What does the American dream really mean

The American dream is dead - the dishwasher remains the dishwasher

The United States has always been seen as the land of opportunity: anyone can do it. But the chance of social advancement for everyone, this original premise of the American dream, becomes an illusion.

When I was ten years old, we moved from the rainy Netherlands to sunny Palo Alto in California. That was in 1980, my father was doing a one-year sabbatical as a scientist at Stanford University. Back then, Palo Alto was a typical American campus city. The average price for a single family home was an affordable $ 148,900. California then had an excellent system of affordable public universities. The people in Palo Alto were a bit wealthier than in Europe, but somehow happier - and better educated.

At the time, I was particularly impressed by the fact that Americans could always reinvent their lives. If something didn't suit them anymore, they just changed it. You actually had the opportunity to get rich; they could just get in the car, drive 3,000 kilometers, and start all over in a new place; they could change their religion or their spouse. I had hardly heard of divorces in Europe before, while almost half of all adults in California were divorced.

My elementary school was on the same street where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded the Hewlett-Packard company in a garage in 1939. And one day we even saw an entire house go by and be trucked to a better place. Everything seemed possible in Palo Alto.

I had a wonderful time in Palo Alto and returned home after a year with a very pro-American attitude. Later I studied in the USA and married - which was inevitable now - an American.

Freedom, family and prosperity

Unfortunately, today I have to assume that back then in Palo Alto I witnessed the last days of the American dream: this firm belief that everyone in the USA, regardless of where they come from, can achieve anything. Most Americans have now realized for themselves that this dream is dead - and that it is time to finally bury it.

The American dream included freedom and family, but economic advancement was also essential. The rags-to-riches-to-millionaire ideal, which was probably first formulated in Horatio Alger's novels from the 19th century, was based on the idea that anyone can do it if they really want to Reading books). This dream came within reach in the decades after 1945 - at least for many whites. The economy was booming and the government was helping people so they could go to college and buy a house.

At the time, I was particularly impressed by the fact that Americans could always reinvent their lives.

The dream was fundamentally materialistic, often generating exaggerated expectations and inevitably generating losers. That has brought him into disrepute among top-class writers. In post-war literature, former high school top athletes who had previously failed have embodied the dreamed-up American dream: Brick Pollitt in Tennessee Williams' "The Cat on the Hot Tin Roof", John Updike's "Rabbit Angstrom" or Biff Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" . Very similar types were the former boxers who Marlon Brando played in “Endstation Sehnsucht” and “Die Faust im Nacken”.

Such broken dreams spread in real life as well. My wife, for example, grew up in Miami, where her father ran a small advertising agency. He lived in a milieu that was completely dedicated to the American dream: founding banks, selling real estate, building his own villas by the sea. He couldn't do that himself. One day he was sitting in the medium-sized Toyota under the mango trees of his suburban house with a mini-pool (an ideal for almost every European) and confessed to his daughter: "I don't know how to make money." With this one sentence he expressed the quintessence of American well-being, instrumentalized by Donald Trump today: He felt himself to be a “loser”.

The elites are taking over

It was during my teenage years in Palo Alto that Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. From then on, the number of such American "losers" increased rapidly. The economy continued to grow briskly, but the profits were more and more concentrated among the elites. In cities like Palo Alto, Google's birthplace and centered on Silicon Valley, the median price for a single family home is now $ 2,482,500.

As the US got richer, government spending on schools and universities decreased. For the rich, who got richer thanks to tax cuts, that wasn't a problem: they could finance their own private education system. Top universities that rely on donations from alumni are open to the children of their donors. At Harvard, for example, 29 percent of the 2017 freshmen class consisted of students with Harvard alumni in their families. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly a little formidable high school student, came to Harvard after his father - a later imprisoned real estate tycoon - pledged $ 2.5 million to the university. The rich have taken over America.

The economy continued to grow briskly, but profits were concentrated among the elites.

Social mobility, that original premise of the American dream, collapsed. Michael Carr and Emily Wiemers of the University of Massachusetts use census data to show that an American worker's chances of climbing the income ladder have steadily declined. Most European countries now outperform the US in terms of social mobility. A 2014 study by Raj Chetty at Harvard (“Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity?”) Concluded that less than 10 percent of Americans can achieve the top out of the bottom fifth of the wealth distribution. Origin is becoming more and more important: A study by Joseph Ferrie at Northwestern University calculated a significant relationship between opportunities for social mobility and the income of grandparents and great-grandparents.

Inherited wealth

While visiting my in-laws in Miami, I saw for myself how the USA had become a society ruled by heirs. Many families have accumulated their wealth for almost eighty years since the post-war boom. Inheritance taxes have been lowered and any American can now easily set up tax-free trusts in Nevada or South Dakota. The Trump administration continues to work hard on such amenities for the rich, while Trump critics are upset over the President's tweets.

Miami, a mostly poor city, is full of multimillionaires, many of whom have never earned a single cent themselves. And it is not surprising that America today is led by an heir who likes to advertise himself as a self-made man. Trump inherited at least $ 413 million from his father, as the New York Times recently revealed. American society plays into Trump's hands. This also applies to many well-to-do liberals in enclaves like Palo Alto: They are loudly outraged at Trump while they invest their wealth in trusts and send their children to private schools.

For most Americans, however, this development leads to misery. Your life is like a small business that is always on the verge of bankruptcy. Most Americans work almost non-stop, leaving out everyday conveniences that make a European life worth living in.

Trump's nativism

Most Americans still overestimate their prospects for social advancement, while Western Europeans tend to underestimate their mobility opportunities. This is shown by a study recently published by Alberto Alesina at Harvard. His results are hardly surprising, because almost every US TV commercial still promises the American dream will soon be fulfilled.

But belief in this dream is fading, reality speaks a different language. Even the Republican Party - once fearless proponent of the American dream - has switched to Trumpian nativism. As early as 2015, at the beginning of his presidential candidacy, Trump descended the golden escalator in Trump Tower, he made it clear: "Unfortunately, the American dream is dead." And after his election, he emphasized in his speech on the “white working class” (which, as is well known, voted for him) that the Americans had long since seen themselves placed in a class system based on the European model.

They are loudly outraged against Trump as they put their money in trusts and send their children to private schools.

It is not surprising then that more and more Democrats and young Americans today believe in socialism rather than capitalism. Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing, serious presidential candidate for decades, does not see himself as a revolutionary radical, but rather as the spokesman for a silent American majority.

Most Americans think economically in a similar way to Europeans. Today, however, their society is more similar to that of Brazil or apartheid in South Africa than that of Germany or France. It would be time for the US to switch to the Western European dream.

Simon Kuper is a historian and columnist for the Financial Times. The article is the abridged version of his presentation in English at the NZZ Podium Berlin on November 20, 2018 on the subject of “American Dream”. Translation: Martin Senti


Here are the other speakers at the NZZ Podium in Berlin on Tuesday, November 20, 2018:


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