1. What is the link between the American Dream and Equal Opportunity?

2. Is the American Dream kind?

3. What is the role of fairness in the American and the Nordic form of "the dream?"

The American Dream has always been more aspirational than reality, but increasingly Americans are feeling that the dream has lost any semblance of reality. There will always be thousands of people for whom the dream is reality, but for the last 3 decades typical Americans experienced constant spending power or worse. The psychological impact of this social immobility has been exaccerbated by the vastly disproportionate share of new income and wealth pouring into the hands of the upper 1%. An interactive chart in the New York Times 3 days ago visually captures the probable death of the American Dream for large components of Americans.

I want to note that the Dream has always had a major materialistic dimension.  In other words, the Dream has focused on consumption possibilities and not increasing levels of justice, fraternity, kindness, or sharing. The ethical nature of the Dream has instead focused on liberty, competition, and prudence. The Dream was heralded as vibrant when households had abundant spending power, and they had justifiable hope that subsequent generations would flourish to a greater extent than their predecessors. This consumption ethic melded comfortably with an interpretation of freedom that was largely about restricting governments from interfering with private choices and ignored the role of government and community generosity in creating opportunities for the vulnerable/marginalized members of American society.

The American Dream has often used the language of equal opportunity to buttress its spirit of fairness. The value of equal opportunity is, from the data I have seen, one of the 3 central values that appeal to a large majority of voters across party affiliation. Conceptually, the idea of EQUAL opportunity plays a logical role in legitimizing whatever flood or trickle if money that flows into the family coffers. If the opportunity is equaly dispersed, well it certainly seems as if by the standards of one kind of fairness that property laws and tax systems should not interfere with the shares of income that households acquire in private, market activities. 

But surely, no one believes that opportunity can ever be equal. More equal--certainly. But equal?  Seriously? There is merit in speaking about how to make the ineviatble inequalities of opportunity less severe, but using "equal opportunity" as a rhetorical device to legitimize any and all degrees of inequality is the worst form of mean-spirited rationalization.  The lottery of birth guarantees that inequalities will to some degree govern human interactions.

If what I have said above at least borders on truth, allusions to the glory of the American Dream serve to provide legitimizing cover for the economically successful.  All it takes is a few thousand seemingly rags-to-riches stories to provide "data" demonstrating how wonderful the imagery surrounding the Amrican Dream is. Nothing I am saying here should be interpreted as anything other than appreciation for hard work, creativity, and efficiency, but when the story making use of these virtues is so tainted, the virtues are serving as frosting layered over a rotting cake.

While there is legitimate debate about the best way to measure social mobility and the rankings of social immobility among countries, I think it is safe to say that the best approximations of the ideas implicit in the American Dream  might well be in Northern Europe and Canada.

Ana Partanen's The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life suggests that the American Dream is best exemplified by social policies and the resulting opportunities flourishing in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. She argues that the utter unfairness of the lottery of birth is broadly acknowledged in Nordic countries. And once a culture acknowledges the sharp limiting barrier that this lottery creates for personal responsibility and autonomy, then it is quite logical to provide generous, equalizing public subsidies for universal education, health, transportation, and employment opportunity.  In other words, her claim is that Nordic policies are in intent quite contrary to their image in popular culture in the West that sees these policies as soft-headed enablement of personal responsibility. In short, any use of the idea of the American Dream to support  sharply unequal income and wealth distributions makes little sense until taxpayers are willing to support massive efforts to disrupt the results of the birth lottery.

1. If we acknowledged the impact of the lottery of birth, would we not necessarily support such a major transformation in Americn culture  that America would be unrecognizable?

2. As the recent uproar about diversity at Google and in high tech firms in general causes me to wonder:
 Are Americans cognitively able to accept that some humans are so privileged by the lottery of birth and all that follows from the results of that lottery that they can indeed on average outperform other Americans who were not assisted by social interventions that would have enabled a fair competition among individuals at work and play?

3. Is there any evidence that Americans have a reservoir of compassion in the context of an increasingly diverse population, such that it is realistic to think that they could ever embrace the idea that the state must expand equalizing efforts to provide human necessities so that the higher ideals in the American Dream could be realized in our country?




                                                                    Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

AuthorM Neil Browne