The Future of the American Dream
The challenge, as John Maynard Keynes wrote long ago, is how "to live wisely and agreeably and well" once desperation and deprivation are no longer the driving forces of our existence. As the British economist predicted, the old economic problems of scarcity and survival have been solved, at least for developed nations. People should put aside the old fears, Keynes suggested, and learn how to enjoy life. Free of want and worry, we face a new challenge: to discover what it means to be truly human.
That wondrous pursuit is what I recommend as the alternative to our old definition of progress. In the years ahead, Americans will suffer unavoidable losses of familiar pleasures and be compelled to alter some deeply ingrained habits of material consumption. These painful adjustments can be endured if the people are confident the country is progressing toward a more fulfilling transformation. The essential trade-off could be expressed on a bumper sticker: Smaller Cars for Larger Lives.
To accomplish this sweeping change, people need power--more power to say what they think without getting fired and to make choices that are more in line with their values and aspirations. They need more security--which would give them the self-confidence to explore new options without dooming their families to poverty. People need more philosophical space--the room to decide what "success" is in their own terms and to make their own "mistakes."
We should start thinking of living larger lives as a fundamental human right and begin throwing off the confinements imposed on us by the old order. Since scarcity has been vanquished, the collateral suffering manufactured by the economic system should also be declared unnecessary--even immoral--in a healthy and wealthy society. A minority of Americans, people blessed with special talents, wealth or status, may already enjoy this level of freedom. But as rich people can attest, wealth does not exempt one from the human struggle, the search to find one's groove in life, to draw forth one's unique purpose and strengths. That treasure cannot be bought. It has to be earned.
Government can do many things, but it cannot transform the society. Only the people can accomplish that. They change the fabric of society gradually and in unannounced ways with their behavior and creativity, guided roughly by their enduring moral values. If government set out to impose transformed values on the rest of us, the results would be oppressive and wrong. During the last generation, the coarsening pressures of the market system did a lot of damage to our society, but they did not succeed in stripping Americans of what they believe. Most people still know the difference between right and wrong, and despite the obstacles, they struggle to live accordingly.
What government can do is construct the rules, legal premises and supportive platform that enable people to pursue social transformation more aggressively. Our inventive popular culture--the marvel of the world--does this in freewheeling ways. With a little help and less interference from Washington, Americans can similarly reinvent the society. An era of innovation and random experimentation would draw upon this same spirit, the life force of Americans, the people who are practical and idealistic.
One important condition government can provide is the platform of "essential needs" that will give everyone more security and therefore more confidence to explore new and different choices. We could dust off Roosevelt's "second Bill of Rights" and address its unmet goals. FDR recognized in early 1944 that Americans were weary of the sacrifices imposed by World War II and so he announced a broadly conceived promise. After the war is won, he said, the country must construct a new set of meaningful "rights" for all, everything from health and education to work with remunerative wages. His vision of the future became the postwar political agenda of the Democrats, and in large measure the promises were kept. I think Barack Obama may eventually face a similar necessity to spell out the vision of what a transformed America can become on the other side of the ditch we are in. Some goals are already well understood. The thick backlog of legislative proposals that have been repeatedly blocked by powerful interests during the last generation should be revisited in order to establish concrete rights and protections for families and children, workers and employees. The extensive family-centered social systems in Europe suggest opportunities for US reforms. Reversing national economic policy on work and wages is, likewise, a necessary step toward healing the society. If government constructs a rising floor under wage incomes, starting from the bottom up, people at every level will be liberated to pursue creative social invention. In the face of deep recession and rising unemployment, there is not much anyone can do at present to boost wages. But government can make this promise for the future. When the economy recovers and unemployment declines, the minimum-wage floor will rise in step, and other work-improvement rules will kick in. Congress can enact the laws in advance and time their effective date to economic conditions.