Sunday, 23 November 2014

SLOW DOWN: How Our Impatience Is Ruining Us.

One of the most significant features engrained into almost every aspect of our modern society is undoubtedly our desire for speed. Modern lifestyle is at such a rapid pace that often we forget to see it that way- we all get fast food from McDonalds, spend extra to get extra fast One-Day delivery on our Amazon order, and we all want a fast Italian car. More than ever, speed really is of the essence in today's world, and it's unsurprising that this is the case.

A primary reason for this impatience is our lack of leisure time. One of capitalism's great claims is the reduced workload it puts on every individual who partakes in it, but a fascinating paper by Juliet B. Schor of MIT suggests that we, as an industrial capitalist workforce, actually have less leisure time than most of our medieval ancestors- who, according to former Oxford don James E. Thorold Rogers, rarely had a work day of more than 8 hours. Altogether, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up around 1 third of the year- something we today can only dream of.
Work dominates the lives of so many modern citizens- economic pressures are primarily the root of this. Americans work more than anybody else- also taking less leave, working longer days and retiring later than citizens of any other country in the world- even often taking up multiple jobs to help make ends meet. Perhaps this is an interesting statement for the the world's bastion of capitalism to put across.

Anyway, people have less leisure time in today's world and undoubtedly this is a reason for why we like to 'live life in the fast lane'- time is precious, and everyone wants to fit everything in to what time we have outside of work, be it the weekends or just a single lunch break.

This impatience has helped us in many ways- in particular with regards to the overall productivity of society. Over the past few decades economic productivity has drastically increased, one of the reasons for the rapid socio-economic modernisation that the world has seen in past decades. The extra productivity has gone into developing and producing revolutionary technology like computers, goods like clothes and food, allowing the supply to be there for more people around the world to be able to purchase such items, and thus enjoy an improved standard of living (though the effect of some consumer goods on standard of living is debatable). Capitalism may not be pretty, but ideas of Adam Smith's such as division of labour have certainly streamlined the economies of the world, in many cases leading to better lives for ordinary people.

But on the other hand, the damages of this rapid, impatient lifestyle are evident throughout our society.
Our impatience has been damaging to our health- fast food has unfortunately become the staple of the workers' diet, due to its sheer convenience. People don't want to spend their whole valuable lunch break sitting down at a table any more- McDonalds, Burger King and co. offer a far more convenient, grab and go system that lets you enter a store, place an order, grab your food and be out of there within 5 minutes. The drive-thru system means you don't even have to enter the store. Minimum fuss, minimum time lost, but pretty much maximum damage done to your health- the ingredients these companies use to provide such a quick and addictive experience for their customers are dangerous both in the short and long term for the health. Meanwhile, 'healthy' food, notorious for its supposedly  painful, long preparation time, goes ignored by many (though thankfully this trend has been reversing in recent years due to an increase in health-consciousness). Nevertheless, much of the damage has been done in the obesity rates of today's world, and is continuing to be done in how fast food remains among the world's most popular choices of food.
Further health concerns have grown along with the rise in popularity of cars in recent decades. Pretty much everyone has a car, and people who use an alternative form of transport in their daily commute are probably in a very small minority. Cars allow us to stay at home in the mornings longer, and get home sooner, without breaking a sweat- just like fast food, they are quick and easy, and our impatience and lack of time makes us particularly weak in fighting their attraction.

By no means is this to say that neither cars nor fast food have benefited society at all- the positive effects cars have had in bringing closer the world and in terms of convenience is undeniable, and fast food's affordability and convenience similarly cannot be ignored- but, the indulgent society that we can often be, when these have been used to the extremes they have proven to be catastrophic- just as an example, obesity has grown to the extent that it currently costs the world $2 trillion to deal with. And this is just the tip of the iceberg- further health problems such as stress, and social problems such as decreasing family interaction can also be attributed to the fast and busy lifestyle we live.

And our impatience does have direct economic implications on our lives. Combined with our materialist tendencies it has driven us to make many financially unwise decisions, on a daily basis. Just a small example one can witness on a daily basis at any newsagents is the lottery. In Britain, over 32 million people play the lottery every week, buying on average three tickets at a time. These people, driven by the prospect of becoming rich quick and easily, as a result overlook the fact that the chances of winning are just one in 14 million. The lottery is a small but recurrent drain on income- if those who bought lottery tickets maybe decided to invest the money spent on tickets in a savings fund they are far more likely to be better off economically.

The most significant example however comes in the shape of the borrowing phenomenon. Gone are the days of saving for many people- a 2012 survey found that 28% of Americans had no savings whatsoever, up from 24% the previous year and 49% had less than what would be necessary to cover three months of expenses, up from 46%. A significant reason for this lies in the increasing cost of living and the great stagnation of wages in America (see Seven Shocking Facts About Economic Inequality in the USA)- but considering that overall consumer spending actually increased in this period (see graph), the possibility that people are being less prudent with their finances is strong.

How is borrowing, and a lack of financial linked to our impatience? The link is clear- we no longer want to save up money for investments like a car or a house- we prefer to get them immediately, and credit allows us to do just this- transferring what is usually a greater cost to our future selves. It is pretty clear that paying for a car with cash is the best option- one significant reason being that the car itself is cheaper, with no need for extra interest payments to be made. But we don't like waiting, so we take the option of finance- spreading the (greater) cost of the car over multiple years, but gaining access to it now- you can buy a car worth £40k for example, even if you don't have £10k in your bank account. And there's nothing to stand in the way of our desire to do this- companies and banks are continuously offering seemingly attractive finance deals, making access to credit incredibly loose- affecting more significantly the housing market, where access to credit inflated the deadly housing bubble of the noughties- and we know where that led us. People borrowed more than they could afford to repay, and as a result when this was realised the bubble popped- creating one of the biggest global economic messes in the modern era.

The process of borrowing can lead to disastrous consequences- it can entail addiction, spiralling debt and subsequent homelessness. And the root of it, more often than not, is our desire to get that new car today- to get that new house as soon as possible, it is our impatience that leads us towards borrowing and putting our future at risk rather than being prudent and saving.

One cannot say that our own deficiencies can be easily resolved- as one could argue desire for speed is part of human nature- and nevertheless, the promotion of quick and easy credit by various financial institutions certainly has played a role also in our development of addiction to debt. Change will only come in the long term.

Old habits die hard, and the habit of borrowing, taking short term gains for long term losses is one that will certainly not go down without a fight.

Friday, 14 November 2014

An Introduction To The Russian Billionaire Oligarchy

You probably will have heard of the phrase 'oligarch'- a term most commonly associated with the wealthy business elite of Russian society- the natural resource and media men primarily. This group of people are widely known not just for their massive wealth (the combined fortune of the 131 oligarchs almost $450bn), but also often for their political power- amassing such a wealth has meant that Russian oligarchs have played a role in not just Russian politics but also that of other countries- recently Britain's ruling Conservative Party has come under the spotlight for facilitating this

And the fascinating thing is that while the group itself is relatively well known, receiving much media spotlight, most people know little about the individuals within- even those most well-known, such as Roman Abramovich of Chelsea Football Club or Arsenal Football Club's Alisher Usmanov, remain much of a mystery to even football's biggest followers. Russian oligarchs, while being wealthy, certainly contrast to their Western counterparts- tending more to live reclusive, closed personal lives. 

So who are these Russian oligarchs- and why are they so rich?

The story of the Russian oligarchy begins in the latter years of the Soviet Union. For the majority of the Soviet period, the rulers pursued protectionist economic policies- policies that sought to boost domestic trade by taxing highly, or even outlawing, certain imports. It's a common practice for many nations, developing and developed- for example, Obama placed a 35% tariff on Chinese tyres entering the USA in 2009. The rationale behind such protectionist policy is to discourage purchasing of products from foreign businesses, but facilitate more trade with local, domestic ones.

The AGAT-4, Soviet Russia's answer to Apple.
Anyway, these protectionist policies in Russia, especially towards the end of the century, meant that the Russian people were missing out on many of the western developments, particularly with regards to technology. Cars, for example- as Toyota, Fiat, Volkswagen and the like entered the global market from the 50s onwards, they were simply either unaffordable for the Russian public due to high tariffs, or commonly banned altogether from being imported. The Soviet government, seeking the development of Russian industries, responded by making their own competing car- the wonderful Lada Riva; perhaps an example of how state protectionism does not always produce the best results.

Protectionism affected not just cars but other everyday consumer products- computers, for example. The state's attempt to create a computer system to rival Apple's II, the AGAT computer was almost seventeen times as expensive as Steve Jobs' original computer that it was essentially a clone of. And it wasn't a very good clone either- a reviewer in BYTE magazine in 1984 stated that "even if they gave it away for free, it wouldn't stand a chance". 
So a few people saw solutions to this- such as Mikhail Khordovsky, who in 2003 was Russia's wealthiest man- among his first few business ventures was in the black market, where he bought western computers and resold them for a huge profit back home.

Protectionist policy therefore almost itself triggered the beginnings of these oligarchs, who were in fact largely self-made individuals, with no significant backing from family members as is sometimes the case with businessmen. Roman Abramovich, for example, was in his early years a soldier, and went on to become a mechanic. His first business moves were selling imported rubber ducks and dolls.

Such 'black market' activity was only helped by Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of Perestroika (translated restructuring)- this, among other things, sought to put down barriers to international trade, giving already established traders such as Khordovsky and Abramovich a better platform upon which they could do business, with less concealment.

Boris Yeltsin took Gorbachev's Perestroika policy further
transforming Russia into a capitalist economy.
But without doubt the biggest boost to the oligarchy, verily the match that lit its fire, was the fall of the USSR and the subsequent entrance of Boris Yeltsin into power- now as elected President of Russia. Seeking to overwrite the past seven decades of Communism, Yeltsin pushed for dramatic capitalist movement to be made in the Russian economy. The most significant change he made with regards to the oligarchs came in the mass privatisation of key Russian industries.

The industries in Russia dominated by the oligarchs of today were, during the time of the Communist regime, kept extremely close to the state. As we've already seen, the consumer goods industry was largely under state monopoly, but the biggest profits for the USSR were to come from the natural resource industry. Coal, oil, gold and numerous other valuable commodities were abundant throughout Russia and its associated countries- and the state wished to keep them under their control for numerous reasons, but primarily to a) keep hold of revenue to boost the economy and b) prevent any private party from becoming so wealthy and thus powerful through resources and perhaps challenging the rule of the authorities. 

Yeltsin's rapid privatisation (known informally as Catastroika), the auctioning off of key national industries, did the exact opposite of this. Russian state revenues dropped as some key industries were sold to private hands at prices that were too low (remind you of the Royal Mail?) and as a result those certain 'private hands', certain individuals who had a steady footing in Russian business, became extraordinarily wealthy.

And who exactly these individuals were was determined largely by not just their status in Russia as businessmen, but also their relationship to the authorities. According to The Guardian, "by 1996, at the age of 30, Roman Abramovich had become so rich and politically well-connected that he had become close to President Boris Yeltsin, and had moved into an apartment in the Kremlin at the invitation of the Yeltsin family."- this relationship was one that indeed did play a significant role in Abramovich's subsequent acquisition of most of Sibneft (one of Russia's largest oil producers) for just $100m (the entire company being worth $2.7bn)- one of the biggest sources of profit for him. From this point on, Abramovich's career only went up- and many other oligarchs began their billion-dollar ventures in a similar manner. 

So to conclude- the Russian oligarchy was the controversial product of Russia's rapid shift from Communism to deep Capitalism under Boris Yeltsin- from a totally nationalised economy to a largely privatised one. Vladimir Putin later went on to re-nationalise certain natural resource industries, but the spark that the initial rapid privatisation provided for these individuals is undoubtable- and it has created a generation of Russian business elite who are spreading out their wings internationally- one Russian billionaire purchasing Britain's most expensive home is just a part of it.

It may seem such a phenomenon is exclusive to Russia, but in fact this type of instance can be seen in parts throughout the world- the Middle East, for example. Unlike in Russia, the natural resource industries were almost from the beginning privately owned- but similarly a select group of business individuals have benefited hugely from exploitation of resources available to them, notably oil.

Recommended Reads:
Computing in the USSR

Inside the Hidden World of Roman's Empire

The Russian Oligarchs of the 1990s

Why are rich Russians so obsessed with buying up London property?

Sunday, 2 November 2014

What's Nigel Farage's Beef with the European Union?

One of Britain's biggest political victors of 2014 have certainly been UKIP. Farage's men have risen from sharing the BNP's status as the nation's political laughing stock, to... well, still laughing stock (as any casual viewer of BBC's Mock The Week will certainly have observed), but a party that is now genuinely feared by the 'Big Three'- Cameron's Conservatives, Milliband's Labour and Clegg's Liberal Democrats. It's difficult to believe, but a recent Observer/Opinium poll suggested that presented with a genuine chance of a UKIP victory in their constituency, 31% of British voters would vote UKIP.
Their spectacular rise in popularity has been no accident- if Farage was a surfer, he'd be a darn talented one. He has ridden the massive waves of Euroscepticism, Immigrascepticism, Welfarescepticism, many of the scepticisms you could think about that have grown in the frustrated hearts of many voters not just on the right, but much of the centre also. Oh, and perhaps we have the BBC to thank as well for their rise.

Anyway, back to UKIP policy- perhaps their most significant manifesto promise is the swift exit of Britain from the European Union, the EU.
The EU is both a politically and economically binding union that, according to the organisers itself, "has delivered half a century of peace, stability and prosperity, helped raise living standards, and launched a single European currency, the euro". If the EU could be considered a single economy, which it often is, it would be the largest economy in the world- perhaps unsurprising however when one considers it is an amalgamation of 28 economies.
The Euro currency is perhaps the most prominent factors binding European nations- but it affects the British public little in a direct sense- for Britain is outside of this 'Eurozone', the union of nations sharing the Euro as its currency. Of course, we have the pound.

But what does directly affect Britain with regards to the EU are unifying policies such as free inter-EU movement of labour, inter-EU tariff-free trade, and the power to implement these measures in itself. Let's discuss these three and see just what UKIP and its supporters see as the problem.

Free Inter-EU Movement of Labour 

Ah, well this has been a controversial issue for sure. Immigration has been constantly featured in the news outlets of Britain for the past decade- debates have erupted over whether there should be more, whether there should be less, whether there shouldn't be any at all. Farage and his crew have frequently blasted the 'unconditional open door' to EU immigrants that is enforced upon Britain, like all EU states, by the Union. Article 45 of the EU treaty entitles EU citizens to rights such as that to seek employment in an EU country with no need for a work permit, enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. It also rules that EU countries must acknowledge an EU citizen's qualifications- so if a doctor has achieved his qualifications in Britain, he must be also acknowledged as a doctor if he wants to move to Belgium for example, without having to take further education.

UKIP's line has been very clear on this issue- that immigrants are coming to Britain seeking better pay (Britain's minimum wage is nine times that of Bulgaria's for example) and standard of living (the NHS, better education, better infrastructure). These are surely natural desires- a father will naturally do his best to provide a better life for his family.
But Farage and co. believe this is bleeding Britain economically. UKIP have frequently criticised immigrants for coming to leech off Britain's divisive social welfare system, that can provide residents with benefits such as free healthcare and unemployment allowance. UKIP argue this is draining the economy as EU citizens from Eastern Europe in particular take residence in the UK, and benefit from social welfare 'without contributing a fair amount' to the economy. They are certainly correct that many people have chosen to move to Britain from Eastern Europe- Polish is the most commonly-spoken non-native language in Britain - but whether they are not contributing a fair amount is not so certain. Chef Jamie Oliver, owner of over 30 branches of his Jamie's Italian restaurants throughout the UK, claims "if we didn’t have any (European immigrants), all of my restaurants would close tomorrow. There wouldn’t be any Brits to replace them"- he cites the improved work ethic of many immigrants, suggesting strongly that they do contribute a fair amount. Perhaps what he forgot to note was also that many immigrants from Eastern Europe demand lower salaries than their British equivalents- the building industry has been particularly indicative of this- you can see via a quick google search of 'Polish builders' that they are in high demand due to their cheap rates and work ethic.

UKIP's solution? Farage has suggested that he upon victory in an election, he would enforce a five-year ban on immigration- he strangely admits he would even pursue this policy if it would have a negative impact on Britain's economy; telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme "If you said to me do you want to see another five million people come to Britain, and if that happened we would all be slightly richer, I would say, do you know what, I would rather we were not slightly richer." He believes this ban would return employment back to the 'British youth' rather than immigrants, and thus boost employment rates among the natives. Hmm, this may perhaps slightly smell of racism.
Farage believes a work permit system should also be enforced, via which checks would be made about a potential immigrant's suitability to work in Britain.

Inter-EU Tariff Free Trade

This is an interesting issue because it is one that UKIP have not really vocally opposed- in fact it is seen as the best bit of EU membership, allowing Britain to trade with other countries such as France and Germany without many of the extra trans-national fees that non-EU countries like the USA or Brazil may have to cough up. 
This is perhaps where UKIP's proposal to leave the EU falls, however. This free trade agreement benefits British businesses and if we were to leave the Union the tariffs would return- harming not only British businesses wishing to trade outwards but also European businesses looking to invest in Britain, who would similarly be faced by non-EU tariffs. 
A solution proposed by some would be the formation of treaties with EU nations to restore free trade, simply on an individual nation basis. However, as well as the time and diplomatic issues this would entail, it may just be impossible. Some EU member states may see Britain as betraying the Union (Angela Merkel has already suggested Britain is doing so within it) and may as a result refuse to sign agreements, resulting in real losses for Britain's economy.

EU Legislation

A widespread worry over the European Union is its undemocratic, centralised nature.
What is called the 'democratic deficit' has become frustrating to many EU citizens- a Pew Research poll found the majorities of seven major European countries believe their votes for EU representatives have no effect- including a staggering 81% of Italians. As a result of voter disenchantment at the complex, bureaucratic nature of EU decision making, voter turnout has falling dramatically in recent decades- by almost 20% between 1979 and 2009.
The EU lacks the very democratic values that it has set as a prerequisite for its member nations. According to The Atlantic, the European Parliament is the only one of seven EU institutions that is directly elected by EU citizens- and clearly even that is not satisfying much of the public.
The EU have meddled in national affairs- for example as a result of the recent Eurocrisis they took control of Greece's financial policy (though at the cost of a huge financial bailout), and more recently they have slapped a £1.7 billion bill on Britain for underestimating its economic growth. 
Eurosceptics believe leaving the EU would remove the EU's power over Britain in terms of policy and also discipline. They say too many decisions are being made in Brussels (a phrase you'll often hear in the EU debate, Brussels being the EU's base city) rather than in Westminster- and they argue more powers would be transferred to the British government, and therefore the British people, who hold the government responsible.

The EU debate will certainly continue to be a major talking point for the forthcoming 2015 UK General Election. The major parties have all promised referendums on EU membership should they come to power, and they have certainly been shaken by UKIP's growth from a protest vote into a potential candidate for power in Downing St- David Cameron and more shockingly Labour's Ed Milliband have set immigration at the top of their agendas in search to sway potential UKIP voters towards them. The high-profile defections of two Tory MPs earlier this year to Farage's party, and rumours of even Labour MPs following suit show truly how close in policy the political parties in Britain have become. 

The next decade is key for Britain- whoever wins the next General Election, membership of the EU will be a primary focus and whether the disenchanted among the public will sway government policy, we shall see. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Why does EA's FIFA disappoint some people EVERY YEAR?

It happens every September. A new FIFA game comes out and along with it comes a barrage of hate. "FIFA 15 is the worst FIFA yet. EA just hype up the game to let everyone down.", exclaims user 'oritepal' on the EA forums. Nathan Ditum of The Telegraph claims "FIFA 15 fails to greatly differentiate itself from its previous incarnations"- user 'Bada_bing8' agrees, dubbing 15 "another pointless iteration".

These people are often justified in their criticisms- EA seems to have a habit of hyping up their 'upgrades' to the game that change it little- they even dedicated a whole trailer of such revolutionary features, such as visibly breathing players and, best of all, moving corner flags. Meanwhile they often postpone their often impressive upgrades for later iterations.
And this is before we get to some of the worst aspects of FIFA- including endless in-game microtransactions, and sometimes unbearable online servers.

Despite this, FIFA is the best-selling video game in the UK, and has been so since its release. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of gamers worldwide are quickly hooked onto each FIFA iteration as soon as it is released- I myself have been one of them before.
Why? The answer's pretty simple. These gamers aren't stupid- they don't buy games that suck- FIFA evidently has a lot going for it. It's an addictive game, but that's not the only reason why people buy it.
People often buy it because there's nothing better. Football is the world's most popular sport, so evidently a good quality, constantly innovating football video game is what many people want. But FIFA doesn't always offer this- as we've covered earlier.
So, someone who knew nothing about video games would ask the question- why don't they buy another football game? A better one?
The principle is a core of business economics. It's what people believe to be the democratic part of consumerism- that if you don't like a product 'x', you stop buying it, and buy another, product 'y'. If enough people do it, the company making product 'x' will see a fall in profits and therefore to boost them, they will improve product 'x' to be as good as 'y'.

But this can't happen with regards to FIFA. Why? Because there's only 1 alternative to FIFA- and that has been suffering in past years. Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) has always been in FIFA's shadow in the sports game industry- Konami, makers of PES have not even been able to launch PES 15 by the key September month- they expect to release in early November, two months behind FIFA.

The difference between the success of the two titles is staggering- in 2012/13, EA sold 13.5 million copies of its FIFA 13 title- Konami a paltry 1.9 million. PES 15 in priciple is competition to FIFA, but in reality it is nowhere near.

EA has almost total domination of the football games market- they have no effective competition, they have a monopoly. What does this mean?

This means they have little pressure to develop their games, to innovate, to make them better. If FIFA 16 is not that much better than 15, EA will be safe in the knowledge that they're not going to lose all of their customers- simply because PES is not effective enough competition to steal away customers. This makes complacency- the key reason why EA perhaps does not improve FIFA as much as they could every year.

It's also why EA can afford to offer so many microtransactions- they stand nothing to lose from it, because people will not avoid FIFA solely because of them; PES doesn't even have a similar game mode. EA can only profit from those who choose to spend extra money furnishing their Ultimate Team.

So, why couldn't PES improve and catch up? Again, the answer is monopoly. If you've ever played PES, you'll notice that many teams don't have real kits of club badges, or even names. Chelsea FC is creatively called 'London Blues', Arsenal 'North London'.
This is because PES needs licensing to use the real kits and badges of these clubs- but who holds exclusive rights to Premier League licensing? That's right, EA- it's exclusive to the FIFA series.
And this issue has for long been the key weakness of PES. No matter how realistic the match engine is, it's a straight turn off for many if they can't play in the kit, or even use the name of their favourite club.

Windows Vista, the software that gave nightmares
to millions of users.
Monopolies can cause businesses in general to become lazy, complacent and stuck in the past. Significant examples other than FIFA could include Microsoft in the noughties (stuck in the daze of Windows XP's monopoly), and AT&T and Verizon in the USA- cellphone providers who have been the bane of many a phone user's life in America, largely due to poor customer service and inflating contract prices.

And many monopolistic companies will be happy to gobble up any potential competition. In 2011, AT&T made an attempt to acquire T-Mobile, the closest competitor of the two aforementioned providers. Why? Because if T-Mobile then got a larger share of the cellphone market, AT&T would not be threatened- if they owned T-Mobile, they'd in fact make a profit from that. T-Mobile's share of the market would be gobbled up by AT&T- decreasing competition and furthering market monopoly.

There are so many ways a lazy company can block competition and thus increase their monopoly. There are basic stuff we don't always notice- for example patents are a formidable way of blocking competition in a new and emerging market.
On the other hand, companies can open up themselves to competition- like Tesla, who earlier this year opened up all their patents to their competition. Giving up patents, exclusivity rights, whatever monopolistic agreements, will not create an easy ride for any company but it can give them the kick they need to provide genuine improvements to their products.

If EA was not hiding behind their exclusive Premier League licensing, if PES shared the same rights, FIFA would be far more threatened- PES would still have a far way to go but perhaps EA would receive the kick it needs to provide genuine and lasting innovation to its customers.

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