A Superpower in Decline
Part 1: Is the American Dream Over?
It was to be the kind of place where dozens of American dreams would be fulfilled — here on Apple Blossom Drive, a cul-de-sac under the azure-blue skies of southwest Florida, where the climate is mild and therapeutic for people with arthritis and rheumatism. Everything is ready. The driveways lined with cast-iron lanterns are finished, the artificial streams and ponds are filled with water, and all the underground cables have been installed. This street in Florida was to be just one small part of America’s greater identity — a place where individual dreams were to become part of the great American story.
But a few things are missing. People, for one. And houses, too. The drawings are all ready, but the foundations for the houses haven’t even been poured yet.
Apple Blossom Drive, on the outskirts of Fort Myers, Florida, is a road to nowhere. The retirees, all the dreamers who wanted to claim their slice of the American dream in return for all the years they had worked in a Michigan factory or a New York City office, won’t be coming. Not to Apple Blossom Drive and not to any of the other deserted streets which, with their pretty names and neat landscaping, were supposed to herald freedom and prosperity as the ultimate destination of the American journey, and now exude the same feeling of sadness as the industrial ruins of Detroit.
Florida was the finale of the American dream, a promise, a symbol, an American heaven on earth, because Florida held out the prospect of spending 10, perhaps 20 and hopefully 30 years living in one’s own house. For decades, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people moved to the state each year. The population grew and grew — and so too did real estate prices and the assets of those who were already there and wanted bigger houses and even bigger dreams. Florida was a seemingly never-ending boom machine.
Could the Dream Be Over?
Until it all ended. Now people are leaving the state. Florida’s population decreased by 58,000 in 2009. Some members of the same American middle class who had once planned to spend their golden years lying under palm trees are now lined up in front of soup kitchens. In Lee County on Florida’s southwest coast, 80,000 people need government food stamps to make ends meet — four times as many as in 2006. Unemployment figures are sharply on the rise in the state, which has now come to symbolize the decline of the America Dream, or perhaps even its total failure, its naïveté. Could the dream, in fact, be over?
Americans have lived beyond their means for decades. It was a culture long defined by a mantra of entitlement, one that promised opportunities for all while ignoring the risks. Relentless and seemingly unstoppable upward mobility was the secular religion of the United States. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, established the so-called ownership society, while Congress and the White House helped free it of the constraints of laws and regulations.
The dream was the country’s driving force. It made Florida, Hollywood and the riches of Goldman Sachs possible, and it attracted millions of immigrants. Now, however, Americans are discovering that there are many directions that life can take, and at least one of them points downward. The conviction that stocks have always made everyone richer has become as much of a chimera in the United States as the belief that everyone has the right to own his own home, and then a bigger home, a second car and maybe even a yacht. But at some point, everything comes to an end.
The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010. American companies are still world-class, but today Apple and Coca-Cola, Google and Microsoft are investing in Asia, where labor is cheap and markets are growing, and hardly at all in the United States. Some 47 percent of Americans don’t believe that the America Dream is still realistic.
Loud and Distressed
The Desperate States of America are loud and distressed. The country has always been a little paranoid, but now it’s also despondent, hopeless and pessimistic. Americans have always believed in the country’s capacity for regeneration, that a new awakening is possible at any time. Now, 63 percent of Americans don’t believe that they will be able to maintain their current standard of living.
And if America is indeed on the downward slope, it will have consequences for the global economy and the political world order.
The fall of America doesn’t have to be a complete collapse — it is, after all, a country that has managed to reinvent itself many times before. But today it’s no longer certain — or even likely — that everything will turn out fine in the end. The United States of 2010 is dysfunctional, but in new ways. The entire interplay of taxes and investments is out of joint because a 16,000-page tax code allows for far too many loopholes and because solidarity is no longer part of the way Americans think. The political system, plagued by lobbyism and stark hatred, is incapable of reaching consistent or even quick decisions.
The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance — it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past. They devote almost no effort to reflection, and they condemn cleverness and intellect as elitist and un-American, as if people who hunt bears could seriously be expected to lead a world power. Demagogues stir up hatred and rage on television stations like Fox News. These parts of America, majorities in many states, ignorant of globalization and the international labor market, can do nothing but shout. They hate everything that is new and foreign to them.
But will the US wake up? Or is it already much too late?
YESTERDAY: AMERICA’S FALL
The sociologist Robert Putnam hems and haws, not wanting to be the kind of professor who drops names to make himself seem more important. But the issue is much too important for him to resist. “I have had the chance to discuss income inequality with George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and I can assure you both were worried about the trend,” he says. “It was possible to have an adult conversation with them on this topic.”
Putnam, a Harvard professor who sports an enormous beard, sounds pleased, as if this were an exception. He is a surveyor of the American psyche. A few years ago, he caused a stir with his book “Bowling Alone,” in which he argued that more and more Americans are bowling alone — and not in a bowling club — because the average American hardly even speaks to other Americans anymore, and certainly not with those who hold views different from his own.
Now Putnam is worried about economic imbalances and new disparities within society. Today an American CEO earns about 300 times as much as an ordinary worker. In 1950, that number was only 30. The consequence is “social segregation,” says Putnam, by which he means that people go to different schools and parties and live in different neighborhoods, and that there is no longer any overlap between groups.
“The fundamental bargain, the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity,” Putnam says. “If that is no longer true, then the core bargain is being violated.”