else seems poised to fail. The story the Obama campaign has been telling so diligently is one of change, community, inspiration. It's the story of the American Dream, told in the face of a struggling military, economic, fiscal, social, legal, and constitutional America. We seem to be able to focus on this American Dream thing when policies are breaking. When policies are generally operating smoothly, the only score left to keep is one of acquisition. It has become, over the last 80 years, aspirational.

Posted by: Pete Wright at November 2, 2008 6:06 PM

I think when the term "American Dream" was coined there was a lot more opportunity in these ole' United States. We got here and just started raping the land we stole from Native Americans and beginning our politics of fear, oppression and exploitation that would eventually make us one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Basically, America was a self-made/claimed blank slate. For settlers and immigrants, it was a new place where one could come and take advantage of the natural resources and people that were enslaved here for their own personal betterment.

So yes, it has something to do with wealth, but it also has something to with ownership. Back in the day, one could ride out on a horse to the highlands of the west, plop down a stake and say "mine!" Or one could go to an auction, buy some slaves and say "mine! now get to work!"

I think that it's important to realize that the amount of wealth in our country, personal as well as national success, and the global dominance our country claims could not have been possible without the specific circumstances that surrounded the founding of this "great" land - circumstances that we exploited, manipulated and deceived to get what we want.

The American Dream has since lost it's foundation. For centuries, people have immigrated here under the precept of finding success and getting rewarded for their hard work. But once we've tilled the last field, and bulldozed the last poverty stricken apartment building to build luxury lofts, there'll be nothing more to take advantage of.

This is getting tangential, so I'll stop.

Thesis : The phrase, "The American Dream" was coined at a time when America was fresh and ready to be pillaged, but now it's overripe and bursting with dissent, making it difficult for the sordid "dream" to be able to be realized.

Posted by: Chris Giarmo at November 2, 2008 6:07 PM

To me, the American Dream seems to be more about financial security rather than a "how big is my pile of money" thing. Sure, this is probably not true for everyone - you read profiles of the super-wealthy and you often are struck by how absolutely competitive they are about what they've got - but I think the vast majority of people's ultimate aspiration would be able to have enough money so that money isn't a problem.

Now, put in context with where we're at as a society these days, the fact is this how-much-is-enough figure never quite seems like its enough to many: health insurance costs, education costs and housing costs all seem to grow by an order of magnitude each generation, which in turn means many of us feel we need to sock ever more away. Then this is crosscut by what I perceive to be an incredibly consumerist culture, but it's consumerism overlaid by something a bit more dark - think gadget-envy and who's-got-the-biggest-flat-screen syndrome, etc.

For me personally, the Adams-ian (?) version of the American Dream still holds a lot of weight. In fact, my experience has been that this collective striving for a society that can and should do better is more visible in what the political right seems to be terming "fake America" (i.e., big cities, the Northeast, college towns): these are often the places where ad hoc or loosely knit social services and/or community based organizations are doing some of their heaviest lifting and their most good, and where community ideals are often the most visible.

But I worry, even about my own attitude about wealth. I feel like one of the big lessons our culture tries to beat us over the head with is that money fixes anything and everything. Clearly it doesn't, but it sure makes some things considerably easier. Easy enough in fact that sometimes we can lose sight of the myriad things wealth can't do anything to solve.

Still, give me a minute to snap a photo of my gigantic flat screen TV with my iPhone and upload it. You've gotta see how huge that sucker is...

Posted by: Andy at November 2, 2008 6:07 PM

I'd never actually read the "American Dream" until you actually quoted it. I think that, for a long time, it became interpreted as getting as much wealth as you can, no matter the costs. On top of that, instead of scholars or teachers we began to look to movie stars and singers as those who took the "American Dream" home - they shot through society at lightening speed and attained wealth and all sorts of high luxury stuff. No matter their ranking, it seems that for a long time it was the ravenous, self promoting few, and the very lucky ones who grasped onto the majority of America's liking.

Honestly, I think there is a shift now. Now that the economy is in a downturn, now that reality television is making anyone or anything a "star," people are looking for meaning. To achieve in life not the glitz or the gold plated toilet, but to go through life actually achieving something which makes them content with themselves.

I was reading in a British magazine not too long ago (Red I think is what it's called) that what we need to strive for is not happiness, but contentment. That there is this weird push on us to be "Happy" at all costs - and there are drugs and consumer goods aplenty to buy to make this all happen. On top of that, we have this "American Dream" to live up to. Whatever it is that society defines it as being at the time.

Guess I'm a bit rambling but I think that like any 'ideal' (the ideal beauty... the ideal lifestyle...) the definition changes over time. And for a long time this American Dream was something defined as only actually attainable by a select few while everyone else puts themselves into misery or debt to achieve it. I think now it's becoming more about what was written in 1931. To be able to do and achieve the most meaning out of your life, because we live in a society that has the ability to make it possible.

Posted by: Cristin at November 2, 2008 6:10 PM

To answer your specific question - for many people wealth became equated with freedom. With wealth someone is free to by their own person and live their own lives instead of working for and thus controlled by THE MAN (dramatic music here). However - wealth is not necessary and many many people live the 'american dream' without a lot of money. They are able to live, raise their kids, and generally be happy.

@mayra

I just finished Andrew Carnigie's biography. At a very early age he discovered 'dividends' and followed the very model of the American Idle Dream. Of course that was before capital gains were taxed. [grin]

Posted by: tim at November 2, 2008 6:15 PM

I think the American Dream, judging from those quotes you pulled, is basically societally-applied utilitarianism—that is, it's designed to make everyone as happy as possible. I'm getting this from the idea that a perfect meritocracy places people in their most ideal jobs, those in which they would love what they do.
I also think we might be able to distill the happiness of a person into two major components, internal and external. The former is very closely tied to the ideal job above, because when doing something you love, just making anything happen seems magical. The latter, though, is kind of a dark part of human nature: it requires that we see ourselves as better than others. Now, in a monoculture such as ours where money is the center of attn, people mostly compare themselves to others based on wealth. But there *is* a better societal system, based on pluralism, where everyone has something to feel better about because they're better at their own personal center of attention than most people. For example, consider a society with religions A, B, and C. Each of the practitioners feels that they are more right about faith/God/etc. than 2/3 of the population. Of course, this only works under the assumptions that piety is the main focus of all people, and also that the religions don't involve killing other people or other unpleasantness.
So to me the "American Dream" is that of a pluralistic society and therefore is tied to wealth only for the small fraction of people for whom wealth is the focus. Granted, $$ is important in order to do things like eat and such, but—and maybe this is just because I feel happiness > *—I'd rather be a happy, starving person than a Richard-Cory-type person.

Posted by: Theo at November 2, 2008 6:18 PM

The American Dream is misconstrued by many to mean the accumulation of wealth from humble beginnings. You are correct that far too much emphasis is placed on becoming wealthy in this country, and barring that, acquiring status symbols (e.g., big cars, big houses, fancy clothes) regardless of whether one can truly afford these things.

If we are going to truly achieve the American Dream -- as a society -- we need to have EQUAL ACCESS to the things that make life easier; good, affordable healthcare; good, affordable housing; good, affordable, healthy, food; good, affordable education.

Everyone should not only be achieving according to his/her innate abilities, but also contributing to the rest of society according to his/her financial abilities.

Those who oppose taxing the wealthy at a higher rate than those who are struggling are almost always wealthy themselves; and it is because of this juvenile quest for status symbols that these greedy protestations occur. If they have more, they get to have bigger, shinier toys, and show everybody how much they have. The more they are required to contribute to the rest of society, the less they have to spend on themselves, and the more opportunity the rest of society has to rise to their class level.

After all, what fun is having plenty of dough if everyone else is comfortable and happy, also? Isn't the joy of being rich the feeling of schadenfreude you get watching the peons struggle to make ends meet, and thinking, 'glad I'm not those people, glad I've achieved the American Dream'? However, this point of view is antithetical to the American Dream.

Posted by: Lhyzz at November 2, 2008 6:20 PM

I'm game.

I think it's a playing field where you're only limited by your imagination and your ability to fulfill/ materialize it...something like that.

Posted by: Nelson at November 2, 2008 6:22 PM

I am no economist, as I am 16 years old, so I can't tell you much about whether or not we are thinking in a mercantilist manner, the details of wealth accumulation, etc.
What I can tell you is that growing up during the (corrupt) Bush administration has led me to define my own personal American Dream as something other than an individual goal of wealth. My American Dream is the hope that someday I can regard our political and economic systems as things that encourage all Americans to participate in a fair society that has removed the barricades keeping the poor and minorities at the bottom out of selfishness and tradition, and made it truly possible to work your way up no matter how you were born. I don't know if everyone has the same American Dream, but I would personally find this kind of society much more fulfilling than any amount of wealth I could accumulate in my lifetime. Is it possible? I don't know.

Posted by: Emma at November 2, 2008 6:31 PM

I think that the increasingly direct relationship between accumulation of wealth and the American Dream directly mirrors the increasingly consumerist nature of our society. To me, the individual component of the American Dream is about power -- the power to meet my needs and the power or ability to live the life I choose to live and become the person I envision for myself. In our increasingly consumerism-driven society, money wealth is becoming a better approximation or measure of that power. As long as I choose to live in the consumerist real world, beholden to somebody else to provide services and goods to fulfill my needs, my primary calculus involves determining if I have enough money to see me through to the end. The more I am able to remove myself from the services and goods I "need", the less reliant I am on money as a measure of the power to provide for myself.

Posted by: scottbb at November 2, 2008 6:32 PM

I think you're over looking the complexity of what "offering a product to the public" entails. When "I" offer a product, that "I" is simple the one (or few) enjoying the profit margin from a team of people's work. And as much as we like to romanticize the team effort behind a company's success, all too often the "team" includes under payed workers that are rarely seen by those of us enjoying the american dream - of fair wages and a full belly.

Posted by: Dustin at November 2, 2008 6:35 PM

Wealth is what fuels the pursuit of the American Dream. Ideally, everyone and all businesses would do cool/good stuff because it's the Right Thing To Do. However, not everyone gives a crap about the Right Thing.

What everyone DOES give a crap about, to some extent, is wealth. The American Dream is an attempt to turn the natural desire for wealth that everyone shares, both good folks and bad, into something that's hopefully mostly good for everyone.

You can't legislate morality. That's what some previous attempts at communism have tried to do — Say "You'll do this because it's the right thing, and I (the government) will provide equally to all people because it's the right thing."

Those attempts have failed because, in trying to make everyone do The Right Thing, they didn't account for human imperfection. And as soon as a little corruption was introduced, the whole thing fell apart.

Some form of capitalism is the best hope we have, because it accounts for and, to some extent, USES TO EVERYONE'S BENEFIT humans' imperfections and tendency toward greed.

Posted by: Lanny Heidbreder at November 2, 2008 6:38 PM

I apologize for my inconsistent capitalization of The Right Thing, which is properly capitalized as it is in this comment. 8)

Posted by: Lanny Heidbreder at November 2, 2008 6:44 PM

the american dream as i understand it:
i can become whoever i'm meant to be
i can make the contributions to society and the world that i am uniquely able to make
i can acquire whatever skills, experiences or education is required for me to do all the above

one caveat:
i must be willing to work hard, not give up and take responsibility for myself and my goals.

the american dream as i understand it IS flawed in that it assumes we are all on the same playing field (we're not) and that the systems generally work well (they don't always). because of these flaws, the american dream is an ideal we are constantly refining and making possible for more people by the laws we pass, the people we elect to political office, the art we create, the volunteer work we do and the kindness we extend.

while having the ability to work and support yourself is an essential part of the american dream, the accumulation of wealth as a goal in and of itself strips the american dream of its soul--which to me is self-actualization and service to others. ethical business does it all in my book--it helps the people involved achieve and become, it contributes to society in an essential way and it is (if all goes well) financially successful.

that's my take on it, but i might be a polyanna on this one.

good question with the election a day and a half away.

Posted by: jen lemen at November 2, 2008 6:47 PM

In answer to you original question. It doesn't.
I'm an American presently living outside of the country and I have found that it is actually easier to live up to the ideals of Adams' initial principle because I do not feel stifled by the narrow definition of The American Dream as it has come to be understood. The American Dream is not a doctrine that is confined within the borders of that great nation but an ideal that lives in the hearts of the beholder. As the daughter of a Somali nomad who immigrated to the US 30 years ago I have watched as my father blindly pursued the narrowest definition of success and self-worth through the constant pursuit of money with varyingly but mostly minimal success. As a first generation child born in the US, I like so many other children of immigrants rejected my father's ideals for success and have opted for a life not based on monetary accumulation but on the acquisition of tangible dreams, such as the pursuit of my art at the cost of luxuries that would no doubt make life easier but have not proven to sustain my happiness. I have found that in choosing to focus on something, ANYTHING other than money, money has become a natural by-product of other pursuits. And in so pursuing I found that those who prosper are not just the individuals on the journey toward dream fulfillment but all those around him/her who participate. You are the perfect example Ze. While I have no monetary gains from the pursuit of your personal goals. Bearing witness to your life, being an active participant in your personal output has influenced my own. The ideas you have inspires others to have their own ideas and those ideas beget more and dreams get bigger and money is often a by product of some of those pursuits. It seems that Americans have stopped examining the journey toward the American Dream and have become singularly focused on the end result that the journey sometimes yields I think the American Dream lies within the pursuit of happiness and not the happiness itself.

Posted by: Lady Elle at November 2, 2008 6:48 PM

Ok, I'll answer the question, "So how does the accumulation of wealth relate to the American Dream?"

In this society, in this country, wealth = SECURITY. And that equals being master of your own destiny. Easy as that.

(From Ze: Someone please decode this for me)

Posted by: Liberty Girl at November 2, 2008 7:10 PM

Is there just one American dream? My dream for America is a pluralistic society in which each of has the means and security to make something of his or her life. Wealth can be an enabler or an obstacle. Poverty is an obstacle to all but a few.

I suspect that identification of wealth with the American dream was a legacy of the Reagan years, and we are now reaping the harvest of that legacy. When we learn that wealth is no more than a means to some ends, that there are other ends to those means, and that there are other means worth pursuing, we will be a better society.

(From Ze: Good question re: is there just one American Dream? I imagine that there is one general american dream from which all the others spring forth...otherwise they are just dreams - what do you think? And I wonder, how much of the dream is determined by people who don't live here)

Posted by: Henry Halff at November 2, 2008 7:14 PM

I used to think the American Dream meant that if you work hard, you get rich, and don't have to work hard anymore. That does seem to be the common modern understanding of it.

However, lately, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that what most Americans are dreaming about is having enough (contentment?)... which is a concept that is lost on Western civilization. With marketing running our lives, we will never ever have enough.

The other part is that people want to live a meaningful life. They want to feel like they are working for themselves, and producing something beneficial, that contributes to society. I remember watching some movie related to 19th century immigrants, who were buying up cheap land on the plains. The idea behind moving out there was overwhelmingly that they could work their own land, and be in charge of their own destiny, rather than plucking chickens or mopping floors for someone else. Back then there were those opportunities - drop everything for cheap land and a make or break chance at self-sufficiency! The government wanted people to settle the plains, and the west. It challenged the bold-hearted to go out there and live the dream. Where is that government now? Now they seem to want to keep us down, limit our opportunities, keep us depressed. In a lot of ways I think the current government is a lot more like 1984 than 1776... or even 1876.

A note on capitalism, and other types of economies/governments... this occurred to me a couple of weeks ago: any economy, or any form of government would work if people would do right (i.e., not be ruled by greed!). No system of government will work if people don't. Simple as that. Once people decide to strive to do the right thing in all that they do, things will get better. So long as they don't we will continue to deteriorate.

Wow, I didn't realize I had so much to say about it. Thanks for the opportunity. I still say that you, ZeFronk - JK! - Ze Frank, are a force of good. You rule - keep doing what you're doing, making people think.

(From Ze: There is an interesting comment above that makes the argument that greed is the necessary fuel for capitalism to work - and i believe he was not saying this as a negative, more that self interest is human nature and capitalism takes advantage of that )

Posted by: steph at November 2, 2008 7:33 PM

we need a new dream.

(From Ze: What sort of dream?)

Posted by: rambly at November 2, 2008 7:52 PM

Hunter S. Thompson said it best when he pulled his final trigger.

Posted by: scorpus at November 2, 2008 9:02 PM

My interpretation of the American Dream:

It has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth. The American Dream is freedom and happiness. Freedom to do that which makes you happy. If you enjoy drawing, then being able to work at a job (or own your own company) that allows you to draw, and being happy every day, is the realization of that dream. It's isn't the amount of wealth that you actually accumulate, but the way that you go about accumulating wealth.

In other words, someone who makes barely enough to afford a small home, raise a lovely family, and has a job that gives him or her the feeling of fulfillment and of doing good is the American Dream. Just the accumulation of wealth for no specific reason other than to waste it away on nothingness is a sad interpretation of a dream that others hold dear.

Posted by: Mordy Golding at November 2, 2008 9:13 PM

(From Ze: My question to you: Would you be comfortable in a society that provided for everyone's needs as you define them, but limited the amount of wealth that they could accrue)


No, I dont think so sir, Wasnt that a little thing we call Communism>? But, I see your point. Wealth, Is indeed vague, We could be wealthy with 50$ Worth Of pokemon cards, BUT Its every card ever made, so in essences we feel wealthy having that. Or a Really AWESOME FAST PC but we drive a geo metro and live with mom. Its all about what we "strive" for Good Sir. Thats what I believe. Wealth is indeed Vague and Personal as of what we think it is. Thats the american dream, Either get a fast PC or awesome Deck of Pokemon cards...Simple Analogy but to the point

Posted by: Timster003 at November 2, 2008 9:29 PM

This is sort of conceptual, but the American dream is America itself. Once upon a time (before the Bush administration) people all over the world dreamed of coming to America, all for different reasons. Some want to come for economic opportunity, some for freedom, some for a more peaceful life. Any or all of these are the American dream. There is even a schism in the foundation of America, for the puritans who settled New England the dream was freedom from repression, for the royalists who settled the south the dream was wealth accumulation. My family story says that my great grandfather fought in five wars for five different countries (looking at changing borders in Europe suggests that this is an exaggeration, but not by much). He came to America so that his children could live free from war. For him the American dream was peace, so that is a key part of what the American dream means to me, building a more peaceful nation and world.

Posted by: Gus at November 2, 2008 9:36 PM

Ze's Question... is this: when the phrase was coined, the American Dream seemed to imply something beyond the accumulation of wealth. It was a dream about a society, not a special individual within a society. But for many people the American Dream is more about personal wealth. So how does the accumulation of wealth relate to the American Dream?


I associate the American dream with one of my favorite movies from childhood "An American Tale". As a Canadian I perceived the American Dream to be: Make something of yourself; with a skewed undertone: move to the United States.

As to your question, based on my own definition of the American Dream, I think wealth comes into play when considering success as a factor of 'making something of yourself.'

For some success is a monetary sum, for others it is a feeling of accomplishment. Being successful helps to build up society to create a network of people working together to build, create, and ask questions. When you 'make yourself,' you are supposedly helping out society, somehow achieving the American Dream.

Posted by: SetanaZen at November 2, 2008 9:42 PM

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, with that comes personal, ethical and moral responsibility. Ability does not equal reward.

Posted by: Danny at November 2, 2008 9:49 PM

I think the quotes you chose to select describe a dream of a caste-less society that would not arbitrarily limit the ability of a person to rise to their level of ability and effort. One could think of "arbitrary limits" as blood line (as in old European aristocracy), race, sex, religion, etc.

The use of wealth as the bench mark for achieving one's version of the dream, although probably the most common, is overly limiting. The idea is to allow one to do what they desire to do. It is also limiting to assume that everyone should be working toward a goal that benefits society as a whole.

Posted by: vincent at November 2, 2008 9:55 PM

I had to write a paper on the American Dream for a history class last semester. I'm not particularly proud of how the paper turned out, but I think what I had to say in it is relevant here.

The idea I proposed was that the 'original' American Dream (what was referred to when the term was coined) was the idea that only the United States provided the opportunity for your children to have a better life than you may have had, primarily through your own hard work. Of course this +80 years ago when 'the family ideal' was held with much higher regard (and priority) than it is today. What the American dream represents has changed as the importance of family has declined in our culture. Instead of working hard to provide a better future for future generations we work hard to provide a better future for ourselves.

This could take place through the acquisition of wealth, but back then the immigrants were coming from Europe with almost no possessions. The American Dream could have been considered accomplished for them just by becoming a homeowner. America has become richer as a whole and the American dream has shifted from being able to afford necessities to building enough credit to upgrade to a 60" TV and a '09 model Lincoln.

Posted by: Noah at November 2, 2008 10:04 PM

The American Dream is the right to personal fulfillment. It allows a schoolteacher to make a livable (if not glamorous) wage while engaged in one of the noblest professions. It enables a community organizer to become our nation's President (fingers crossed). The American Dream says that no matter who you are, no matter what your upbringing, no matter where you're from, no matter your color or ideology or disability or crazy beliefs, you should have the opportunity to make your life worth living.

Posted by: Jonathan Dobres at November 2, 2008 10:05 PM

(From Ze: Interesting...but aren't you romanticizing handiwork just a bit? I'm not sure that the American Dream - if there is a shared one - necessarily involves a constant barrage of manual labor)

Handiwork is different than creative work. Creating something whether it is movies, music, art, generally requires that at some point you get your hands dirty. Well if not dirty, then at least involved. When I am making something creative, I work on it a while and then go back later to peek at it again with fresh eyes. Then I work on it some more.

No one who is doing paperwork in an office job feels this way about his or her work. In America people like to ask you what you do so they can quickly assess how much money you make and how much respect you should be accorded. When I look at people who I admire, it is not because of their wealth, but what skills they possess.

I admire artists, musicians, scientists, creative thinkers, people who when you watch what they are doing you say "whoa, that's cool." Most of the people I admire can do something cool with their hands... make something.

A barrage of manual labor is different than a flurry of creative activity where you get to work, think, evaluate, critique over and over.

I have admired you ability Ze to produce the show and the catchy little tunes that you toss our way every now and then. I am not interested in whether or not you are financially well off, I admire the work you do.

I think losing the ability to work is one of the reasons many lotto winner stories end in unhappiness. No work, no sense of self worth.


Posted by: John P. at November 2, 2008 10:19 PM

Being an immigrant and coming here with my family, I can tell you that the American Dream is more prominent as an idea outside of America. We (being American now) can't grasp the idea as it was created, because we are in fact living it, whether cognizant or not of it.

I agree with much that has been said previously. In essence, it's the freedom of choice and the ability to own land and create wealth within your family. It's the freedom to protect these rights over time. It's the freedom to keep the government as a democracy that serves the people and not the other way around. Unfortunately, it's these options that corrupt a lot of us. Unfortunately too, it's these options that corrupt our government and take these liberties away from us over time. To answer your question, the idea of wealth is tied into these societal ideas: the ability to create wealth into your family when/where other societies do not allow that for yourself. Unfortunately, if you don't have the wealth, you can't support basic things like nutrition, shelter or education. That ties into your standing into society, your wealth and how that allows opportunity for your family.

You have good and bad everywhere in the world, it's part of the human condition. As it was this country's fathers' intent to create this dream and protect it, we'll have others who abuse it and others who allow that to consume themselves.

In the end the dream is what we make of it, literally.

(From Ze: So maybe the question is: Does the American Dream require a certain infrastructure to provide a minimum of "nutrition, shelter and education" in order to function.)

Posted by: Louisa Nicholson at November 2, 2008 10:54 PM

@Ze, yes, greed is human nature, but more specifically it is animal nature. If we are to have a successful human society, we have to learn to keep that in check (I don't mean eliminate it, but harness it). It's what makes us different from dogs fighting over a bone: we can be greedy and work to get a bone, but if we work together, we might get two bones we can share. :)

Also, you are right to ask how much of the dream is determined by people who don't live here. They can certainly see it more clearly than we can. The American dream used to be something uniquely found in America - here was the place you could control your own destiny. I would venture to say that's available in other parts of the world as well, now, though I have not been around as much as you.

Also I agree with commenters above: Mordy - the dream has a lot to do with the pursuit of happiness - and with Lady Elle - it is a journey rather than a destination. The American dream is the ability to pursue your own goals.

(We are really enjoying this topic Ze. I hope this ends with a HEY PEOPLE GO OUT AND VOTE message. :)

Posted by: steph at November 2, 2008 11:08 PM

I can't speak to the meaning of the American as envisioned by those who first coined the phrase, but my understanding growing up was that it was strongly tied to a narrow, materialistic measure of success: the opportunity to have a decent job, accumulate enough personal wealth to raise a family, enjoy a nice car, and not worry too much about your bills. Implied are the freedoms that would make such success possible: personal safety, religious inclusion, employment opportunity, and minimal interference from, but general support by, the government.

It surprised me, now that I think about it, how absent of any other measure the popularized American Dream is, how we as a whole society seem to lack imagination is defining other success factors.

We have "acquisition =success" and "$$ = security" drilled so deeply into us, yet that very drive is what has to change on so many fronts if we are to rebuild our world into a sustainable one.

I wonder how capable we really are at redefining the legacies we will work toward leaving. Or indeed, why a legacy is even a goal in the first place?

(From Ze: Yes. Legacy is pretty important here, and we haven't talked about it too much. The estate tax in particular - the ability to pass down wealth to your children. I guess the question would be whether generational wealth interferes with the American Dream)

Posted by: nicole maron at November 2, 2008 11:32 PM

Fiscal responsibility is at odds with the American Dream.

(From Ze: Can you explain?)

Posted by: Rye Clifton at November 2, 2008 11:48 PM

I think that that question is not what the American dream is but how we are to measure it. I can agree that it is not based upon collection of wealth but rather it should be based upon how we as a society achieve goals and the way that our society develops. Its impossible for everyone to live the American dream because the entire county is pulling in different directions.

(From Ze: Take a stab at articulating this updated dream)

Posted by: Adam at November 3, 2008 12:21 AM

(I haven't read the other 53 comments yet).

The lynchpin of JT Adams statement is this:

"...but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable..."

Somewhere along the line, "fullest stature" translated to "fullest wallet." How did this happen? Serfdom: castle. Everyman: house. Boils down.

Some people just don't seem to be able to grasp the value in kindness, integrity, caring, doing good deeds without worrying about financial return. When Adams' made his statement, most Americans were abjectly broke.

Poverty can make a person mean; it can make a society feel hopeless, but there was no instant money in 1931 and much work to be done but good leadership was still queued up for later arrival.

Value had to be found in character, or what hope was there? By the mid 1950's we were wealthy again, and stature meant status, which meant money. Examination of character became scrutiny: a "share the wealth" attitude was perceived as unpatriotic (sound familiar?) as McCarthyism rose up. So safety was found in comparing hi-fi sets and cars with big fins instead.

Within ten years the social backlash sought meaning in quality of character again, and there has been an ebb and flow of each since. We had a rise of numbness when Reagan was in office, and a thrill of sensitivity during the Clinton administration, then we got greedy again and welcome to November 3, 2008.

"... to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

I have hope that we will look at each other more humanely in the near future. I have hope that we will become fascinated by actually getting to know each other and ourselves.

And yes, it is easier to relax, reflect, create and share when one has a good solid roof over her head and a floor that doesn't give way with each step. So the American Dream becomes symbolized by a house. Next thing a person knows, he's hung up on all the stuff, instead of the mettle.

(From Ze: Interesting. So is humanity only to be found in poverty? Was the "thousand points of light" speech a rallying cry by the GOP to add humanity into the upper class - to ask the privileged to step up to the betterment of society?)

Posted by: jeano at November 3, 2008 12:40 AM

I was actually trying to figure this out when I read The Great Gatsby.

For some reason, I believe that the "American" Dream isn't directed only towards America and that it's divided into two parts (the individual vs. the society). In summary, the American Dream is the application of one's highest moral standards to better themselves and society. The concept of money directly being involved is merely an output of the American Dream.

For some, the American Dream is simply living well and having a good job and a nice family. Others tend to view it towards a more wealth-related standard, such as a wall-street king with a jet plane.

The American Dream differs between people. It isn't just one set idea. With different minds comes different morals and ideas, hence different versions of the American Dream. It's monetary value isn't directly proportional to wealth, but hard work and determination. For example, my version of "the American Dream" is to become a doctor and a bioengineer to progress society as a whole. I guess what makes the dream "American" is the fact that it provided the right environment to give me this mindset and the fact that, most of the time, hard work does not go unnoticed. My Mom is a Nurse and my Dad was an airplane mechanic and is now a safety technician. Currently, my mom makes more money than my dad, but she is miserable. My dad, however, is happy about his life.

This example gave me the idea that the American Dream is instead directly proportional to one's own goal in life and how they achieve it.

If everyone followed their American Dream, they would progress society as a whole. They would work harder for the goal for every inch they advance. Once they reach it, the most-likely ecstatic feeling would give them motivation to use their mind and body to progress the dream. In the end, I want to change the world with medical advances in both bionanotechnology and botany. Sure, if successful, I may get loads of money, but I'm more concerned with progressing the status of the world. In the end, the second part of the dream is to raise a good family with children and to provide them with the gift of thought and a moral conscious without limiting what they should be exposed to. I want a good home and a good wife. It's strangely mature for my age, but I know that will be my goal in about 6 or 7 years.

The American Dream is different for everyone. What is yours?

(From Ze: If it is different for all of us, why call this an American Dream at all? Why not just ask: what is your dream? Nelson Goodman wrote "A broad mind is no substitute for hard work" - I've taken this to mean that if you have a viewpoint that accommodates all others, you have to do some more digging. Perhaps you are right - maybe the American Dream no longer has a shared meaning. But if not, shouldn't we find one? You pointed to some noble ideals, but what if someone's highest moral standard is white supremacy? Is this just a manifestation of the American Dream?)

Posted by: Jason Crovisier at November 3, 2008 1:24 AM

I don't know that there is such a thing anymore. It's been bought and sold, and turned vacuous by repetition from politicians.

Most of my life, it meant that an immigrant or someone from a poor background could come here and by way of hard work become somebody respected in the community and allowed a comfortable home life.

It's true of my family. I'm a first generation immigrant on my dad's side, and second on my mother's side, and nearly everyone in my family. It's also true that my family is Western European, and was either upper middle class or part of the landowning class, so they didn't so much improve so much as they avoided the economic catastrophes that took place in Europe both before and after World War II.

I don't really know if it is true that poor people (immigrants or native born) can get that far ahead. I'm starting to think not, but who knows. That might change.

(From Ze: I also had always thought of the Dream from the standpoint of poor people being able to move up - not necessarily to riches - but to comfort. Interesting to note that in this election cycle the focus has been on the transition from the middle class to the upper class - i.e. Joe the Plumber. Come back to the question of whether this is a societal dream or an individual dream relative to one's starting position)

Posted by: earthbound01 at November 3, 2008 1:56 AM

The simple answer is that it's the chance to live a comfortable life. The problem comes first in how to achieve it; traditionally that's through hard work, but if someone bought a nice house, fancy car etc. from their lottery winnings few would argue that they were living the American dream. The second, and perhaps more more important factor, is what comfortable means.

When I moved to the US and bought a house my insurance agent repeatedly pointed out how fantastic it must seem to me to be able to buy my own home. For me it wasn't - I'd already owned 2 in the UK - but for a great many immigrants that would be a huge thing. The same is true wherever you sit; I knew people who, from my modestly middle class position, seemed to be living the dream, but I know that (for some of them at least), they looked at people who lived in the big houses on Lake Minnetonka and saw that as the American dream.

The final element, I think, is the ability to disregard consequence, that whatever sacrifices have to be made for your lifestyle (environment, exploited workers, etc.) don't really exist. That's not to suggest that active cruelty plays a part, just that sometimes ignorance really can be bliss.

(From Ze: The last bit about disregarding consequences is quite damning. Do you think it is an unavoidable byproduct of the Dream? )

Posted by: Paul at November 3, 2008 3:17 AM

Your tweet and blog entry came as quite a surprise to me, as I had *just* finished writing up my thoughts on exactly this topic. I just got back from a visit to America, and it struck me quite hard that the American Dream had been subverted from what it used to be in the days of the Founding Fathers.

From my reading of the Declaration of Independence, the American Dream is that we are all free to attempt to achieve our dreams, without being discriminated against based on our gender/race/religion/place of birth. The Dream was one of equality and freedom from oppression.

Over time, this has evolved from "we're free to try", into "anybody can achieve anything". The important bit at the end has been left off: the bit that says "if they are talented enough and try hard enough, because we're not going to put blocks in their way based on irrelevant factors like race".

And, of course, in the modern world, "anybody can achieve anything" means "anybody can become rich and powerful". So, yes, in my opinion, the Dream has become all about monetary wealth, to the detriment of the more important "equality and freedom from oppression" aspect.

(I don't want to sound like I'm pimping my blog by spamming your comments, so I'll just say that if you want to read my full thoughts on this matter, google for 'vhata american dream', it'll be at the top there.)

(From Ze: Go ahead and pimp : http://vhata.net/blog/2008/11/02/thoughts-from-america-2-the-american-dream :: it's a very thoughtful article)

Posted by: Jonathan Hitchcock at November 3, 2008 4:21 AM

After WWII my parents left Europe since they were both displaced from their homes (Poland and Hungary). Both families had lost everything.

They tried to immigrate to the US but were unable to due to quotas so they immigrated to Canada instead. As immigrants their dream entailed really simple things. For immigrants of that time period, I think that the American Dream (the thing that drew them to N.A.) was about:
.:family security
.:the opportunity to start again
.:belief that if they wanted work they could work
.:having a roof over their heads that was theirs again
.:enough to eat
.:a future for their children
.:acceptance (a place that would consider them a citizen with rights)
.:peace and the absence of military activity in their daily lives
.:(unrelated to these noble things, I know that my dad was also obsessed with cowboy novels and the notion of nature)

That being said, a lot of this was based on their previous poverty and the trauma of war. It was about a fresh start and a new beginning and promise of a future.

I know this is a very specific context and perception of someone from the outside wanting to come in. But I think it is part of the dream... at least for new immigrants.

(From Ze: Yes. Perhaps we have taken a Dream originally dreamed by people outside the US, and changed it, made it bigger, and tried to apply it across generations within the US.)

Posted by: ingrid at November 3, 2008 4:58 AM

I'll get to my point, but first, I feel sorry for Ze, he's got quite a bit of reading to do, ^ ^. Ugh, I feel dirty after using the happy eyes. Moving on.

While I'd never call it something as cliched as an American Dream, my goal is to pursue what makes me happy, maybe not professionally, but simply to be able to do so. Finance comes into this only in so far as buying what I enjoy, and here's the important part, within moderation. I -DO- have an awesome computer at the cost of driving a Metro, thank you for summing up my life, Timster.

My dream is see a good book, walk up to the register, and purchase it. Nothing extravagant, but simply being allowed that freedom is all I need. I won't get stoned to death for reading it. It's easily accessible and reasonably priced. I don't work 20 hour days. Wealth is a factor only in proportion to my workload. I don't have to work hard, because my demands are small.

But that's my Dream. I think the problem now is a downward spiral, media demands we get the expensive shirts, the hair treatments, a luxury sedan, a spacious house. It used to be (I assume, I wasn't there for it, but I have reliable sources,) that if you want a sweet car, you saved up. There's nothing wrong with wanting a new car. But we need that car NOW. Along with the rims. And neon. And tinted glass. And we're willing to put ourselves in debt to get it, and the result is everyone living paycheck to paycheck, burying the hole deeper when fashions change. No one is willing to lower their standard of living, when they can just get another credit card.

But hey, we gave ourselves a check for $700,000,000,000! That fixes things, right? Woah, I got spiteful there. Sorry, I guess I kind of vented...

(From Ze: a post above also blamed credit cards...saying that they enabled people to live beyond their means - and that this caused people not to understand the value of hard work in relation to wealth creation. What do you think about the relationship between hard work and wealth creation? and these luxury goods you speak of - neon rims, etc.. are they the commodification of the American Dream?)

Posted by: Blank-Mage at November 3, 2008 6:12 AM

What's interesting to me is that when someone is said to have fulfilled the American Dream, it is because they overcame their difficult circumstances, rose above the obstacles they encountered. However, the Adams quote suggests an ideal "social order" in which there are no obstacles to overcome. It is often taken for granted that our society has already accomplished that ideal social order and that everyone should, at this point, be able to fulfill his/her potential completely.

The American Dream is now viewed mainly in light of individuals being able to live up to it instead of us as a society working to fulfill it. I have had friends, relatives, and coworkers who find it easy to condemn people who have been unable to rise above their circumstances, when they don't realize just how different the circumstances of those people are from their own. We should not take it for granted that we have gone as far as we can toward creating that ideal social structure, and we should continue to refine the way our society and economy work. I believe that the shift of the focus on the American Dream from societal to individual is even more insidious than the perception of the Dream as relating mainly to wealth.

But, to answer your question, wealth is simply the easiest means of measuring personal accomplishment. When Adams says, "It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely," it is important to note the qualifier--"merely." He recognized that wealth would probably be a byproduct if the dream were fulfilled, but notes that an underlying social order of equality is necessary for people to achieve that wealth. Today, we (erroneously) believe that the social order has already been accomplished, so the only part left for us to achieve involves Jaguars and six figures.

(From Ze: Nice post. The question that comes out of it is perhaps this: if we decide to try to tackle an ideal social structure, does the current distribution/mechanisms of wealth creation stand in our way, or is it irrelevant. people above have said that wealth is not always a zero sum game - in other words one persons ability to aggregate wealth doesn't necessarily interfere with others, while other posts have pointed to a lower class that is stuck)

Posted by: Daniel at November 3, 2008 6:12 AM

The American Dream is opportunity. Unfettered opportunity, for all. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It's a social contract among the citizens of this country, and it's a hope we offer the rest of the world. And although monetary success might be one measure of achieving the Dream, becoming wealthy (GREED) at the expense of others or by excluding others or cheating others is antithetical to the Dream. Certainly that's the lesson we are meant to learn from our present economic crisis.

Posted by: efemmeral at November 3, 2008 8:25 AM

The amount of space on the North American continent is taken for granted by those who were born and raised here. The biggest difference I see between traditional European society and what's arisen over here is that in America there's space - both physical and metaphorical - for people to become something other than what the circumstances of their birth dictates. The truth of that opportunity is tarnished because it implies that we live in a classless and unprejudiced society, which just ain't so...but historically yes, there's been far more opportunity here because for a goodly chunk of our history if you didn't like where you were *unless you were a slave*, you at least had something of a choice to up stakes and head somewhere less populated where the land was cheaper, or where the jobs paid more, or where they didn't care quite so much what color your skin was or where your ancestors had come from.

Even with all the documented history of cultural strife in this country, if you were to measure the overall ability of people here to make their way up the economic ladder, we come out far ahead of the old cultures. People who haven't lived between the cultures don't really sense this as starkly as people who have. Partly, I think the commodification of the American Dream has to do with common lack of perspective.

Weird that nobody's yet mentioned Horatio Alger. I find the guy interesting because everyone in this country seems to have absorbed his mythos. He explicitly equated opportunity and hard work with independence and wealth. Thing is, even people we consider to be "poor" these days in the USA own commodities (TVs, cars, ipods etc.) that in other countries (where the poor live more like they lived here during Alger's time) would be signifiers of wealth.

Do we understand what it's like to be poor, in the classic sense, any more? It's not about being a welfare case, it's about worrying about how you're going to live through the next winter. Is Joe the Plumber worried about his family freezing to death or starving?

The idea is that a country that does not impose cultural rules that squander the innate talents of some sectors of its populace is going to accumulate more wealth - in general and over the long run - than a country that does. The original heart of the American Dream was built around that concept. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - wealth was a (celebrated) side-effect.

But we just don't get it. I look at the guys who sacked the financial system (and who disappointed Greenspan with the failure of enlightened self-interest) and I see Normal People reenacting the Tragedy of the Commons. As my dad used to say, the "screw you Jack, I've got mine" attitude. Without any reason to be smarter, people act stupidly and against their own long-term self interest. To a certain extent this kind of shortsighted ambition makes for a lively marketplace, but it's self-defeating without guidance in the long run. This American Dream, which is to create a society in which people can pursue their talents to the extent of their ability, takes active engagement on the part of those we've put in charge. It takes negotiation between people, and it takes respect for the process of that negotiation. This is why we have three branches of government. This is why we separate church and state. The framers of the Constitution took into account for those in charge at any given time to turn out to be venal, stupid, greedy, self-interested, and short-sighted.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I believe the American Dream is, at the heart of it, about freedom to express your talents in a way that makes you happy. Expressing those talents makes you self-motivated - you work harder - you have a greater chance of advancing in society and accumulating wealth - which in turn makes the entire society wealthier. It also makes the society flexible and able to adapt to unforseen challenges without collapsing. It doesn't have anything to do with guaranteeing wealth. It guarantees (a tiny bit of) opportunity. Big difference. But because we don't come from a culture where poverty is rife and opportunity is a novel concept, we now conflate the Dream with wealth.


Posted by: Alice at November 3, 2008 10:28 AM

To me, the American Dream is about freedom. It's about being allowed to *be*, as completely as you can, and be absolutely true to your desires. It's about not letting anybody give you any crap or telling you that you're not good enough to do something. It's about building your own life and giving yourself the freedom to do with it what you want.

To some, that seems to require wealth. Money does provide people with freedom to do more than they could without it. Part of the problem here is that with an exchange-based system that relies on an abstract unit of exchange like currency, the focus of what we do shifts from its original ideal of freedom and directing oneself, to a numerical game of maximizing wealth.

It's a paradox of our system. We have industries in place to serve the public interest, but in order to keep those services going, they need to make money. At times, that which maximizes wealth conflicts with that which aligns most with the original spirit of that industry. This has happened in health care, in which treatment is withheld and lives are lost based on monetary factors.

My point in all of this is that our beliefs surrounding money are an unfortunate influence that divert the true spirit of things if we let them usurp our original intent. The American Dream is about having the freedom to make your life your own. Money is not sufficient for that, nor is it necessary. It can help, but what is really important is a clear intent and a drive to achieve that intent.

Posted by: Steve at November 3, 2008 11:22 AM

The death of the American Dream just convinces me that we're more on the road to anarchy. To much chaos inherent in the system. The archetypal American Dream is a beautiful idea, but it has a severe flaw. It requires that everyone be "good" in order to work properly. And even in a system of government as altruistically mindful there is always going to be a group of people who will exploit and benefit unduly from it. The American Dream describes a perfected human. A time that may be possible if we can stop being such primal opportunistic backstabbers as a species. In order for the American Dream to ever be possible, we all truly have to see each and every person in the entire world equally and with respect. Only then could a society like that ever exist.

Posted by: Oberon_fx at November 3, 2008 11:22 AM


"From Ze: So maybe the question is: Does the American Dream require a certain infrastructure to provide a minimum of "nutrition, shelter and education" in order to function."

Good question, if I'm basing the dream on the premise that the dream allows us to have these things. Whereas in others it may not be available or in others it's automatically given as a bare necessity. We know that there are many homeless and poverty-ridden people here, I used to be in the bottom bracket myself. These things are not given to us here, we have to strive for them, but in many instances too it seems almost impossible to achieve them for some. For instance, if homeless, without wealth, a family history, home, perhaps even a social security number, you are living outside the system although you are still an American. For that person, it is impossible to afford these opportunities, contradicting the dream itself. We see this in many other societies as well, where the dream is shared. At this point it becomes a moral and ethical discussion based on whether the government should provide nutrition, shelter and education, among other things, to people who cannot or choose not to afford these opportunities, if present for them. The cost of this is placed on others in the society, some by choice who work hard to build shelters by their own sweat or choose to adopt a child that is left without care. Others may want the American Dream to become more government-oriented where we are forced to have this burden on others to pay for others so that they may too have the opportunity. At this point it becomes a personal question. As it is, the American Dream allows us to choose NOT to provide a certain infrastructure to provide this minimum care for all. At other spectrums, it's required and keeps burdening all, allowing few to achieve their own goals. It's the American Dream, because of this choice, that allows people to make these decisions on their own and give from their pocket, time and labor (all their personal property) that make it great. At the same time, it's this part too that allows many to forgo their neighbors and allow them the opportunity to drown in their own abundance of not only these essentials for life, but other things such as wealth. I think your question can only be answered by personal bias, whether we think it's a moral imperative or not, in the end, to require such infrastructure that would in the end require the society rights to our personal property. It's a very hard line to draw and in the histories of the world, we're still trying to figure that out. If I base the dream on the premise that ALL should have these essentials open to them in the American Dream, then the dream really isn't living up to those standards and yes I think a certain infrastructure would be needed to uphold that. On the other hand, even if given the choice or made to do it, some may want to choose to live outside the system as well; to be poor but free.

Ramble ramble...

Posted by: Louisa Nicholson at November 3, 2008 11:33 AM

The phrase "The American Dream" is a beautiful simplification of the infinite number of possibilities an individual has to achieve personal happiness in this country. No other country has laid out the groundwork as masterfully for achieving this happiness as the US has in its formative years.
The Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of private enterprise, and the accumulation of wealth are the means through which individuals can achieve this happiness. They are means to an end, but are often mistaken for the desired end.
Money is a tool, a system of measurement, like the degree marks on a thermometer. Sadly, many have mistaken this tool as a measure of happiness. True happiness is ephemeral, and by its very nature cannot be quantified. It must be felt from the inside; it cannot be clinically measured form the outside.
The way the accumulation of wealth relates to the American Dream is that it provides an individual the means to reach their desired goal: for example, if someone wants to be an astronaut, he/she must first have access to funds to cover the costs of their training.
Upon reaching their goal, the accumulation of wealth toward that end- a challenge for most- also gives individuals a sense of earned accomplishment; so their sense of happiness is more enhanced by the overcoming of the challenges they faced.
One real world example is Warren Buffet. He is a master of accumulating wealth. It was his passion and he practically turned it into an art. However, it wasn't money he loved, but the fun of investing he loved. His happiness was the journey, not the destination. Through his passion, foundering companies have been saved and billions have been donated to charity. Recently, he donated all of his personal assets to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All this from an individual who lived a relatively simple, austere life according to strong Mid-Western values.
There are countless other stories of happiness-achievement; in many of them, the accumulation of wealth played a relatively minor role in an individual's achievement of happiness. The infinite interpretations of personal happiness and success offered through pursuit of the American Dream will continue to inspire individuals to make the best of their abilities. Best of all, it gives the American citizen a deep sense of connection with fellow Americans-- a sense of equality rarely shared among citizens of even the most technologically developed countries.

Posted by: Stephanie at November 3, 2008 12:11 PM

My grandfather and his granparents (and families) were among those who settled in the west. They were true pioneers. They were cattlemen, farmers, ranchers. My grandfather used to say to me "Get yourself a piece of this country. Own some of this great land."

Which is what he and his fathers before him did. They owned the land, they worked it, what came out of thier tireless efforts was called "a living." I believe he lived the American dream. He never had many fancy things - but what he had was his and his alone.

I love the idea of this ...and then I think 'gosh, it's almost time for the HOA meeting again'. *sigh* I wonder if we'll have to get new trash cans to meet the code.

Has that opportunity gone by the wayside? What is "a living" anymore?

Posted by: BR at November 3, 2008 12:18 PM

quickly: I think the American Dream is merely to achieve what you endeavor to achieve proportional to your effort and ingenuity. However, this does not mean you will not be taxed or otherwise regulated; rather, the more one can work within and with our system and adapt circumstance to suit his/her needs then they have the opportunity to do so without government interference due to birth, class, creed, race, religion, physical ability or sexual orientation and gender. This is not so everywhere else in the world and so is really an American dream that it even be possible. ...more, that it even be promoted, recognized - applauded.

Posted by: ~Alberto at November 3, 2008 12:28 PM

I always saw it as just saying "We live in a casteless society. You don't have to live and die in the same class you were born into"

I don't think the US is unique in that respect, but it separates us from certain places that use or used words like "commoner" or "untouchable" with any kind of meaning.

Posted by: Scarybug at November 3, 2008 12:57 PM

(From Ze: Interesting. So is humanity only to be found in poverty? Was the "thousand points of light" speech a rallying cry by the GOP to add humanity into the upper class - to ask the privileged to step up to the betterment of society?)

Me: Humanity is more prized when people are in need of compassion. Humans are easily distracted to the surface of things when they see something shiny. But I do believe we can all get what we need and have luxury and have a swell time creating a healthy society. Criminy, I want that house and money for vacations, too! And if I have enough to throw me into a higher tax bracket, that sounds fair.

Yes, the "thousand points of light" was an attempt by the GOP to seem humane and it was an appeal to the priviledged to step up, but the insidious subtext was that cutting social programs was acceptable because the rich would give money and the working class would give time. Both did happen, but not enough to compensate for the social programs the GOP cut.

Posted by: jeano at November 3, 2008 1:01 PM

(From Ze: If it is different for all of us, why call this an American Dream at all? Why not just ask: what is your dream? Nelson Goodman wrote "A broad mind is no substitute for hard work" - I've taken this to mean that if you have a viewpoint that accommodates all others, you have to do some more digging. Perhaps you are right - maybe the American Dream no longer has a shared meaning. But if not, shouldn't we find one? You pointed to some noble ideals, but what if someone's highest moral standard is white supremacy? Is this just a manifestation of the American Dream?)

Me: God I haven't thought like this in a while

Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged helped me come up with what I believe makes it American. I remember hearing in my USHAP class that, back in the later colonization period with the mass immigration of Western Europe (and later, Eastern Europe, Germany, and Ireland), America was known as the land of opportunity. That is what makes it uniquely American. I guess earlier I was defining a dream, but I remember what I thought before (I often forget why I believe something).
Anyway, opportunity is what America provides for a dream. Even though I only read half of Atlas Shrugged, the book presented a new idea to me about money, wealth vs poverty, and moral standards. In the end, from what I've read, the book basically explained how the hard-working people have high moral standards and work for their dream. however, they must be given the opportunity to apply the dream. America provides most of the tools needed to achieve the goal. If a woman wanted to be a stripper, for example, it would be easier to do it in America than in a culture where the only place women belong is in the kitchen. In America, however, she could work to become a stripper because we provide the horny men, the non-idealistic culture, money, and stripper poles. Not only that, but there are classes and protection and STD's. My point is, we have what someone needs to do what they want to do. The American Dream is this: To utilize opportunities to create our own lifestyle and what we want or do not want in it. The White Supremacist? Fine, let him be. However, other conflicting American Dreams will try to pull him down. It doesn't mean he has no opportunity, it just means others have some as well and will fight for their own.

For me, the opportunities are UCR, Med School, hospitals, and unfortunately tons of books in the future. As long as I work for it and use such opportunities, I can achieve the American Dream for me.

Posted by: Jason Crovisier at November 3, 2008 3:30 PM

I think, now, as to whether it is about an individual or the society it is a little ambiguous. I think the dream is about how individuals can rise from a level of poverty to security, but the dream is possible because of the implied society where anyone has an equal chance to succeed if they work hard.
So the dream means that there is a society where anyone can succeed if they work hard, and realizing the dream means that someone rose from nothing to something.

Posted by: earthbound01 at November 3, 2008 3:31 PM

People think the accumulation of wealth will bring happiness.

I think this is the reason why the "American Dream" has changed so much from what James Adams said.

At one time I think people - average American people - really believed that the American Dream was that anybody could be successful if they had the ability and the motivation to work.

Now the American Dream is that I can be rich so that I don't have to work.


Material wealth has replaced lasting success and the desire not to work has replaced talent and hard work.


But James Madison's quote shows that there's always been a certain amount of the desire for more.

We are a greedy people. We should be embarrassed that we have so much but it's never enough.

I'm coming from the perspective of someone who lives paycheck to paycheck. Yet I feel that I constantly have to watch myself. I don't need this consumer electronic device. I don't need that dvd. I need to be more generous. I think part of the idea that anybody can "make it" is not assuming that I have to make it at the expense of others.

Posted by: joshua at November 3, 2008 7:22 PM

Further to my point about disregarding consequences: I don't think it's inevitable, but it's pretty close to it. Two of the big threads here are aspiration and achievement. It is possible to fulfill both of those needs while treating everyone and everything 'right', but in the short term it's cheaper/easier not to bother. That affects your success even if you're trying to do right; if you're building a business that tries to pay good wages it's easy (though not inevitable) to be out-competed by a business that doesn't bother, forcing you to compete in the race to the bottom (or as an employee, to become a victim of it).

Dreams are pleasant places to be, so we're inclined to forget that the American one was built on slavery and theft of land, perpetuated through genocide and bigotry, and now lives on the exploitation of people and environments. It's also been so much more than that, and has brought prosperity, hope and freedom to literally billions of people. I genuinely love the US and its people for their optimism, which despite all I've said is for me the cornerstone of the American Dream. I want that dream to continue, but if it can't recognize its own ignorance I'm scared that it will fail.

Posted by: Paul at November 4, 2008 9:28 AM

It would seem that Americans are judged now more than ever by one another on the amount of $ they possess (or seem to possess), and that the amount of "status" one accumulates is believed to directly relate to that person's inherent value as a human being. I wish the American Dream had more to do with being a better person and less to do with having a bigger bank account and/or a Hummer.

Posted by: Paul at November 4, 2008 11:30 AM

Having money is not true wealth.

Who I am is not my job.

Achieving the American dream is so much larger than the confines of small minds.

Posted by: Awed Job at November 4, 2008 4:00 PM

This is on a lot of people's minds. Earlier today I wrote something related to it. The specific bit:

"The American Dream atop the pinnacle of scarcity, where it must be held for others to lift and climb."

It is not just some dream that should be important to us.

Posted by: Mark R at November 4, 2008 9:27 PM

American Dream.

Not wealth --where one's money does the work -- but the capacity to meet basic needs and a little more (the house, the car, the toys), more than what was possible under feudalism and slave-based economies.

The American Dream comes with time-sucking yard work, home repairs, honey-do lists. Mortgage debt, and children keep you quietly working for even the most despicable employers. A kind of contentment.

The American Dream keeps you busy; too busy to bitch much.

The American Dream was the antidote to those who bitched too much -- rioting in the streets for the 8-hour day -- near the turn of the last century.

The American Dream came at a relatively small cost to the wealthy, and we were at least content in it. They've since got greed.

I am not content to be merely content.

A mantra for the last 2 years has been this: "Pay more."

Why do people think the greatest personal economic good is to pay less taxes? Justifiably, resistance to taxes is based on the fact that government will mis-spend them. Were spending transparent, this would improve.

My dream is realized.

What is *your dream? Is it not realized? If not, why not?

Posted by: Jan McLaughlin at November 6, 2008 6:35 AM

"From Ze: The question that comes out of this post is perhaps this: if we decide to try to tackle an ideal social structure, does the current distribution/mechanisms of wealth creation stand in our way, or is it irrelevant."

I would say that as the US stands now, it is so vast, there is so much entropy, and it is so chaotic that it seems to me impossible to change the social structure significantly, at least without an unprecedented amount of effort and unity. Unfortunately, as Americans continue to view the Dream in this individualistic way (as BR said above, "I believe he lived the American dream. He never had many fancy things - but what he had was his and his alone"), the idea of unity behind a goal of common good seems less and less likely.

Maybe I'm just claiming it's impossible to change because I do not have the background in economics or sociology so I don't really know how the "mechanisms" would have to change, and I wanted to maintain the appearance of intelligence without having to take a stand.

I randomly thought of a quote from a song by the band Metric: "Buy this car to go to work; go to work to pay for this car." Is that the new American Dream?

Posted by: Daniel at November 7, 2008 3:49 AM

I just saw this poem and it made me think of your question.

http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/Hughes-America-Again1938.htm

Posted by: ingrid at November 9, 2008 4:28 AM

So cool! Thanks.

Posted by: facial cleanser at December 27, 2010 4:15 AM

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