Beyond the American Dream: A Good Life is Good Enough

good lifeThe economists Robert J. Gordon and William D. Nordhaus believe the American Dream is dead.

Marianne Cooper reports, “Belief in the American dream is wavering.“ Americans used to believe they would “get ahead.” Now they are “more concerned with just holding on to what they have.”

If Gordon, Nordhaus, and Cooper are right, that may be a good thing.

Nordhaus is former president of the American Economic Association, a pioneer in climate change research, and an economist at Yale University. Gordon is an economist at Northwestern University and author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press), which Nordhaus considers to be a “magnificent book” and a “landmark study.”

In his review of Gordon’s book, Nordhaus reports that Gordon analyzes how for three million years, the quality of life for each generation was only slightly better than the previous one.

Those three million years, it seems to me, nurtured in human beings a set of values, a deep-seated “human nature.” Greed and the lust for power over other humans were rare. Cooperation and compassion were common. Idiosyncrasies were accepted. “Deviants” were not excluded.

Then from 1870 to 1970, the “special century,” economic productivity was dramatically boosted by a series of “once only” technological inventions, such as electricity, telephones, and automobiles.

Those changes, it seems to me, fostered a new culture, the American Dream, that was antithetical to human nature. The drive to “get ahead” — to be more successful financially than other people — fueled the new social system, which has been rooted in rankism. “What’s in it for me” became the dominant theme.

Gordon “argues that the innovations of today are much narrower and contribute much less to improvements in living standards than did the innovations of [that] special century” and any similar discoveries are highly unlikely in the future.

In “The Downsizing of the American Dream,” Cooper reports that between 1986 and 2011, the percentage of Americans polled by Pew who said the American Dream was “very alive” decreased by about half, and the share that felt it was “not really alive” more than doubled. Only about 50 percent said they felt that the American dream was “somewhat alive.”

Majorities of Americans think their situation will get worse in the future. 82% feel strongly that “financial stability” is more important than “moving up the income ladder.” Fewer Americans believe they have achieved the American Dream (31%), fewer believe they ever will (37%), and more believe they never will (27%).

The loss of faith in the American Dream could provide the opportunity for a new vision: the good life is good enough.

We can steadily do a bit better, but we don’t have to run like mad in the rat race to keep ahead of the Jones.

By assuring that all Americans can find a meaningful, living-wage job, we could help transform this nation into a compassionate community dedicated to the common good of the Earth Community.

Rather than living in a dream, obsessing about the future, and being materialistic and selfish, Americans could recover their true, deep nature and more fully become real, present, spiritual, and compassionate.

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