I am often asked whether or not I believe the American Dream is dead or alive. The answer is a little more complex than you might expect, but I believe it is alive and well as long as you understand the original tenets of the dream. We all have our own personal view of what the American Dream means, but today it has quite a different connotation from when the term was first coined. It has been altered to align with the culture of the time and has been manipulated by politicians for decades with a promise of prosperity. Most recently, the American Dream has been connected to the pursuit of material prosperity, becoming wealthy or striking it rich. The concept of it began prior to the Revolutionary War, but the term was not coined until a book was written in 1931 by James Truslow Adams titled, The Epic of America...
We must first examine the origins of this ideology; it can be traced as far back as Puritans who fled religious persecution in England. “[Their] migration was not like so many earlier ones in history, led by warrior lords with followers dependent on them, but was one in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and happiness for himself and his children,” Adams said.
During ancient Greek and Roman times, man discovered that he prospers best when given the opportunity to choose his own destiny. Many of our European founding fathers who were well versed in classical studies of the time, and having bore the heavy yoke of the monarchy of King George, designed a representative democracy as its government. They recognized that opportunity can be maximized through the freedom of choice. The American experiment in democracy allowed each citizen the chance to seize opportunity based on one's own abilities and industry. 240 years since the Declaration of Independence, America is still the ideal to emulate for much of the world, and it is why so many still seek to come here.
Prior to our forefathers immigrating to the United States, ownership of land was subject to the king's favor and serfdom and was prevalent in Eastern Europe. The American Dream has come to be known as many things, not the least of which is the right to own land and a home.
But the ideal of the dream has changed. The elements of liberty, freedom and self-determination were integral parts of this country’s founding. The Declaration of Independence further expounded this ideology and proclaims that “all men are created equal . . . with certain unalienable Rights” and holds significant meaning in that all people have an equal opportunity to achieve, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is what differentiates us from other countries and the result is American exceptionalism.
The roots of home ownership are based in the right of people to own their own land and property, with all the benefits and responsibilities that it entails. The federal government encouraged that sentiment through the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered free federal land to those who would till it and build homes on it. Even before the 1920’s the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Own Your Own Home” program was promoted by passing out “we own our own home” buttons to school children, sponsoring lectures on the topic at universities and distributed posters and banners extolling the virtues of homeownership. Before this point there was no link between the government’s push for homeownership and the American Dream—it was simply understood that this was something free people could pursue.
Adams spoke of the American Dream as “…a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” But it is clear that Adams was not referring to the excessive consumerism we see today, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” This is indicative of the mindset of the time; it is still an attainable outcome for those with ability and the desire to work hard.
Today, there is a disconnect between the meanings and the words, between what we say and what we do—this very disconnect from reality goes beyond the intangible and philosophical. It is destroying more than spirit. It is literally destroying the wealth and capital it took centuries of liberty and free trade to build. I had a front row seat to this phenomenon as a speculation home builder and real estate broker leading up to the Great Recession. In addition, my co-author and I have spent years researching these themes for our upcoming book Easy Money and the American Real Estate Ponzi Scheme, to be published in December of 2016.
After World War II, subdivisions were being constructed across the nation, but the homes built were rather utilitarian compared to today’s standards. Many of the new homes built back then included only two bedrooms, one bathroom and were situated on relatively small lots. Most of these homes were modest and did not have basements or garages. Over the years and through government encouragement, home ownership has been distorted from being a symbol of reward and achievement to one of being treated more like a right. Government housing programs have become enablers to marginal aspirants of this dream. The Real Estate Industrial Complex, which consists of The National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Home Builders, and the American Bankers Association – to name a few, ever hungry for profits have become the facilitators.
Some believe the best way to arrive at this destination and the ability to achieve almost anything is through hard work with some willing to work more hours to obtain nicer cars and bigger homes yet have less time to enjoy them. For others it is more about the freedom of spirituality and living a simple and contented life or that a college degree is a path to the American Dream. But, there are an increasing number of people that believe hard work and determination may not be enough, after all there is no guarantee.
Have we become a nation of spoiled children? Have we shorn our values, morals and cohesiveness as a culture for the quick fix, immediate gratification and short-term thinking? At times, we pander to the lowest common denominator and call it compassion. It's no wonder the world looks at our culture as one of excess and privilege. In relation to much of the world, we are privileged. We are diverse and have vast human and material resources at our disposal, and yet we consider the smallest obstacles, requirements or standards to be “oppressive.” Maybe we need to re-examine our culture of extremism and denial. Our founding fathers did not envision the kind of culture that blames one's shortcomings on the controlling influence of others or of perceived persecution.
Some have argued that upward mobility and financial security is alive and well but for only the most-wealthy of Americans and that low to moderate income Americans have never felt less secure, financially, than they do today. The blame game for those who feel that the American Dream is not attainable is often vague. They often cite politicians or the one percenters for their failings. Others blame immigrants for stealing jobs or creating competition and pushing wages down. Many of these immigrants have seen their freedom and wealth grow by crossing the border, their optimism abounds and the American Dream becomes reality. Have we as a nation become so entitled that we do not see the opportunity that our forefathers saw and immigrants see so clearly?
Downward mobility is not the new normal and upward mobility is not insurmountable. It will take, however, some new thinking, re-setting expectations, delayed gratification and a focus to succeed.
The American Dream is still most certainly attainable if people do not get caught up with one-upping the Jones’ and live comfortably within their means. Many can attain it but the acquisition of material possessions or extent of fame will rightfully be varied according to the value society places on the fruit of their labor. Otherwise, equal outcomes will reduce what has made this country special. Equal outcomes that are legislated by the well intentioned will diminish personal incentive and will eventually lead to a lower standard of living for all.
It’s ironic that those who seek their perception of fair share and equality through their political allies and media proponents wish to do so at the expense of others, while claiming everyone but themselves is greedy.
We need to return to our original values and turn away from the greed aspect that has been legitimized into its modern day interpretation. We have gone from the perception of deserving the right to pursue success to the idea that it should be guaranteed.
When do we recognize that enough is enough? It is sacrilegious to say that the next generation does not need to have a higher standard of living than the previous generation. We should dispose of unattainable goals and expectations because we can no longer borrow our way into a new and better American Dream as our $19.5 trillion National Debt attests. To attain our ever-increasing expectations, requires even longer work weeks and deficit spending ad infinitum. Most homeowners today need two incomes to satisfy the escalation of the new perceived American Dream with no room to grow.
There are headwinds to be sure, including: The labor force participation rate which is at its lowest levels since the 1970’s, the pains of self inflicted debt at both the personal and national level, the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression and restrictive zoning laws (if we want to alleviate the shortage and affordability issues of real estate.) But for the most part, people are now able to live as they like both in social and financial terms. People have the ability to change their station in life and the American Dream is alive and well for those willing to sacrifice a little and focus on the original tenets of great American ideals. To accomplish this goal it is clearly important to reject consumerism, focus on thrift and reinstituting saving and investing like our parents’ generation. Finally the recent growth in wages is sure to help.
Don’t listen to the noise, pessimism sells, but those who want it can certainly still achieve the American Dream.
John Agostinelli is the co-author of Easy Money and the American Real Estate Ponzi Scheme, and is a recognized authority in real estate. John is a real estate investor, broker, industry consultant and housing policy commentator. His market focus is the Boston MetroWest area.
He services: Ashland, Dover, Framingham, Holliston, Hopkinton, Marlborough, Medfield, Medway, Milford, Millis, Natick, Northborough, Sherborn, Southborough, Sudbury, Wayland, Westborough, Upton
John has helped hundreds of investors, buyers and sellers, sell, purchase or invest in real estate in over 50 Massachusetts towns. Please contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 508-283-4958.
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