American Dreams May Be Just Mirages In An Economic Desert

Ed Raymond

There’s a great deal of discussion about whether our children and grandchildren will be able to realize the “American Dream,” the idea they will have a better economic, social, artistic, and intellectual life than we did. Won’t that always be true? Jon Meacham in his article about “The American Dream” in Time magazine recalled that in his 1945 inaugural speech just months before he died, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the leader who brought us through the Great Depression when there was 25 percent unemployment, used words from his Groton School rector Endicott Peabody to comfort the American people after four years of the massive debt to fight WW II: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising towards the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.” This sounds as if the “American Dream” will always be with us. We hear that term often in this political year.

Why Not Have
Government Employ
People To Actually
Build Things?

   The term was made popular by historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book “The Epic of America” two years after many Wall Street investment bankers splattered their brains on the sidewalks. Republican president Herbert Hoover was still in charge, vetoing a bill that would provide $100,000 to feed hungry Americans but signing a law that allocated $100,000 to feed starving cattle. Adams wrote that there was still evidence of progress in the economy: “That American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream of hope has been present from the start.”
   The American Dream turned to reality after World War II because we had politicians more interested in country than right-wing ideology. We finally got through the Great Depression by having government employ millions of the unemployed to build infrastructure, (Fargo!) buildings, parks, and schools instead of paying unemployment benefits to workers for months or years to sit on their asses. Republicans and Democrats came up with the GI Bill, paying veterans to go to college—any college, from Slippery Rock to Harvard. Unions were recognized as the great leveling force from the inequality of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. One average income could support a family and buy a house and car. Are those days over?

Globalization And
The Export Of Bagpipes

   There was an interesting detail out of the music world this week that made me pause.  The bagpipe is an instrument steeped in the lore of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but is used by armies around the world in ceremonies because of exposure by British military units at the peak of the British Empire. I was surprised that Pakistan in the 21st century makes about 80 percent of the world’s bagpipes. That is global economics at its most revealing.
   We did recover from the Great Depression, a period of history that resembled the Dark Ages. The profits of a necessary war and FDR’s New Deal not only saved us, they both made an economic W5 tornado out of us. Republican president Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, loaned money for home building through GI loans, and continued to fund the GI Bill. Social Security insured economic security for the poor elderly. New bank regulations controlled risk and greed.
   But now in this Great Recession, greed, ideology, and the worst economic inequality since the Gilded Age have ruptured the sense of community that tied us together between 1940 and 1990. Political parties have created “gated” districts where re-election of their representatives is assured, thus creating polarized parties only interested in power. A simple poll question asked annually is quite revealing about the parties: “Should government take care of people who cannot take care of themselves?” Asked over 25 years, Democrats dropped only four points from 79 to 75 percent. Republicans dropped from 62 percent in 1987 to 40 percent in 2012. But in just the last five years, Republicans have dropped a full 18 percent. There are virtually no moderates left in national Republican politics or in all the corporate-persons created by a right-wing Supreme Court. There goes the neighborhood and the American Dream right along with it.
   Capitalism creates winners and losers—and so be it. But equal opportunity through an equal education is a requirement to dream about creating a dream. Mirages come and go. We have forgotten what James Adams wrote about the foundations of democracy in his “Epic of America”: “There is no reason why wealth, which is a social product, should not be more equitably controlled and distributed in the interests of society.” Every member of society should earn a share. Massachusetts Democratic senate candidate Elizabeth Warren summed it up well at a political rally: “There is no one in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.  You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for... But part of the social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

How Much Is Enough?

   Researchers at Princeton University have determined that there is a connection between money and happiness. What a revelation! Without research we can easily answer the question that people who make a good salary are happier than people living in poverty. Big deal. If you make $55,000 instead of $25,000, are you twice as happy? The Princeton guys say you are only nine percent more satisfied! The benefits of money disappear after $75,000 is reached. As almost everyone who goes to Princeton is rich, the researchers should know what they’re talking about. Is former Goldman Sachs exec Robert Hurst happier because he is trying to sell his $65 million home, which sits on 33 acres in the Hamptons? Is Wall Street investment banker Ron Baron fifty times as happy as the rest of us after buying a 40-acre lot in East Hampton for $103 million?
   David Siegel and his wife evidently felt they would be much happier if they lived in a larger home in Florida, so they decided to build the largest private home in America at over 90,000-sq. ft. in Orlando. At the time they made this decision, they were living in a 26,000-sq. ft. bungalow. The Siegels called their new home Versailles—yes, after that French place. It was designed for thirty bathrooms, a bowling alley, sushi bar, and a prominent place for Mrs. Siegel’s taxidermied lapdog Chanel. Siegel, a time-share developer extraordinaire, spared no bucks. He brought in a white tiger for children’s birthday parties. But Dubya’s Great Recession forced Siegel to fire thousands of employees and attempt to sell the half-finished Versailles.

Minnesota Deer Mansions
   I guess the market for 90,000-sq. ft. homes is a little limited. I would like to see those Princeton researchers do a thorough study of the Siegels. When a documentary was made about Versailles called “The Queen of Versailles,” Siegel was quoted: “You can see how it sort of became supersized. The film is really about values—it’s about asking ourselves when we have enough, and what we really need, and what we want, and when we can be satisfied.” The Princeton guys should bring along a few shrinks to add to the study.
   But we need some shrinks in Minnesota, too. Now we have deer hunters building “Versailles-style” deer stands on both public and private lands. Some are deer-mansions in the skies, complete with stairways, decks, windows, insulation, heaters, carpeting, lounge chairs, and generators. Crops are planted underneath to attract Bambi, and trees are cut down to improve the field of fire. One “stand” was 20 ft. by 18 ft. It begs the question: “When is enough enough?”

Civilization And
Computers Forever
March On

   Many reputable economists, commenting on our current economic woes, were quoted in a NY Times article recently: “The possibility exists that a well-functioning, efficient modern market economy, driven by exponential growth in the rate of technological innovation, can simultaneously produce economic growth and eliminate millions of middle-class jobs. We are getting more and more people at the very top and very bottom and the middle has been shrinking.”
  Technology marches inexorably on. As an example, after publishing encyclopedias for 244 years, Britannica’s 2010 edition is in final print. It has sold only 8,000 copies at $1,395 a set. The 1990 edition sold 120,000 sets. After final print publication you can buy an online version for $69.95 a year. Up until about five years ago, I used to reach for a Britannica encyclopedia from a set I bought at a used book market for $25. It’s a great compilation of the world’s knowledge summarized in four million articles. I now Google everything I need to know. The Internet is loaded with garbage supplied by tricksters, ranters, and sub-humans, so one must be very careful and back-check everything. But it is inclusive and quick. Encyclopedias have been around since the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia,” written in 77 A.D. A two-thousand year lifespan ain’t bad.

This Roman Idea
May Last For Many
More Centuries

   Rome conquered Britain in 43 A.D. and built stone roads throughout so that soldiers and goods could be moved swiftly. The roads were designed to carry the imperial Roman army chariots, which had a wheel spacing of exactly 4 ft. 8.5 inches. The Brits had to follow those specs or their wheels would be torn up by the ruts left by Roman chariots. That’s why the United States Standard Railroad Gauge (distance between rails) is 4 ft. 8.5 inches! Here’s why.
    The Brits built tramways after Roman roads. Why change the specs for wagons, wheels, and roadways? Then came the railroads, invented by Brits. Why change the distance between rails? Then U.S. developers hired the Brits to engineer and build U.S. railroads. Guess the distance between rails. And so it came to pass that roads, tramways, streetcar lines, and railroads were all built on the width of the asses of a team of Roman war horses pulling a chariot. Now there is lasting technology for you. When will other technology replace that 4 ft. 8.5 inch distance? Everything on monorail perhaps? High-speed trains around the world still use 4 ft. 8.5 inch rails.

Paper Burns At
451 Degrees Fahrenheit

  The science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury gave advice to young writers that could well apply to all young people trying to create their American Dream: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Bradbury published his most famous work “Fahrenheit 451” in 1953. It’s about Guy Montag, a fireman who burned books for a living, and government censorship, which is used to control the populace. Bradbury’s goal was to draw attention to the crap on TV and other forms of entertainment media which made all people less interested in the world of ideas. He railed against “shallow and frivolous alternatives” and anti-intellectual entertainment such as soap operas and juvenile situation comedies. With fewer young people going to college because of cost and debts, with tuition skyrocketing because of government neglect or malfeasance, I’m afraid they won’t have the know-how to build their wings on the way down.