The Future of the American Dream
This article is excerpted from William Greider's new book, Come Home, America. Copyright © 2009 by William Greider. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.
As Franklin Roosevelt understood, Americans will postpone immediate gratification and endure hard sacrifices--if they must--so long as they are convinced the future can be better than the past. But we face a far more difficult problem at our moment in history. What do you promise people who have been told they can have anything they want, who are repeatedly congratulated for living in the best of all possible circumstances? How do you tell them "the good times," as we have known them, are not coming back? Americans need a new vision that helps them deal with reality, a promising story of the future that helps them let go of the past.
Here is the grand vision I suggest Americans can pursue: the right of all citizens to larger lives. Not to get richer than the next guy or necessarily to accumulate more and more stuff but the right to live life more fully and engage more expansively the elemental possibilities of human existence. That is the essence of what so many now seem to yearn for in their lives. People--even successful and affluent people--are frustrated because the intangible dimensions of life have been held back or displaced in large and small ways, pushed aside by the economic system's relentless demands to maximize yields of profit and wealth. Our common moral verities have been trashed in the name of greater returns. The softer aspects of mortal experience are diminished because life itself is not tabulated in the economic system's accounting.
The political order mistakenly accepts these life-limiting trade-offs as normal, as necessary to achieve "good times." At earlier periods of our history, the sacrifices demanded by the engine of American capitalism were widely tolerated because the nation was young and underdeveloped. The engine promised to generate higher levels of abundance, and it did. But what is the justification now, when the nation is already quite rich and the engine keeps demanding larger chunks of our lives?
What families, even those who are prosperous, typically lose in the exchange are the small grace notes of everyday life, like the ritual of having a daily dinner with everyone present. The more substantial thing we sacrifice is time to experience the joys and mysteries of nurturing the children, the small pleasures of idle curiosity, of learning to craft things by one's own hand, and the satisfactions of friendships and social cooperation.
These are made to seem trivial alongside wealth accumulation, but many people know they have given up something more important and mourn the loss. Some decide they will make up for it later in life, after they are financially stable. Still others dream of dropping out of the system. If we could somehow add up all the private pain and loss caused by the pursuit of unbounded material prosperity, the result might look like a major political grievance of our time.
More important than all the other losses is that people are also denied another great intangible--the dignity of self-directed lives. At work, at home and in the public sphere, most people lack the right to exercise much of a voice in the decisions governing their daily lives. Most people (not all) are subject to a system of command and control over their destinies. They know the risks of ignoring the orders from above. Not surprisingly, many citizens are resigned to this condition and accept subservience as "the way things are," and their lives are smaller as a result. Many find it hard to imagine that these confinements could be lessened, even substantially removed, if economic organizations were informed by democratic principles.
What's needed in American life is a redefinition of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Given the nation's great wealth, the ancient threats of scarcity and deprivation have been eliminated. Yet people remain yoked to economic demands despite wanting something more from life--freedom to explore the mysteries and bring forth all that is within them. Collectively, Americans need to take a deep breath and reconsider what it means to be rich.