According to the website Investopedia,
What Is the American Dream?
The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.
I was having coffee this week with a liberal acquaintance who was pretty darn sure that this no longer was possible in the United States. He had a viewpoint I hadn’t heard before so I thought I would share it.
My acquaintance is a farmer who owns a fairly large operation with twenty employees. He’s not wealthy, at least not in terms of liquidity, due to the loans he has to fund the operation. This isn’t unusual in the farming industry where it’s often necessary to take out loans to buy large pieces of equipment or to buy feed for the year paying the bank back when the product is sent to market.
In his experience as a 55 year old American, he worked very hard over the years and has been successful. Not only that, every year he’s gotten better at running the operation through experience.
Until the last few years.
He’s starting to become concerned that the number of variables he’s having to manage has increased to the point that hard work and expertise may not be nearly enough. There’s all sorts of bad stuff that can affect a farmer but many of these are outside their control and there are tried and true things to do in response.
Now he’s under constant pressure to adopt new technology along with trying to balance having employees who aren’t as loyal as they used to be with such as roaring economy. He’s wondering whether he should automate further but that only increases his exposure to bank loans.
And it’s not just technology but something as simply as the price of hay is difficult to manage. At the beginning of the century, hay prices were relatively constant but they’re bouncing all over the place today.
The bottom line is that his success is looking more like it’s “just by chance” rather than through expertise, risk taking, and hard work.
I have a young acquaintance who’s really enamored with Elon Musk and SpaceX. I think many, if not most, would agree what Elon Musk epitomizes the American Dream. But what about my young friend? Would hard work on rockets give him a shot at the American Dream or would he be cast aside should technology change or the priorities of the country change? That’s certainly possible — and that’s what happened to a lot of people at the end of Apollo. Wouldn’t my young friend’s hope for success look more like “just by chance?”
I always think it’s illustrative to remember that Windows XP was introduced in 2001 and nineteen years later, computers are all around us. My family room lights wouldn’t turn off last night because Google couldn’t make a connection to the hardware provider of my light switch! My thermostat sent me an email telling me how my energy management compared to the people in my neighborhood.
To quote from the movie Men in Black:
Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you‘ll know tomorrow.
Imagine what technology and our overall access to knowledge will look like by the time my young friend is ready to retire.
What strikes me is that more people are seeing their lives as playing out “just by chance” rather than achieving the American Dream through a path that’s centered on hard work.
And if that’s so, then perhaps this is one of the drivers behind the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. After all, if the country is wildly successfully but an individual’s chance at success is random, then it’s no surprise that people want a guaranteed part of the pie.
Where we as conservatives see things differently than our liberal friends is that the American Dream only guarantees equal access to opportunity and not equal outcome. My liberal acquaintance, however, asks “if my continued success is random, then maybe now’s the time to just get out since I can no longer manage enough of the risk along with the possibility of randomly losing while someone else is randomly winning.”
In my view, life has always had a huge element of randomness to it. I’ve tried to maximize the upside reward while attempting to manage a downside risk. Sometimes its worked out and sometimes it hasn’t. However, it seems to me that the American Dream isn’t about hoping you win the jackpot in Las Vegas but rather more about choosing the game that favors the house less so you have a better opportunity to win or at least not lose too much.
Some people evidently see the world as the casinos coming in from time to time and changing the rules of the game. Not only that, what some people fear today is that the rules of the game are changing so rapidly that it’s no longer possible to maximize the upside or minimize the downside; it’s just random although the casino always knows the odds and always wins.