Thursday, September 5, 2013

Study implies the American dream has been reduced to a series of financial goals

By Marc Jampole

Debt free and financially secure at retirement. That’s how people now define the American dream, according to a new study by

Here are all the results:

Define the American Dream
Retiring financially secure:  27.9%
Being debt-free:  23%
Owning a home: 18.2%
Graduating from college (paying off student loans):  6.0%
Joining the 1%:  3%
Other: 11.4%
None: .2%
Don’t know/no response: 8.5%

Only one problem with the survey: gave these options to the participants, as opposed to asking the open-ended question, What is the American dream? Everything that asked about has to do with money: Nothing aspirational or non-material. Just a bunch of financial objectives, each of which may require credit or other financial services.

The natural question is whether’s selection of options reflects its natural concern for money matters or does it reflect the social ideals of the 21st century. In other words, is it more subtle propaganda from the financial industry or a true representation of how we now define the American dream?

The concept of the American dream sounds as if it has been around since Europeans rediscovered North America at the end of the 15th century. The actual term, however, can only be traced back to James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), born rich. Adams first use the term in his The Epic of America, written at the height of the depression in 1931. To Adams, the American dream is “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement...It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

That pretty much sounds like the dream imagined by Martin Luther King 50 years ago, a dream that’s defined in public terms as a more perfect society. This American dream is defined by opportunity, fairness, democracy and the pursuit of happiness. King tinges the dream with social justice as well, the idea that we must not only create opportunity for everyone, but also make certain that everyone has a minimum living standard deserving of all human beings.

Once James created the concept, it didn’t take American industry, led by the advertising industry, long to privatize and commercial the American dream: Privatization involved making the dream a matter of an individual attaining success as opposed to society becoming just and equitable. Commercialization derived from the fact that industry defined this success solely in terms of material possessions. No wonder the media, entertainment and advertising industries have all been called the “great American dream machine.”

A perusal of the contents of the first few pages of a Google search of “the American dream” reveals that most people writing on the subject combine the public and the private versions of the American Dream.  Virtually every definition spoke of the American dream being the opportunity to work hard and achieve success.

For the most part since the Baby Boomer’s parents came home from World War II, the private part of the American dream has comprised owning a home and living a car-and-mall-centered life in the suburbs. We know the suburban dream has failed. We have created a society with a bottomless thirst for fossil fuels and a natural predilection to waste. It’s a social order that cannot be sustained over time, because of the twin demons of global warming and resource shortages.

I would assert that the suburban lifestyle isolates people and individuals, leading to a greater sense of privilege and self-satisfaction among the happy and successful, a greater sense of isolation and hopelessness among the unhappy or struggling. The privatization of the American dream has inured us to the suffering of others, so that many of us are only too willing to deny food stamps to the hungry and starve schools of funds because we send our kids to private schools or don’t have any.  By only including individual dreams and making them all the attainment of financial goals, feeds into this isolating selfishness. 

The study ends with a few questions about who will achieve the American dream. About 78% think that they will attain their dream—be it financial security at retirement or owning their own home—but only 41% think that others will attain the American dream. I infer from these twin answers that Americans do not believe that their own success or aspirations are tied to those of others or to society as a whole.  It’s every person for him- or herself as we each pursue our individual success in isolation from everyone else.  This approach will surely work for the wealthy captain of industry, but for the 99% without wealth it is a less sure path than working together and helping each other. Remember that in Martin Luther King’s dream, we all walk together, black and white, rich and poor.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

NYC mayoral debate shows news media ignorance and focus on the irrelevant

By Marc Jampole

We saw what was wrong with political coverage in the last debate between the major contenders for the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City: the media is ignorant and creates irrelevant sideshows.

The very first question by a Wall Street Journal reporter was ridiculously irrelevant to the issues: share a recent example of each candidate or candidate’s family facing economic uncertainty.  None of the five candidates could answer the question, because all are well-off and all have been enjoying good times for at least a decade, something that the reporter should have known if he had done his homework.  Was he just stupid or did he want to make a point—that these folks are mostly rich or near rich? Or maybe he was trying to trap a candidate into making up a saccharine and unbelievable sob story?

After all the candidates—a very bright bunch if you ask me—all admitted that things were going pretty well for them lately and evoked childhood or parental struggles, the panel of reporters noted that none of the candidates answered the question.  But how could they talk about struggles if they weren’t having them? And why would they? Virtually everyone with a serious chance at a major office these days is doing well. Otherwise, others wouldn’t notice their leadership skills or give money to their campaigns. Some could be struggling with family or personal issues, some may have faced financial problems in the past, but most people running for a major office, be it governor or mayor of the nation’s largest city, are at least well-off.

The question was irrelevant and may have also revealed the reporter’s ignorance.

As part of his answer to this inessential question about financial hardship, John Liu, the only candidate who appeared to be rattled throughout the proceedings, accused the Election Board of setting up two of his aides as part of a vendetta to deny him matching contributions. Instead of ignoring this desperate plea from a desperate candidate, the reporters chose to ask the other candidates if they thought Liu was set up.  Inequitable distribution of the wealth, mass transit for the outer boroughs, the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy—these issues stayed on hold while the candidates hemmed and hawed about Liu’s irrelevant accusations.

Later in the debate, another reporter ignorantly chided the frontrunner Bill DeBlasio for saying that he would keep confidential his negotiations with the unions covering New York City workers, who have been without a contract for six years now.  Doesn’t the reporter know that it is standard practice to keep collective bargaining negotiations confidential? Confidentiality allows both sides to explore areas that could be controversial, especially if taken out of the context of a full contract. Confidentiality allows either side to make statements and then back down. It allows either side to make accusations for which they can later apologize with no loss of face on either side.

This reporter has obviously never seen any news releases about collective bargaining, most of which include a statement that the party issuing the news release won’t negotiate in public.  Now, the average person in the street hasn’t seen these news releases either, but the average person in the street is not a reporter. A reporter is supposed to know a little bit about what he or she is covering.  This reporter was trying to create a controversy around DeBlasio, but one that is irrelevant because no matter what any of the candidates may say now, every single one of them will keep the union negotiations confidential, because that’s what their lawyers will tell them to do!

The reporter should have known that. In her ignorance, she tried to create a firestorm about an irrelevancy. Again, it didn’t work, because the other candidates except Weiner all agreed they would keep negotiations confidential. The candidates focused on the more important issues of their desire to negotiate a fair contract and whether the workers would receive retroactive pay increases for the full six years.

Next day coverage of the debate boiled down analyzing how the trailing candidates ganged up on DeBlasio. To my mind, the gang-up didn’t really occur. There were short side attacks on most of the candidates, plus several of the other candidates defended DeBlasio from what they said were unfair attacks. For the media to talk about a collectively imagined gang-up rather than the real differences between the candidates sets exactly the wrong standard for election campaigning.

Ignorance and irrelevancy seem to go hand and hand when the news media frame how they will cover the issues. We often blame politicians for making purposely ignorant statements. It is hard to believe, for example, that Chris Christie really has doubts about human-caused climate disruption or that several Republican U.S. Senators really believes that Obama acts from unpatriotic motives.

But last night’s debate among five highly intelligent and mostly competent candidates showed that the news media is also to blame for the deplorable state of political discourse.

Bloody civil war in Iraq should remind us what could go wrong in Syria

By Marc Jampole

Secretary of State John Kerry gave an impassioned rationale for attacking Syria. He tried to build the case for the absolute moral imperative to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people and to prevent him from doing it again.

Kerry detailed the horror of the act for the listening world. Then he promised that U.S. military actions, with or without the support of allies, would be different from Iraq and Afghanistan, because it would not require “boots on the ground.” In other words, we’re going to do a little bombing, then leave Syria to continue its dance of death.

While I join Secretary Kerry and every other ethical and sane human being alive in condemning the Syrian government for using this weapon of mass destruction, I do not share his thirst for military action.

Kerry can list many reasons to bomb Syria, including the fact al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the fact that we warned him not to do it (another version of the “let’s kill thousands to save face” strategy) and the assumption that failure to act will embolden al-Assad and other U.S. bĂȘtes noire like Iran and North Korea to go farther. 

I can think of only one reason not to use force against al-Assad, but it trumps all of Kerry’s rationales: it will likely backfire and plunge Syria into an intensified cycle of violence between a weakened Ba’athist government and a splintered opposition that includes forces that truly despise the United States.

If you need to remind yourself what will happen in Syria, read the article titled “Bloodier than Ever” in the latest EconomistI’ll state my case by excerpting the first paragraph:

”…the scale and scope of recent attacks have shaken even the most hardened Iraqis. More than 500 have been killed in bombings this month, after some 1,000 perished violently in July—the highest number since civil strife tailed off five years ago. Yet these figures, tallied by Iraq Body Count, an independent web-based monitoring organisation, are only the most visible cause for alarm. Car-bombings and suicide-bombers have been a fact of life in central and northern Iraq for most of the past decade, but recent attacks reveal a level of co-ordination not seen for several years.”

In other words, the civil war not only continues in Iraq, but is intensifying again. Later in the article, we find out that al-Qaeda launched an attack on prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji last month, enabling 500 prisoners to escape. Still later, we learn that the violence is spreading to the south of Iraq, formerly one of the most peaceful parts of the country.

What a mess! And the Syrian mess will be just as bloody and violent and last just as long if we bomb Syria.

Let’s face it. With or without a violent U.S. response, the Syrian people are going to go through a lot of suffering over the coming years, certainly if al-Assad prevails and certainly during a continued civil war. It’s likely that the overthrow of the Syrian Ba’athists will produce a permanently fractured state like Iraq instead of the one strong (and hopefully pro-western) government for which we might all hope. It’s also possible that Syria may end up with another blood-thirsty strong man.

Maybe the Obama administration cynically figures that since things are going to be a mess in Syria anyhow, we might as well send a message to Iran and Russia and work off some of our excess weaponry, so we can buy some more from American arms manufacturers.  That Real Politik strategy would certainly be more consistent with the last 75 years of American foreign policy than the moral imperatives that Kerry evokes.  That Kerry was careful to tiptoe around international law lends proof to this supposition, as the United States doesn’t want to box itself into holding any other entity above its own sense of imperial entitlement, not even international law.

Thinking about the suffering of the 1,500 people who died of chemical poisoning makes me physically ill. It was a repulsive act that deserves to be met with world condemnation, economic boycott, increased support of those rebels willing to commit to a western-style democracy and a temporary rapprochement with Iran—anything we can do to destabilize the Ba’athists in Syria short of military action.