Sunday, 19 October 2014

The American Nightmare: How the American Dream has tainted American society.

"The American Dream is 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."

James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America

One of the things that have defined the relatively young nation of the United States of America has been the sense of hope, the optimism and self-belief that is encapsulated in the notion of 'The American Dream'. 

The American Dream is founded upon the idea of the USA being a perfect meritocracy- that is a place where success is purely based on merit, on one's own efforts, regardless of their socio-economic background. So long as an individual worked hard, he could achieve his dreams.
So what are the 'rewards' of achieving the American Dream? Wealth? Social Status? Not exactly. Above all, happiness is probably the goal most associated with the Dream. After all, happiness is what every person seeks, regardless of whether they are subscribed to the American Dream or not.
But how does one achieve happiness? A popular belief that has existed throughout time and perhaps was never stronger than in the America of the Roaring Twenties, is that money=material=happiness. Put simply, it is the belief that money can buy you happiness.
Of course, money is indeed often a route to comfort (it's easier to cry in a Ferrari than in a tent), but happiness is a concept that does not equate to comfort but builds upon it. Comfort is just one of the many things that has potential to bring you happiness; many people can claim to be 'comfortable', but not truly happy.

The shallow belief in money and the power it brings being the only means to happiness is what links the 'American Dream' to the modern diseases of superficiality, materialism and consumerism. People see material as their end goal; taking it for granted that happiness will follow. It won't: just see any of the large selection of celebrity crises, they are pretty good examples of how money, power and fame does not guarantee happiness- in fact they can sometimes work to its detriment.

Further issues arise from the concept of the 'American Dream'. Society has little role to play in the Dream other than simply facilitating the rise of certain individuals. The 'every man for himself' attitude encouraged by this idea, that you can and should work hard for yourself to achieve your Dream has created selfish individuals who use their talents not to benefit society as a whole by contributing real value to society- be it by selling products that will better peoples' lives, or by alleviating poverty- but use their talents simply to their own gains- at most the gains of their close family and friends.

It's certainly true that like chocolate (yes, hang on with me here), money, after a certain point, is subject to the notion of marginal value. Some economists believe it is good to have massively wealthy individuals in a nation- see the earlier article on trickle-down economics- but more often than not, after a certain point wealth becomes of little value to an individual. 
It's like chocolate because one bar of chocolate is often very tasty. Maybe even the second. But after the third or fourth it becomes sickly- to the point that where you might have paid for the first, you might actually pay someone else to take the tenth. The value of the chocolate declines after a certain point- money does the very same, simply because the toys that the rich can purchase only go up to a certain value before they simply become ridiculous investments.
Take Bill Gates, the second wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune of over $80 billion dollars.
In an interview with The Telegraph last year, Bill clearly told the reporter: "Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point."- and it shows in how the wealthy are collecting money on an outstanding scale. 
This can be seen in how the collective wealth of households with more than $1m in investible wealth rose by 66% since 2008- despite global economic output rising only 16% in this time.
The wealthiest individuals of society have no actual use for much of their money- this isn't something too crazy to imagine. Bill Gates already has a home worth $150m, and most probably every material possession he could desire- so what else is he going to spend his $80b on? Interestingly enough, it is for something to benefit society at large- Gates has given over $8b in charity to improve global health, most notably fighting for the eradication of diseases such as polio. 

I digress. Back to the point, the American Dream harbours a sense of individualism that is detrimental to society at large. Bill Gates is relatively unique in his spending- the increase in wealth of the richest in society shows that most are pretty much hoarding cash for a rainy day that may or may not come. 
And the Dream also gives society an excuse to neglect the poor and unfortunate. Yes, of course there are poor people in every country who will be there largely because of their own deficiencies- usually attributed to their own lack of effort- but the belief in America being this perfect meritocracy has simply boosted the ego of much of the wealthy and given them an excuse not to contribute even a tiny part of their wealth to the unfortunate in society. It promotes the often incorrect belief that every poor person is their exclusively due to their own shortcomings. 

A prominent example of the corrupt side of the individualism encouraged by the Dream include the behaviour of bankers in the various financial crises of the past century. Acting out of self-interest purely, they gave away cheap, risky credit that ultimately they benefited from, at the massive cost of almost every customer they dealt with. 

Ultimately, the belief in America (or any country in the world, for that matter) being a perfectly plutocratic 'land of opportunity' is far from the truth. After all, a pure plutocracy would be one without the tradition of family inheritance, the sort that fed with a silver spoon the wealths of individuals such as Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. 

America has in many senses stayed true to the American Dream- and while many have gleamed success from it, one could argue that it has tainted society with an individual-centred spirit that has boosted certain individuals at the cost of numerous others.

SOURCES (and recommended reads):

Telegraph interview with Bill Gates

The Ultra Rich Are Hoarding Cash As Inequality Anger Simmers

The World's Richest People are Sitting on Gigantic Piles of Cash that aren't Earning Them Anything

Brian Miller, Mike Lapham The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 
Lone Editor

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