Re-Defining the American Dream

This Thursday, President Bush unveiled new plans to help stem the current financial crisis. His objective is to give sufficient help to delinquent borrowers without providing a complete “bail out,” while also assuring that home ownership would remain “at the center of the American Dream.”

The problem is that home ownership represents an extreme commodity fetish that is rapidly driving the economy into the tank. The current crisis is far more serious than the busting of the tech sector seven years ago because it goes to the core of what makes capitalism work: confidence in the market. Investment banks and lenders have lost confidence in the American debt system because Adjustable Rate Mortgages were dished out with reckless abandon to thousands of unqualified applicants over a five-year span that coincided with the so-called “housing boom.”

Many economists will come to the defense of the American juggernaut, and note that recently released growth indicators have the economy chugging along at a greater than 4% clip in the second trimester of 2007. The expected 3.4% rating was exceeded largely thanks to efforts to shorten up trade in-balance in the commercial sector, with exports going up 7.6% and imports going down 3.2%. This has opened up enough capital for enterprises to increase investment by 11.1%.

Of course, growth is not so awesome a measure of human well-being. In fact, it is largely decided by demand and consumption of goods and services, so that, if anything, high growth confirms that a society is materialistic more so than “well off.” It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: countries with an assured degree of wealth and material desire will continue to grow because they continue to desire to show off their wealth. This has an entire society focused on the upward slope: the stocks go up, the GNP goes up, and we all go up!!!

In fact, Americans are not well off, and haven’t been well off since the destruction of all forms of social democracy in the country. The poverty rate remains above 12%, dwarfing those of all of the major Western European powers. Meanwhile, 47 million Americans, about 18%, are without health insurance. And, as Michael Moore elegantly demonstrated, the other 82% are grossly under-insured.

Furthermore, as I have seen during my summer holiday to visit family and friends, the country is not culturally healthy. After one has spent enough time in Europe, it becomes difficult to return home. One is transported into a culture of capitalistic simplicities, where people have entire telephone conversations about their new car and flat-screen televisions. They carry on about their rich and satisfied life, as if they were all little princes and princesses spattered throughout the empire, believing themselves to be gorgeous in spite of their sub-par attire and bloated belly.

Even Johnny Depp went running, raising his family in southern France alongside Belle pop star Vanessa Paradis. His slam, not quite stated so elegantly, went as thus: “America is dumb, is something like a dumb puppy that has big teeth — that can bite and hurt you, aggressive … like it’s a kind a toy — a broken toy maybe. Investigate a little bit, check it out, get this feeling and then get out.” This cuts to the important theme of the aggressive nature of Americans: a constructive criticism offered by many of the most respectful European intellectuals who have spent time in the states. It’s as if the critics of the aggressive and cocky America, once plentiful in earlier epochs, have been locked up and penned somewhere. Perhaps they are just afraid to critique out of fear of sounding anti-American in a time of “national emergency.” Or maybe they find it taboo to lash out at the great American Dream.

I, for one, find it revealing that the president has spoken of protecting the “American Dream of home ownership.” This is a moment of truth for the empire, as even the emperor has admitted that the American dream has nothing to do with liberty and justice. And, of course, it would be tough for him to toot the horn of these greater ideals during a summer in which they were jubilantly signed away by congress, who has invited the Gestapo into our private phone conversations and emails. And sure my language can be shunned as irrationally strong, but I have spent years away only to recently return to experience first hand the horrible state of affairs in the Land of the Free.

People are paranoid: a paranoia fed by irrational illusions of grandeur, wherein every last citizen finds him and herself so important that they most certainly will be the next attacked. This is despite the fact that plenty of innocent Americans are attacked everyday: 4,000 troops have come back in body-bags, over 2 million Americans are sitting behind bars as I type, and nearly 300 million together are made to actively participate in the destruction of the planet through an irrational dependence on the automobile. Of all the reasons to be paranoid in this country, from overly aggressive cops, to lack of social protections, to a congress ready to unleash the hounds on its own citizens, people are fearful of Arabs blowing up buildings. They got two of our buildings, and we got them back with two of their countries.

Many more buildings in the U.S. will rest vacant or see the wrecking ball as the foreclosures continue to mount. Eventually, banks will tighten mortgage-lending practices, perhaps requiring that applicants have no outstanding student debt: a requirement that would preclude, what, 99.9% of Americans? As the defaults continue to pour in and the wrangling over asset value terrorizes international markets, the next great victim will be the almighty dollar. Already at record lows, the American currency will lose another half of its value in the next year, thus deepening the stock market crisis and trashing the value of American goods and services. Then, one great thing will change. Americans will see what the rest of the world has already perceived for years: they are living in a “third world country.” The terminology is not so nice, but it was American economic and political leaders who invented the phraseology, so I find it quite appropriate in this case. In my mind, “first world countries” are those that have developed the economic and social sophistication to provide all of their citizens with health care and a free system of high quality education. If you haven’t developed these two great social institutions, you have no right to make claims to first world grandeur. Americans have made this claim because of their cute Hollywood pizzazz that has left the impression that great wealth lingers here. Surely, there is wealth to be found, but the “American dream” has consistently prevented it from enriching the entire populace.

So when George W Bush calls for the protection of the American dream in his vain effort to save the American economy, the left should reply by re-defining the American dream. I think there is a left here somewhere hidden behind a rock. I used to know some people, usually on the payroll of an organization getting the bulk of its funding from folks like the Macarthur foundation. Perhaps they have been so chained by the orthodoxy of the not-for-profit left that they forgot about how to think for themselves and take a stand for the America they love. Take a Stand for Mark Twain’s America, Eugene Debs’ America, Albert Parsons’ America, Mario Savos’ America, Kurt Vonnegut’s America, Upton Sinclair’s America, and Martin Luther King Jr’s America! Let’s start talking about the Other American Dream: the dream of providing life, liberty and happiness for all, even if a big suburban abode can’t be part of the equation.

Matt Reichel is a writer currently living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. SCH said on September 3rd, 2007 at 11:51am #

    The very term, “Dream of Homeownership,” and all variations makes me ill. I have seen crooked individuals and companies in the housing industry ruin families financially, with shoddy construction, worthless warranties, and mortgage fraud. Many builders are part of the problem, especially since opening their own mortgage lenders.

    When the loans are quickly sold and resold as “investments,” there is no incentive to make sure the loans are good ones. High risk buyers, real estate professionals who defrauded buyers, and speculators who thought of houses as investmetns to flip for a profit, contributed to the mess. So did appraisers who artificially inflated values.

    The problem was known and predicted YEARS ago. But the industry was too interested in the quick money to be made. The govt looked the other way so its industry pals could keep the sham going. Law enforcement didn’t care when consumers were being ripped off, but it got REAL interested when banks started whining.

    Though I personally did not engage in any real estate purchases during the boom, I suspect that I, like everyone else, will end up paying through taxes, to bail out people and companies alike who were foolish, or corrupt. I DO feel sympathy for buyers who were ripped off. I don’t feel sympathy for buyers who were complicit in fraud or who threw away common sense.

    But most of all, I do not feel sorry for any in the industry, as they knew EXACTLY what they were doing, and have no excuse not to know what chaos it could cause in the economy. NONE in the industry deserves ANY bailout whatsoever. I hope some of the industry people who created and promoted these toxic risky loans will end up in jail, or at least broke!

  2. Ramsefall said on July 11th, 2008 at 11:43am #

    Matt,

    your appropriate blend of cynicism, historical fact and current events is a pleasure to read. I especially concur with your sentiments regarding each year’s return to the United States of Amnesia. I’ve gotten to the point where my friends and family will have to come visit me as the circus sideshows hustling to refill at Starbucks in their window-tinted Lexuses and Mazdas have become too much for this ex-pat to bear.

    Keep the good stuff coming the reader’s way, harsh reality is entitled to a blind date with cynical analysis.

    Cheers!