Goodbye, American Dream?

Is the U.S. economy built to help the working class or Wall Street? A new book by a veteran in Illinois politics and government tackles the question head-on. Aaron Jaffe joins us to discuss Goodbye, American Dream? on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from the book below.

Chapter 1
An American Worldview

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I was born in 1930 to immigrant Jewish parents on the West Side of Chicago. My father, Karl, had come to the United States as a young man from Poland after World War I; my mother, Dora, from her native Lithuania. I grew up with my two older brothers, Nate and Marc, in the Lawndale neighborhood near the crossroads of Roosevelt and Pulaski.

It was the depths of the Great Depression. The year after I was born, the idea of “the American dream” was reborn – popularized in 1931 by historian James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America:

   [T]he American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.
… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

At home and on the streets of Lawndale, my parents and their fellow immigrants didn’t talk about the American dream using those words. But they had the same idea when they would say: We came to America for a better life. 

Their circumstances in Europe had been difficult, and even though they were facing hard economic times in their new land, they felt that here, they were free. So many things were possible; people could move up. My father would tell me: “I’m laying the foundation for you, so you can build the first floor and rise in society. Your children will build the second floor, and so on.”

Although times were hard, I grew up with this sense of possibility, and it has been central to my “happy warrior” optimism – the feeling I have had throughout my life that everything will turn out all right. But this sense has been shaken by the circumstances that we are facing today as a result of what has been dubbed the Great Recession.

People are losing their houses, they’re out of work, they have no health insurance. So many of the problems that we overcame in the decades following the Great Depression have resurfaced, albeit in lesser magnitude, since the Great Recession began in late 2007.

It seems that we have been thrown back to the past. Until recently the trials people faced during the 1930s had vanished in the decades that followed. Americans went back to work and rocketed to the moon, and our country achieved a degree of prosperity, along with technological advancements and military might, that would have been unimaginable when I was growing up.

But today we have lost ground.

A great political divide in this country has developed between those who support regulation and those who don’t, and the arguments often fall along party lines. Democrats have tended to want more regulation; Republicans, less. And from this has emerged perhaps the greatest American political contest of all time: an ongoing fight over what should be regulated, and to what degree.

We have gone beyond the tipping point to where enough of our leaders in the White House and Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – have agreed over time to let moneyed interests in this country charge whatever interest rates they want; to remove safeguards so financial institutions no longer had to be accountable for how secure their investments were; and to virtually erase the distinction between investment banks and savings banks.

The government is no longer the referee of moneyed interests but rather has become their partner. That’s one of the main reasons we’re facing the troubles we’re facing today. Over the past 30 years, the gap in American income levels has widened precipitously, bringing us back to conditions akin to those that prevailed on the eve of the Great Depression. 

 In 1928, the year before the Depression began, the top 1 percent of Americans held 24 percent of U.S. income share. However, in the decades following the New Deal, from the early 1950s through the 1980s, the top 1 percentile’s income share dropped to between 8 percent and 11 percent – evidence that a growing number of Americans were gaining a greater share of opportunity.  But by the time the Great Recession hit at the end of 2007, the top percentile’s income share had rocketed back up to about 23.5 percent.

To make matters worse, political dialogue in this country has ground to a screeching halt and has been replaced by shout fests in which the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are thrown around like sharp-pointed spears. But “liberal” is just a label, and “conservative” is just a label, and we need to get away from labels. Labeling confuses the issues by reducing them to the irreducible.

There is no such thing as a pure “ism”; nothing is absolute. We have to face our problems and ask: What are the best solutions for most of the people?

There are two things to be considered when decisions are made in public life: policy and politics. In our society today, most of these decisions are political due to the degree of influence that moneyed interests have gained over our system of government.

Like many Americans, I am very concerned about the future of our great country. I find the current state of affairs to be something of a disturbing bookend: My life began during the Depression, and now my grandchildren are growing up in a climate that is in some ways similar.

To be sure, they are not now as directly affected by these troubles as I was growing up. But the simple truth of the matter is that it’s going to be tougher for my grandchildren to do what they want to do in life than it was for me. The American dream will not likely be as accessible to them as it was to me.

This is a troubling inversion of my father’s metaphor of each succeeding generation rising to build a higher floor of the house. Unless we re-establish the paths to opportunity, the coming generations will have a harder and harder time just keeping their footing on the same floor.

I still believe that despite the metamorphosis of our political system in recent decades, American government should be by and for the people. As such, government should not be an alien and intrusive mechanism that stands in the way of people realizing their dreams.

Government certainly cannot and should not provide for all of our needs, and we cannot and should not rely on government to replace the values that ensure individual success: honesty, hard work, responsibility, consistency and the ability to dream beyond what exists today to what we can make possible tomorrow.

When it functions effectively and on a reasonable scale, however, government can and should be the partner of the people in achieving their defense, their security and their fair shot at opportunity. It is only when moneyed interests intervene to the alarming extent that they have over the last 30 years that government is no longer this partner. Unless we take corrective action, we may go the way of other great civilizations and face our own decline.

We have to be honest with ourselves, and in this country we are not honest with one another. It is becoming more and more difficult to find truthfulness emanating from the government, from the mainstream media – from many of the very institutions that we once relied on and respected. This lack of respect and truthfulness is absolutely disastrous.

To get back on track, we need to have a national conversation. Here are some starting points for discussion:

Why are our politics no longer of the people?

Why do our leaders substitute political expediency for public policy so often by taking the easy way out?

Why is our political culture suffering from such a profound listening deficit?           

And if we don’t take action, are we going to lose our American dream?

Reprinted from GOODBYE, AMERICAN DREAM? How We Got Here and What To Do About It by arrangement with Happy Warrior Press, Copyright © 2012 by Aaron Jaffe and Marda Dunsky.

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