What is the American Dream?

The American Dream has always been how America pitched capitalism to the masses, that you could work hard and get ahead based on how much you were willing to work. It grows out of one of the big three rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness. With enough work and perseverance, sacrifice and ingenuity, an American can achieve their dreams.

For most people, the American Dream is the same thing as a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. You hope for financial security for you and your family, jobs that value your contribution both personally and financially, and a space that you can call your own. Basically, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs type stuff.  If life is hard, the American Dream says that there is a way to make it less hard.

The United States has worked to make the pathway to the American Dream easier for those who want it. Over the last half of the 19th century, individual states began requiring children go to one of the many schools that independently sprung up since the country’s founding. To help people struggling or otherwise disadvantaged, the US created social safety nets, from workers comp in 1908, social security in 1935, Medicare in 1966, and the ACA more recently. Women and minorities have increasingly been given voting and other public rights, so that they too have access to the American Dream.

In the period between World War II and the gas crisis in the 1970s, this was something you could actually pull off without a college degree, thanks to a strong manufacturing base built up during the war years and strong unions. You could graduate high school, get a factory job, move up through the ranks, and buy a little suburban house somewhere.

The American Reality

Now, it’s a hustle. As George Carlin said, “They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” It’s the why Americans, in general, identify with the rich and not the poor. The American Dream claims the rich got where they are through hard work and good planning. Hell, maybe even a bit of luck.

If you’re poor, it’s because you are too lazy. If you weren’t lazy, of course you’d get yourself out of your situation. Because that’s how America works, you work hard, you prosper. Someday, all of us temporarily embarrassed millionaires will get back to our rightful place through sweat equity.

But here’s the heart of the scam: providing labor doesn’t often get you rich. Capital investment gets you rich. Entrepreneurship gets you rich. Working two minimum wage jobs so you can afford community college in the hope to get something that pays better than ten bucks an hour? That gets someone else rich. Same as the unpaid internship you took after going into debt to get your degree. The difference is that one of these requires some privilege to get, but neither has the benefits.


Politicians love to name check the middle class, almost as much as they love shout outs to small businesses. But that’s lip service. The folks who get real political love are big business and investors. The US spends more on corporate welfare than they do on social welfare. They favor capital. Capital’s important, sure, without it, there’d be no one to pay labor costs. But labor is treated as just a cost that must be minimized in an investment instead of what it really is, the basis of any value generated. Nobody gets rich from working hard for someone else. You get rich from owning the fruits of your own labor.

Then the question is why don’t the people who do the work own the fruits of that work? Well, that would be communism. Or a corporation where everyone gets paid in stock. Either way, stop trying to take my BMW.

My Bootstraps are Broken

Since the 1970s, moving up in status has gotten harder. The old pathways no longer have the benefits that they used to. You could argue that increased access to social services and student loans and easy credit has devalued them. You’d be wrong. It’s that the things that once helped people are fail them or, in some cases, make things worse.

Being poor is expensive and makes it hard to get ahead. Because public primary schools are funded by local taxes, schools in poor areas receive less funding. Social services have been cut thanks to fraud scares – some of which was based on real horror stories. Manufacturing peaked in the late 70s at about 19 million jobs, but about 5 million of those jobs have gone overseas in search of countries with softer labor laws. Unions have been gutted, thanks to organized crime and corporate friendly officials.

If you come from the middle class, the American Dream isn’t much closer. College tuition is skyrocketing, outpacing inflation and GDP growth, while college loans become a burden graduates bear most of their lives. Professional jobs increasingly rely on an unpaid army of interns, desperate unemployed degree-holders trying to beef up their resumes. The prices of homes grow and collapse as homes become risky assets, inflated by frenzied investment to the edge of what people can afford, only to collapse and leave the amount owed more than the value of the home.

If you are at a job, you are already on the losing end of things. If you work hard at this job, if you improve this business and help them succeed, you create value for your employer. The extra money the business gets goes to the owner of the company, generally, unless they are so sweet and generous that they kickback bonuses based on performances.

Fixing the Dream

All this is a shame. Because the idea of the American Dream has as its heart a meritocratic, democratic ideal that’s actually pretty admirable. The idea has worked, but in perception and not reality. A 2005 New York Times poll found that 92% of the respondents considered themselves middle class. Everyone, or almost everyone, believes in saving for the future and working hard for that future.


Anybody who works hard and works for a theoretical future should reap the value that they create. You bust ass, you get paid. But that’s not how things work today. Investment, in either corporations or politicians, gets you paid. Who you know trumps what you can do. The American Dream drove young men to seek their own fortunes outside of their family trades. But you can’t make your own fortune without a strong base of support, whether by building up a network, or better yet, being born into it.

Right now, we don’t have answers. All we have are questions.

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