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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The American Dream is dead. Long live the American Dream

by digby

The New York Times reports what we all know:
The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

The numbers, based on surveys conducted over the past 35 years, offer some of the most detailed publicly available comparisons for different income groups in different countries over time. They suggest that most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality.

Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it. Median income in Canada pulled into a tie with median United States income in 2010 and has most likely surpassed it since then. Median incomes in Western European countries still trail those in the United States, but the gap in several — including Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden — is much smaller than it was a decade ago.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: contrary to what the Ayn Rand followers or the Rush Limbaugh acolytes will tell you, the American Dream is not to be richer than Croesus, although that's certainly one of the appeals of the American system. Most Americans are practical sorts and to them it is the dream of middle class security --- a house of your own, a good job, the chance to educate your children well and retire with dignity. Those things are becoming out of reach for more and more of us. Young people are in debt, middle aged people are squeezed by the need to care for their parents and their children, and the elderly are living longer with less. Workers aren't as physically mobile as their parents were, burdened with homes they cannot sell and their freedom curtailed by a job market that forces them to cling to work they hate for fear of not finding anything better. The idea of an average person starting a business feels like a suicidal leap without a net.

Of course there have always been those who were closed off from the American Dream due to systemic bigotry and suffocating poverty but for a time the dream was even opening up to those who had been denied --- racial and ethnic minorities were able to become middle class workers and enjoy many of the economic and social benefits that came with it. But with the shrinking or the public sector and the unions, that toe hold into the middle class is becoming tenuous again.

It's just sad. Yes we're still a rich country with plenty of privilege. It's not as if we're going through a huge cataclysm like a major war or great depression. But sometimes it's psychologically harder to lose something in increments, to just feel it slowly slipping from your grasp and not be able to stop it, than it is to lose it all at once. The panic just sits there, in the pit of your stomach, never full blown but on the cusp of release. It's exhausting.

We've always had problems and some of them were huge, gaping moral holes in the fabric of our so-called democratic society. The American Dream is what always sustained us before, gave us something material, attainable and authentic on which to hang our vision of this culture as the great leveler, a country without obvious class distinctions where anyone could start over, fit in, make it. It's never been entirely true, of course. But I don't know who we are or what we'll be if we don't have it to believe in anymore.