American Dreams

notes on Speth, James Gustave. “The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth.” Yes! Magazine. 29 June 2011.

What is the American Dream and what is its future? There are three dualities that Speth examines in this article.

1. The Pursuit of Happiness: Public Good or Personal Pleasure?

The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was launched in different, and potentially conflicting, directions from the start, with private pleasure and public welfare coexisting in the same phrase. For Jefferson, so quintessentially in this respect a man of the Enlightenment, this coexistence was not a problem.

– Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History

The rise of American capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries brought with it a “jettisoning of the civic virtue concept of happiness in favor of the self-gratification side.

If economic growth was now a secular religion, the pursuit of happiness remained its central creed, with greater opportunities than ever before to pursue pleasure in comfort and things.

So in America the pursuit of happiness is closely allied with capitalism and consumerism, but is this actually bringing us happiness? Scientific studies have said probably not.

Positive psychology: the study of happiness and subjective well-being (a person’s own opinion of his or  her well being.

Citizens of wealthier countries do report higher levels of life satisfaction (although the level of correlation is poor). BUT the positive relationship between prosperity and happiness disappears when looking at countries whose GDP per capita is more than $10,000/year — “in short, once a country achieves a moderate level of income, further growth does not significantly improve perceived well-being.” Post WWII, in America, even though the economy grew and grew and grew, life satisfaction levels plateaued or even declined, and depression and anxiety rates increased.

The quality of people’s social relationships is crucial to their well-being. People need supportive, positive relationship and social belonging to sustain well-being. Materalism is toxic for happiness.

– Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, “Beyond Money: Toward An Economy of Well-Being

2. The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth

Norton Garfinkle, author of The American Dream vs The Gospel of Wealth, writes that “more than any other president, Lincoln is the father of the American Dream that all Americans should have the opportunity through hard work to build a comfortable middle-class life.”

To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.

Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained…our great prosperity. There is something, back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart…This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.

-Abraham Lincoln, Address Before Wisconsin State Agricultural Society

Speth also likes James Truslow Adams’ (author of The Epic of America, 1931) definition of the American Dream (Adams coined the phrase)

It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain 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.

And to oppose these views, we have Andrew Carnegie, from his 1889 The Gospel of Wealth

The price which society pays for the law of competition, unlike the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost — for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. But whether the law be benign or not,…it is here, we cannot evade it, no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.

We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these as being, not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.

Having accepted these, it follows that there must be great scope for the exercise of special ability in the merchant and in the manufacturer who wants to conduct affairs on a great scale. That this talent for organization and management is rare among men is proved by the fact that it invariably secures enormous rewards for its possessor.

3. The Consumers’ Republic or the City on the Hill?

Third duality is “between an American lifestyle that revolves around consumption and one that embraces plain and simple living.”

Americans after WWII saw their nation as the model for the world of a society committed to mass consumption and what were assumed to be its far-reaching benefits.

The Consumers’ Republic’s dependence on unregulated private markets wove inequalities deep into the fabric of prosperity, thereby allowing, intentionally or not, the search for profits and the exigencies of the market to prevail over higher goals.

-Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic

The other side of this coin is spelled out by David Shi in his The Simple Life:

A perpetual tension…between the ideal of enlightened self-restraint and the allure of unfettered prosperity. From colonial days, the mythic image of America as a spiritual commonwealth and a republic of virtue has survived alongside the more tantalizing view of the nation as an engine of economic opportunities, a festival of unfettered individualism, and a cornucopia of consumer delights.

The concept [of the simple life] arrived with the first settlers, and it has remained an enduring –and elusive — ideal. Its primary attributes include a hostility toward luxury and a suspicion of riches, a reverence for nature and a preference for rural over urban ways of life and work, a desire for personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence, a nostalgia for the past, a commitment to conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, a privileging of contemplation and creativity, an aesthetic preference for the plain and functional, and a sense of both religious and ecological responsibility for the just uses of the world’s resources.

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