Happy Saturday, dear friends. I am a first-generation American. My father is Greek, but he was born in China, and spent much of his young life living in war and revolution. His journey to reach America was a long and twisting road through North Vietnam, South Vietnam and France. He came to the US on a banana boat, with a medical degree and no money. He was told he had to start all over again and he did.
While my mother’s journey from England to America was certainly shorter, it was no less imbued with hopes for a better life. When my parents met in Brooklyn, NY in the early 1960’s they were prime candidates for the “American Dream.”
As a child, I remember hearing stories of my parents’ journeys and struggles. I also remember the mantra that they lived by. If a person works hard at anything they choose to do, they will succeed. My parents were not the only ones telling this story, or making the promise of a house in the suburbs and vacations to the beach. All my friends believed in the path of school, college, job, marriage, home and children.
For a few generations, after World War II, this American Dream flourished and became the foundation of society within this country. The dream was also the driving force behind many who moved here to pursue a better life. It was as if everyone had seen the same spectacular movie, which portrayed this utopian place, and everyone wanted to go there.
The dream stopped working a long time ago. Once, decision makers were happy with a population who could support their families and have some of the “finer things in life.” The middle class flourished during that period, and folks were pretty happy to just live their lives. Somewhere along the way, things like jobs, affordable education and housing started to disappear.
It took quite a long time for people to realize that the center of this country was being eaten away. I think it took so long, because of the strongly ingrained belief in the American Dream. A number of other factors were at play as well, which stand in parallel to the dream, but directly conflict with it.
There is a subtle undertone in the beliefs of Americans, which I am not sure exists in other countries. While there have been devastating race and ethnicity issues, strict societal caste systems never existed here. While someone in another country, who operates within these strict class rules would never consider the idea of jumping into the realm of the wealthy, Americans have always believed they could.
There were plenty of examples of exactly this occurring in our society, and education ingrained this into school children in History class. Andrew Carnegie had shoveled coal as a child, and became one of the richest men and leading philanthropists in America. The Kennedy family rose through the ranks on bootlegging, and entered American politics and the wealthy elite, within two generations. Bill Gates dropped out of college to start a computer company in his garage, and he is now one of the richest men in the world. The list of “Cinderella Stories” goes on and on, and the myth is simple, “why not me?”
Even the belief that anyone in America could become rich is fraught with contradictions. A convoluted version of the hero in Greek tragedy exists within this society. A peer who does well in the world is envied and viewed as prideful. Those who observe their rise, desire what they have, but also wish for their destruction. There is a certain glee when those in places of prominence, wealth and celebrity fall from grace. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the observer from wanting what created his peer’s downfall.
If Darwin were alive today, he would shake his head knowingly when presented with the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Darwin’s Evolution of Species detailed the benefits of being the fittest individual within a species. With Social Darwinism, one only needs to appear to be the fittest, in order to reap the social benefits. As social peers rise economically, a level of material competition begins. If Mr. Jones gets a Cadillac, then Mrs. Smith wants her husband to have one too. Putting on appearances was easily done in the late Twentieth Century, as credit was exceedingly simple to obtain. The outward appearance of wealth was championed, as early as the 1980’s when the “Yuppy Culture” came into focus.
Since the American economy had cycled up and down ever since the 1950’s, but individuals had continued to advance in their professions and economic status, citizens had no reason to doubt that the flow of jobs and money would always be there to support their obsession with their outward appearances.
Of course, history shows that they were wrong, and wrong to such a horrible degree, that many lost their jobs, homes, retirement accounts and families in the process. As this process of decline started slowly at the turn of the Millennium, citizens began to put their heads in the sand and think it could not happen to them. They were also wrong, as corporations began to outsource high paying service and technology jobs overseas. They had felt lucky that it was not their jobs, when this process occurred for their working class brethren a decade or so earlier. Now, the other shoe dropped for much of the middle class and kicked them where they lived.
I share all this, not in an effort to show the ignorance of generations of Americans and their outright denial of facts. I share it in an effort for people here, and in other countries to see just how deeply the American Dream is imbedded in every fiber of a citizen who grows up here. It is heartbreaking to me, as a parent, to hear other parents continue to share these beliefs with their children, as if, like the Holy Grail, they still exist somewhere and simply need to be uncovered by their shining star progeny. I feel for this generation of children, who walk forth with no easy dream in hand, but I am also excited for them. Like the phoenix, from the ashes they can create their own individual dreams.
The truth is pretty obvious. The Average Joe, will never be rich. Winning the lottery aside, the pervasive fantasy of waking up rolling in money is never going to happen. The slope is simply too steep. Money is also relative and the US government views income exclusively, and not the cost of living or geographical area, when determining if an individual is considered affluent.
If you want to try and experiment, visit the Wealth Calculator at Giving What We Can and see if you are considered affluent. As an example, I typed in $100,000 US for a family of four. That puts Mr. and Mrs. Example in the top 3.2% of incomes world wide. Think about that for a minute. Feels pretty good?
Now take out taxes, housing, credit card debt, property taxes, health care costs, life insurance, energy costs, food and other expenses in Des Moines, Iowa, and they would still have some income to sock away into their retirement and their children’s future education.
Take the same example, and plant them in San Francisco, CA or New York, where the high paying jobs used to be that would give a family a $100,000 income, and that family is most likely struggling to stay out of foreclosure or bankruptcy.
Now lets look at the top 1% wealthiest individuals in the world. The average income in this group is $2,700,000 a year. That’s average and not a median number, so some make much more and some less. But those are only the little fish in the tiny pond. When you add all the wealth for the top 0.1%, which adds up to about 80 individuals and their families, they own more than 50% of all the wealth in the world. The inequality is staggering.
At the end of the Twentieth Century, the idea of wealth and entitlement was held in front of Americans as a secret beacon of hope. That beacon simply got farther and farther away, the further an individual walked towards it. Now many are seeing it for what it is, a false light, a phantom, a mirage that will never be reached. While this may make some people sad, it is also empowering to shed unrealistic and unobtainable dreams.
The other day, I spoke to my mother on the phone about something related to income taxes. My mother is in her late 70’s now, and one would call her a Conservative Republican. In the course of our conversation she mentioned something about that “damned selfish 1% who are making the whole world miserable!”
I had to stifle a laugh of disbelief. This! From my mother who had sold me the American Dream as a child! Then, I realized that the pervasive energy of change and light is influencing everyone. Their eyes are being opened. They are beginning, as individuals, and collectively as a society, to see how things really are at the moment, and not how they wish they would be.
This dynamic is occurring world wide, and many other nations are of course, far ahead of the US, in understanding the inequality that is prevalent at this time. While the extremely wealthy used to travel under the radar, their actions are now under a microscope. The opinion pieces coming out this week, before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, rant about a world on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The Forum is attended by top leaders in wealth and government, to shape the future economic development strategy for the world. These pieces are not just coming out of the alternative news outlets, but in mainstream media, such as USA Today. This climate of discontent has even empowered the international charity Oxfam to speak out against those who harvest wealth and seek every possible way not to pay their far share of taxes.
Those with extreme wealth will not apologize for their position. They will also not admit that the hoarding of money, and an excessive desire for profit has stripped the average world citizen of stability, and cut loose a significant portion to dwell in poverty. Just take a look at this forum debate on inequality, hosted by the BBC in Davos. Read the comments and between the lines.
While the ultra wealthy who gather, with top corporate, celebrity and world leaders at this forum, want to continue to pat themselves on the back for their accomplishments as they have for generations, they no longer can. The world is really watching this time. The world is really sick of this, and they aren’t going to take it anymore! It would be beneficial to all beings if world governments realized this, collected their courage, and jumped on the progress train to an equitable world as soon as possible.
That’s the news for today. Have a remarkable day. I hope to see you back here tomorrow for some Feel Good News.
Be Well. Be Joy. Be Love!