The Death of the American Dream II
Published on: June 3, 2011
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  • You ought to like this, Walter. You and Huck:

    In the following notes want explore, as a practical ideal, the notion of factories in the countryside run on part-time jobs. By “in the countryside” I mean in areas out beyond the exurban fringe of our existing metropolitan areas. And by “run on part-time jobs” I mean that most of the people working in these factories – those doing routine wage-work — would be employed 18-to-24 hours per week.

    Now whether such factories would be profitable is, of course, an interesting question. In many ways it is the most interesting question, since on the answer everything else must ultimately depend. But for the moment at least what interests me more — and what should interest my readers — are not the factories themselves so much as the new kinds of towns that might develop around them, and the new lifestyle that would become possible for the men and women who reside in those towns.

    The lifestyle itself is easy to imagine. Being employed only part-time outside the home, ordinary working people will have a lot more free time at their disposal than they do nowadays: time which they could use to construct their own houses, cultivate small gardens, cook and eat at home, and care for their own children instead of placing them in daycare to be cared for by strangers. In other words people could start doing a lot more things for themselves and each other – directly and with their own hands – which now they pay others to do for them. You could call it a compromise — or better yet, a trade-off — between the age-old longing for the simple life and the economic imperatives of a modern industrial society.

    But whatever you choose to call it I would like to take a few moments to sketch what I think are some of its natural advantages: ways it would enable ordinary people to make a more efficient use of their limited time and resources to satisfy their needs and desires. These are the “soft paths” to which my title refers.

    ii.
    First and most obvious of course are the advantages to the individual. She (or he) will have much more personal freedom than has traditionally been the case along with an enlargement in the scope and variety of activities that compose a working day. Instead of being bound to the daily routine of a nine-to-five job repeating the same set of actions week in and week out she will find herself spending half her working life as her own person, leading a far more varied and independent existence than is possible today: an existence much closer in spirit to the one in which we evolved as a species, and to which, I presume, we are adapted by nature. *

    I’ve often wondered whether it was to something like this that scripture refers, where it is written:

    “Thou hast left thy first love; remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen?”

    And is it really just a coincidence that those areas of our modern economy which have most stubbornly resisted the techniques of mass-production or else have yielded to them with inferior results – the building of our homes, the preparation of our food, and the care of our children — are also the areas of activity that offer us the greatest intrinsic rewards: which afford us opportunities to satisfy our instincts for workmanship, to express ourselves with the works of our hands, and to exercise our manifold capacities for reciprocity and affection?

    I do not know the answer to these questions. But I do know that the new way of life I am proposing is one that will make the pursuit of happiness a far more agreeable enterprise than it is for most Americans nowadays, and one with better prospects of success.
    iii.

    Let me turn next to the family, which not only is oldest and most universal of all human institutions but also the one primarily responsible for the transmission of our culture and civilization. What effects would this new lifestyle have on the family?

    To begin again with the obvious it is clear that parents would start spending a lot more time with their children and each other than is possible today, and that they would be doing something besides watching TV while plunked on the couch. Home and hearth would become again what until recently they always have been: scenes of domestic activity where every family member has useful roles to play and real responsibilities to meet. There certainly will be no shortage of quality time in the sense of opportunities for parents to interact with their children: to talk, joke, and play around with the as they share in the daily chores of life, or engage in more serious conversations whenever the occasion seems appropriate. Thus would the human family to be restored not only as a functioning economic institution but in its age-old role of nurture and support.

    iv.

    Something similar can be predicted for the institution of marriage, which not only is the biological basis of the family but also the foundation of its stability. The bonds of matrimony will certainly grow stronger once the earnings from two part-time jobs together with the contributions of two adult sets of hands are required to support an independent household.

    Contrast this to the typical situation today where we find that both parents are employed full-time outside the home and can thus afford to live by themselves if they are so moved. Small wonder so many marriages now end in divorce! But under the terms of the new household economy I am proposing walking out of a marriage becomes a much less convenient option than it is now — which means that fewer couples are likely to go through the traumas of divorce, with all this implies for the happiness and emotional security of their children, to say nothing of themselves.

  • nadine

    “Rather that focusing on home ownership, American social policy should probably be looking at small business formation as the key to mass middle class prosperity in the next fifty years.”

    Yes! Instead the current administration is driving small businessmen and women into Tea Party revolt. They see small business as beasts of burden to be laden heavier and regulated more.

    Tell me, Mr. Mead, can you name one single Democrat who understands what you just said? Who even understands why small business jobs are better for America than government jobs?

  • I can hardly do this post justice, ranging widely over American history and deeply into the American character as it does.

    I’ll try, beginning with a comment from elsewhere and such additional insights as occur:

    The new American Dream might be owning your own business or, at least, working for yourself.

    If the first American Dream was owning your own farm and the second was owning your own house, personal business ownership would be a logical successor. It would dovetail nicely with the needs of a knowledge/service economy that emphasizes flexibility and customization. We’ll only know the Third American Dream has arrived when small factory franchises arrive, however.

    But, even if the Third American Dream happens, I don’t expect the second American Dream to go away. Home ownership has a powerful pull; dropping house prices weakens the pull but, by reducing the cost of home ownership, makes less pull necessary.

    Dreams die hard. In my America, even the First American Dream still kicks a little. Hobby farms and survivalist dreams of self-suficiency in the country are more widespread than they would be if they were just one leisure time option among many.

    http://www.jrganymede.com/2011/06/02/the-death-of-the-american-dream/comment-page-1/#comment-35036

    The state subsidized the First American Dream with railroads, cheap land, and eventually free homesteads.

    How the state subsidizes the Second American Dream we know: mortage interest, low-cost provision of services to new subdivisions, highway construction.

    The Third American Dream’s principal subsidy might just be tax fraud. Many, maybe most, personal businesses today do not give Uncle Sam his due. But what other regulatory and institutional changes need to occur? Junking our current employer-based socialism is just the start.

  • Will

    I have a question relating to this and your last posting. How much has the cratering of real estate values been regional. The “sand states” have been his hard, but I am not sure that applies generally. First, a lot of places had relatively low values and missed the bubble. People there did not get killed financially by the drop in prices, and maybe they still have an asset of solid value for the mid to long term. Secondly, some people in areas where housing values appreciated dramatically over the past 30 years have not seen a dramatic fall. Prices may be a littl down and the market slow to stagnant, but nothing had cratered like the McMansions in Vegas or California. So people there still have an asset that retains value. If they have held it for a long period it has appreciated. This may seem like a detail, but disaggregating the data is important and I’d like to hear what Mead and other say about the implications. Perhaps this sharpens some of the analysis.

  • Jeff W

    In an otherwise excellent essay, a distinction that Mead fails to grasp is the difference between what I will call a “breadwinner” business and a service business.

    A breadwinner business is a business activity that brings money into a community. It can be manufacturing, agriculture, mining, banking or even government (e.g. Washington D.C., which hauls in cash from every state). When the breadwinner business closes down (the mine plays out or the factory closes), you have a ghost town. Service businesses can provide jobs only in communities that have a thriving breadwinner business.

    Small businesses in general are service businesses that are completely dependent on the health of breadwinner businesses.

    American prosperity completely depends on the health of our breadwinner businesses, and policymakers should be focusing solely on policies that will help those businesses succeed. This is not an issue of big business vs. small business; it is an issue of winning in a severe competition in a hyper-competitive global marketplace.

  • Charming Billy

    I’m not so sure that entrepreneurial home based small businesses will flourish in a knowledge economy in the same way that the family farm was able to get by, at least, in era of pre industrial farming.

    First, the family provided at a minimum a subsistence living for its holders. If you could and would work there was little chance you would starve. With a home business you can work your tail off, but if you can’t sell your products or services, there’s no revenue. So you starve or go on relief. There’s no fall back.

    Second, the abilities required to flourish as an entrepreneur in a knowledge economy are less widely shared than the abilities required to be a successful farmer. The former requires, in addition to the capacity for hard work and prudence, a degree of intelligence that not everyone possesses.

    I still see the knowledge economy leading to a bifurcation of haves and have nots in a way that the 18th and 19th century farm economy didn’t. Some people are just smarter than others. In the knowledge economy smart ones who work hard will be rewarded to a much greater degree than the less intelligent who work just as hard. And education can only make up a small part of the difference.

    I’m the first generation off the family farm – or ranch in my family’s case. My dad and his first cousins were bright country kids and went on to become professionals or at least well educated. Their incomes were significantly greater than the just as hard working but not quite so bright country kids they grew up with who became blue collar employees or small businessmen like contractors. Yet the incomes and lives of my bright rancher grandparents, who couldn’t make it to college, were not much different than the lives and incomes of the grandparents of the people my father’s age who became blue collar workers. In short, the farm economy didn’t reward IQ, whatever that is, to the extent that the knowledge economy does.

  • Patricia

    I’m so glad you mentioned the effect that SS and Medicare have on the family. We hear lots about what welfare has done to the black family (destroyed it) but little about the effects on non-black families.

    Gone are the days when children anticipated caring for their elders. Yes, it may have been a burden, but it is even more so when we give up that burden to the Mega State.

  • Peter

    You made many good points in this post, Mr. Mead.

  • teapartydoc

    If a good system emerges, it won’t be because anyone planned it.

  • Jason Bontrager

    Good post. I had a quibble with one bit though: “At home is Dad’s ‘work’ is recreational;”. I’m guessing there’s an extra “is” in there.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Thanks for the head’s up. We are following standard practice here: we’ve abolished casual Fridays for junior staff to teach them the importance of attention to detail and we have awarded a round of stock options to senior management because, well, because we can.

  • Ok, it’s a slow weekend in the comments, so allow me discuss what the new kinds of neighborhoods will look like — might look like? — in Dream 3.O:

    Let us turn next to the local neighborhood community, which, after the family, is the second oldest of all human institution, corresponding as it does to the primitive band and to the ancient and medieval village. What new sorts of neighborhoods might become possible, and how might they differ from the ones most of us grew up in?

    One thing is for sure. We are going to see many more adults up and about during the regular course of the day. With half their working lives centered around the home grown-ups are bound to be round on a regular basis, tending their gardens, doing routine choirs around the house, or engaged in some other useful pursuit – whether something as simple as painting a porch swing or mending an appliance, or some- thing as complex as a major home improvement project. But what- ever they might happen to be doing the point is that these new neighborhoods of the future will no longer be the “deserted villages” most of us know, in which adults typically get up in the morning, climb into their automobiles, and drive away to work until the end of the day.

    For the children this will have certain obvious advantages. They will be exposed to the adult world of work to a much greater extent than is possible in today’s society, where most real work is done away from home and out of sight of the children. Being the naturally curious creatures they are, children in the neighborhood will inevitably be drawn into the world of work: at first by looking, then later by asking, and finally by helping — and thus in the natural course of growing up will acquire a certain amount practical knowledge and a number useful skills, things which nowadays completely pass them by.

    Another obvious advantage is that the same adults who are out working in their yards will be well-positioned to keep a collective eye out on the children in the neighborhood as they run and play among the houses, warning them away from danger and keeping them out of mischief, thus providing a useful extension to the family itself. Friendly faces in friendly places, it is easy to predict, will make the neighborhood a safer and more congenial place in which to work or play.
    viii.

    Nor should we overlook the many other possibilities for sharing. With so many adults at home during the day it becomes a simple matter of convenience to go next door to borrow a cup of sugar or to ask for a helping hand from the neighbor down the street. Visiting and casual hospitality are sure to be more common occurrences once one’s friends and neighbors begin to avail themselves of some of their new-found leisure.

    Or consider such a simple thing as a neighborhood post office instead of individual mailboxes in front of each house. Not only would this save the postal service a good deal of time and expense but it would provide a convenient spot where neighbors are likely to run into one another, exchange gossip, and pass along any news that might be of local interest.

    Neighbors might even elect to go in together to purchase a small neighborhood tractor which that they could all share in the spring to turn over their gardens. Or they might organize house-raising parties in the old Mid-Western barn-raising tradition: a useful as well as a very pleasant way to get through some of the earlier and heavier phases of construction. And, of course, there is the possibility of picnics on the 4th of July, a sure way to create a sense of local feeling and neighborhood solidarity.
    ix.

    Let me now say a few words on the subject of neighborhood planning. What would be the best way to arrange the houses in as neighborhood if we intend to take maximum advantage of the new possibilities for sharing?

    Here I think we have something to learn from the Traditional Neighborhood Movement, as it is sometimes referred to, which is already underway in a number of places in the United States. One opportunity, in particular, stands out: a chance to get away from the contemporary practice of arranging our houses along both sides of the street like so many beads on a string. The alternative is to arrange them around a central open space — a village green — which would serve both as a neighborhood park and a playground for kids (see Figure 1).

    Plan for a Hamlet from The Art of Building a Home, 1901. This was the earliest suggestion of grouping various combinations of houses and a break in the building line. It was intended to give a unified impression from the standpoint of a traditional village green, which was supposed to serve the same communal gathering purpose out-of-doors that the two story living room did for the family inside. The thought was to draw people to a place so that favorable and positive things might begin to happen to them.

    As you can see from the figure a second habit we might get out of is that of placing our houses back from the street with large lawns in front. Instead we could arrange our houses close to the street, facing the park, and give them front porches, as was commonly the practice in most towns in America before the age of the automobile. This arrangement would make for easy line-of-sight communication between the house and the park, and between the porch and any pedestrians who might happen to be walking by on the sidewalk that runs in front of each house.

    Of course if the houses are set forward like this it means that the gardens will have to be located behind, in the long back yards that would stretch from the rear of each house, with the grandparents’ quarters being located at the far end of the garden, but accessible by a small alleyway that runs across the back of each lot. The advantage of this arrangement is that it would define a space — bounded by the larger house in front and the smaller one behind — of relative peace and quiet: a place not open to the street, where a person could sit and meditate, or think, or sing the baby to sleep, and not be bothered (see Figure 2).

    [I go on to discuss the local community, modeled on the small New England town; unfortunately my web site is truncated and I don’t know what to do about it.]

  • PTL

    Sir,
    The idea behind Marxist control is the destruction of the middle class. This administration is peopled by Marxists of various colors and they are hellbent on doing just that(see Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot,Chavez, etc.). No one in this administration created wealth or worked for a living. They have never solved real world problems because they are incapable of doing so.

  • igout

    The consumption age did ensure some degree of civil order. It kept 300 million people who have little in common tranqu’ed with big box stores & credit cards. I’m afraid that in the America being born there won’t be citizens or consumers, but predators and prey.

  • jeannebodine

    How can you provide such incisive analysis yet completely ignore the growing dependent sector that feeds off the productive portion of society? And a state that actively discourages the formation of a productive family? Or for that matter, the role of the state in general which discourages the entrepeneur at every turn? And needs more & more money to survive? Or a political party that needs the dependent class to survive? And a media that is willing to lie to promote its own political agenda? Or an educational system that does not even promote the tenets necessary for its own survival?

    How does your picture of the future ignore all of these factors? Do you really think they’re inconsequential? Or did they magically disappear, like the rabbit in the hat? (Be careful, magician’s rabbits are federally regulated and there’s a crackdown at present due to staffing increases.)

    Dr. Mead, do you really not see that there are forces that have been actively trying to fundamentally transform America for longer than I have been alive? Because if not, the American Dream is truly the American Nightmare.

  • Jim.

    “American social policy should probably be looking at small business formation as the key to mass middle class prosperity in the next fifty years.”

    Neatly solves Marx’s old “means of production” conundrum in a very American way — and leaves the critical connection between hard work and prosperity intact.

    This is workable. The question is, how do we get there?

    One thing’s for sure — Democrats who think that Big Government is better, who want to lord it over Big Business and Big Banking instead of breaking them up, who think that Big Brother’s politically-correct Thought Police must be imposed on universities and HR departments, who believe that Big Nanny should take away the money of the productive to take care of everyone from one centralized source — this political point of view is the enemy, and needs to be rooted out of our Government as rapidly and as thoroughly as can be peaceably arranged.

  • What a brilliant essay! You pull together so many different aspects of American cultural life of the past 200 year. It may not be unique or plow new ground — I’m not as well read as I’d like — but I don’t recall ever seeing this argument in this form.

    My family lost it’s last connection to farming 2 generations back, but my uncle still owns the vestiges of his family farm as a “legacy” thanks to very strange Federal land policy. He never worked it without a “day job” at a cereal factory. He doesn’t work it other than for hay and lumber, having abandoned corn and sowbeans decades ago. He described getting a WWII deferrment as vital farm labor. In the end, all sides of my family converted to the nucelar isolation you describe — and I grieve for what we’ve all lost.

    Your argument resonates throughout with what I’ve heard about from family histories, and seen in my communities.

    America can yet wake up to the dangers to liberty that every socialistic step taken since 1930 makes ever more possible (or present). Discussion that honestly acknowledges the social forces described — and identifies the grim realities that political demogogery masks — is essential to any reformation of the American ideal.

    I see links to your writings often via Instapundit. Some of my network environments block your site, so I don’t often visit, but I will go out of my way to do so in the future.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Thanks, and, by the way, thanks to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit for bringing so many wonderful readers to the site.

  • G-dub

    Well done as always, Dr. Mead.

    You’ve done a good job of capturing and universalizing what I’ve been thinking about just for myself and my family–how to manage the inevitable future transition from corporate salaryman to CEO of a household.

    I have what politicians call a “good job,” as a senior engineer at a multinational corporation. But it’s obvious that this sort of employment will not be quite so rewarding to my childrens’ generation, and I worry about this employment model being sustainable for the minimum of 18 more years I need for my 401k and pension to add up to something I’d consider decent.

    Modern technology is changing the inputs to the Coase theorem, and even though we’ve seen it coming for some time now, the changes are only beginning to happen, and the change will keep coming.

    But I’ve seen the new model first hand, and if you’re prepared for it, it’s a better life, and a better dream. My father, also an senior engineer at a multinational, was downsized at age 64 (several years ahead of plan), handed a severance that was nominally worth 2 years’ pay but mostly went to taxes, and told to have a nice life. He was in a position to take a very down-sized retirement, but the new model allowed a new option: he now telecommutes for one of his old suppliers, consulting in his field of expertise at age 68 and hopefully beyond. He has been able to maintain his productivity while staying connected to home and family and enjoying the benefits typically associated with retirement. I find this model compelling–I want that sort of future for myself and my kids. It’s a good dream.

    If you aren’t prepared for these changes, you might get lucky and retire before you get laid off. But your kids are doomed if you don’t prepare them.

  • Paul Z

    I enjoyed the post. Something missing from the analysis, or at least not emphasized is the role of technology in the transformation of the American dream. Thomas Jefferson probably would have been right if industrial technology had not advanced as it did, and Hamilton’s cities probably would have lived up to Jefferson’s nightmare.
    People don’t change. We don’t think up new ideal ways of living because we’re becoming smarter, or dumber. Our environment changes and we adapt to it. We became consumers because we could. And our policies, I think, should account for the rapid change in technology. Telecommuting is an obvious example.
    The key to our success is in your second to last paragraph. No matter what the environment that ideal you expressed so well must be maintained. But the shape our society takes has less to do with any advance in our understanding, than with where the latest technology takes us.
    Here’s something I think about since I’m in the semiconductor business. Semiconductors have been advancing since the 60’s where approximately every two years they are half the size, twice the performance and use half the energy. Now imagine, instead of the transistor, the combustion engine followed that trajectory. An engine the size of a pea could take you to the moon on a drop of fuel. How would our society be shaped under that model?

  • Roberto

    Walter,
    Just finished reading part I and part II. Very nice work. However, I note that you barely make mention of the role of religion (and in particular Christianity) in the history of this great country.

    Christianity was a major part of American life in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Maybe those farm communties didn’t have schools or community centers, but they all had churches.

    American Christianity and the Christian work ethic is slowly being eroded, and I think on purpose by forces in government and institutions that prosper from an ever expanding government centralized around an all powerful Washinton bureaucracy.

    It has lost its place at the table due to many factors too numerous to discuss in this comment. Christianity in England and France are further down the timeline than America, and I fear their present is our future.

    Perhaps you can discuss this in another posting, or maybe find some other authors who can discuss this at some length.

    Have a great day. Pray for America.

  • Jim

    Thank you for a very thoughtful discussion of the American Dream over the span of American history. I was especially impressed by your concluding five paragraphs. As someone who does (thanks to the modern age of computers and telecommunications) work from home rather than commuting for miles to a cubicle farm in some sterile corporate office park, I am aware of some of the current changes and even more of the possibilities of improved future communications and computing technology plus future advances in nanotech and biotech and the sea changes these could mean to our concepts of community and work and education. I am glad to see that some one of you stature and audience size is thinking about past, present, and future for the American people and the American dream.

  • Harold Seneker

    Your brilliant essay is consistent with what I have thought a long time: We need to decentralize decision-making as much as possible down from the top of the pyramid as close to the person(s) affected by the decisions as possible. Ideally, each individual would make the decisions affecting him and his life. Obviously, that logical extreme ideal is often not possible, especially in a complex and increasingly worldwide society, but decisions are better made by people as close as possible to the action as possible. That principle has worked well in large businesses, where whole layers of management have been eliminated, thanks in considerable part to the advent of the computer and the Internet. Instead, we have, in the political sphere, ever more attempts to centralize more and more of the stuff of society. The result is an increasingly massive and unresponsive bureaucracy inevitably run in a command-and-control fashion by a small elite at the top. Inevitable, because in a democracy, it is the elected officials at the top who are chosen by the people, not the bureaucracy below them, and so, for democracy to work at all, command-and-control from the top is a necessity. In an authoritarian system, of course, command-and-control is also a necessity. But the bigger and more centralized the pyramid-bureaucracy, the less effective will be elections in controlling Leviathan.

    We need to look for ways to get to individuals making decisions for themselves, and to small groups in which people know each other, or at least are aware of each other – and see that the resources to carry out those decisions are retained by or redirected back to the individuals and groups themselves.

    You are not free if you are not making the decisions that affect your life. Each decision you can make yourself or can have a direct impact on making makes you a little – sometimes a lot – more free.

  • CS

    Jefferson’s vision wasn’t of subsistence farming, of course, and roads, canals and then railroads made the family farm a viable small business. So what’s the new idea? The internet and GoToMyPC make the surburban household the 21st c. equivalent? What’s the equivalent of those who didn’t fit the Jeffersonian ideal–those whose lack of intelligence, diligence or luck made them hired hands or worse? What’s the equivalent of the reaper (don’t fear the…) over the horizon, that makes consolidation possible?

    Just testing to failure your argument by analogy. Kidding aside, big employers are big socioeconomic levelers, to the pathological point of the UAW, etc. What are the social and political consequences of this pending re-atomization? See a couple of centuries of fiction re prosperous v. not-so-prosperous farmers…

  • Anthony

    For me WRM’s second post brings to mind that Americans may be tangentially conscious of our Jeffersonian heritage in generalities because a close reading of Jeffersonian propositions infers an inverted aristocratic doctrine; and the broad U.S. public is simply not democratic in practice (look at various posts to Death I & II). Whereas, Hamiltonianism appears ascendant in both models 1.0 and 2.0 as capitalism consolidated from 19th to 20th century. Our practice seems to talk Jeffersonian but to act Hamiltonian.

    With Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism as culture background, WRM’s “help us begin to think constructively about where we need to go next” ties culture to any way of life change. Assuming culture is a way of life, just what is U.S. culture and can it smoothly transition into a 21st century 3.0 model? In pluralistic America, we must re-examine some fundamentals. First and foremost, America posits homogeneous democracy but functions, beyond national elections, pluralistically – way of american life. As we rethink America’s socio-economic fundamentals going into 3.0, we must culturally come to terms with our practiced pluralism as well as examine how our cultural heritage facilitates or hinders major societal transformation going forward next eighty years.

    Culturally, universals are shared by all Americans however pluralism entails specialties and alternatives – a way of life shared by only some Americans (sub-culture). The question going forward is how does 3.0 model actually blend America’s practice with her enshrined values?

  • This was a thought-provoking essay and it got me reflecting on a number of trends I’ve been experiencing and noticing.

    I have been working from home since 2000. I would never go back to the land of cubicles. Daniel Pink, in his excellent book “Free Agent Nation” discusses the 40+million U.S. workers that are freelancers, careerlancers or temporary workers. This book, written in the early 2000’s, was ahead of it’s time. There has to be tens of millions of additional people now working as microprenuers or freelancers.

    During the lingering effects of the downturn of 2008-09, I was down-sized by an unscrupulous business partner from a firm I helped start and found myself scrambling for a job with no severance and few network contacts in my geographic area. I took a job at 1/4 my former pay and somehow, we managed to survive and not fall behind on any major payments. I had fully entered the Free Agent economy. Seeing where my industry, marketing, was headed and how digital was disrupting our industry as it had so many others, I began re-educating and reinventing myself from a traditional marketer to one with new digital and social media skills. It took seven months of immersion, free speaking engagements, blogging, reading, attending seminars and more but it began to pay off last fall.

    In first quarter of this year, I earned more money that I ever have in any three month period and I’m on a trajectory to continue this for the year…although, as with all hunters, we must kill what we are to eat on a regular basis. And, I now have to hire people to help me.

    I have told my college son, “If you’d only learn how to program WordPress and get some SEO skills, I could be hiring you and you’d be making over $70K as a 22-year-old”. Now, I wonder after reading this article, is this the future? Could it be that we return to sort of digital farming community…where families start small marketing service businesses to help others marketing and promote their businesses?

    All transitions are painful but most who go through them wouldn’t train them for the world. I’m looking ahead with optimism to my future and wishing I could hire my wife and kids to help me…better keep the money in the family than outside.

  • A

    Suburbs are ugly and sad.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Walter,
    I read your book Special Providence, and I love the names of the four schools, as you can see from my name. I also like the “Blue Model” name although I preferred it as the “Blue Beast” as in let’s slay it. I recommended you to John Ringo to improve his writing, and he dropped your name and Jacksonians into his new book “The Hot Gate”. It’s in hardback at the moment, but you can get it electronically from Baen books (http://www.baen.com/), buy the whole month 7 books for $18. I also recommended Victor Davis Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture” where he develops the concept of the Western Way of War. I believe I also recommended him to you in one of your strategy posts on Hannibal.
    I believe that all learning is based on learning the meaning of new words and new definitions to old words. That naming something makes it intelligible, by providing a symbol/word for it that can now be manipulated.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll check out the book.

  • MinnItMan

    “American Christianity and the Christian work ethic is slowly being eroded….”

    This is an interesting statement, 1) “American Christianity” has a lot of ugly overtones – but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and not think you are some kind of Christian Identity cultist (and won’t tolerate people who are); and 2) because while I know Jesus was a carpenter and definitely not lazy – although where was he for most of his working life – he never answered his messages, and thus, his work ethic was not particularly straight-forward. On the other hand, he was the original do-more-with-less Messiah.

    Like Jesus, I don’t go around trying to pick fights, but also like Jesus, I really like giving people who say this kind of thing a hard time. You are delusional until proven otherwise.

    Answers to your parting question are perhaps the 1) Anglican Church or 2) Paris being worth a Mass?

    As a former real estate ancillary service provider, I will tell you this: if I went on a marketing call (supervising my marketer employees)and the decision-maker asked me to pray with him or go to a Christian businemen’s breakfast, I wasn’t offended, at least at the offset, and I can always use a good prayer or eggs benedict. I would however make a mental note (or blackberry note) and look for them in the blotters, and guess what?

    See http://minnesotaindependent.com/48014/the-bank-that-god-built-shuttered-by-state

    for an “excellent” artistic rendering of the Christian Work Ethic.

    Sure, it’s a left-wing hack site, but it still really funny, and true.

  • MinnItMan

    Cynics don’t build anything, non-skeptics don’t build anything that lasts, and people without adequate soul-formation aren’t about anything worth doing or lasting.

    I had a much-better-considered post that got deleted.

    I seriously question the concepts of “American Christianity” or the “Christian Work Ethic,” however. The former seems theologically suspect, and the latter is certainly not obvious to me.

  • JCL

    Great blog! Much like the model of the movie industry writ large. A nation of so-called petty bourgeoisie. Your ideas will drive the Marxists nuts. But they don’t understand retail anyway, so their ideas can be dismissed. Let’s just hope that some academic Marxist in charge does not decide that neo-Kulaks need to be liquidated!

  • Georgiaboy61

    Dr. Mead, a well-done pair of articles; thank you for writing them. However, I was disappointed that you didn’t delve into the economic devastation wrought by the Federal Reserve since its formation in 1913. Debating what a new American prosperity will look like is an important exercise, but the “American Dream 3.0” isn’t based upon a sound monetary basis, it won’t matter what form it takes or what it looks like. Baron Rothschild, of the famed family of bankers by that name, once said that it matters not who is the political leader of a nation; give him control of its money supply, and he (Rothschild) will control that nation. The USD has declined in value since 1900 such that today’s USD is worth only five cents or so compared to the USD in those days. Where did the rest of the value go? Stolen, via inflation – which is a form of hidden taxation, of theft.

    As long as we are discussing the changes we’d like to see in the next version of the American dream, let’s wish for a monetary policy which does not concentrate such enormous power in so few hands, and one based upon a real store of value instead of being just fiat money. That’s only a start – there are many other necessary changes, but I’ll leave those in more capable hands.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Mr. Seneker, re: “We need to decentralize decision-making as much as possible down from the top of the pyramid as close to the person(s) affected by the decisions as possible” and “In an authoritarian system, of course, command-and-control is also a necessity. But the bigger and more centralized the pyramid-bureaucracy, the less effective will be elections in controlling Leviathan” and finally “You are not free if you are not making the decisions that affect your life.”

    Very well-said, especially the last sentence above. The type of system we have now, using massive, centralized, top-down bureaucracies and hierarchies to run gigantic, globe-spanning businesses as well as governments, provides economies of scale and certain other efficiencies. This system has also provided material wealth on a scale that dwarfs what communism was able to do.
    However, efficiency should not be the highest value in life, unless one is inclined to see human beings as simply a commodity, as individual units of economic value. Traditionally, Americans have valued other things above efficiency – we are not Recardians and Benthamites. We have always sought the means to lead a better life, not merely a more materialist life. The two are very different things. Old-time conservatives, like Dr. Russell Kirk, have long known these things. One of the strengths of the past we should seek to recapture is that of giving the individual worker greater agency in his own life and work. That means greater decision-making power, being vested in the ownership of your product, good or service, and a return to the value of craftsmanship (even when craftsmenship is more expensive than something made by a robot). In today’s world, we exist to serve the economy; in tomorrow’s world, the economy ought to exist to serve us. True, many of us are fortunate-enough to live in material comfort, free from want, but we have traded liberty for security. A small but very powerful and well-leveraged transnational elite controls the commanding heights of the world economy, from which they direct us to do their bidding. As long as this situation obtains, we can be neither free nor prosperous into the future.

  • Jim.

    MinnItMan – if you’d like to actually understand the Christian Work Ethic, you need to read the letters of St. Paul, not just the Gospels. And you should stick to the blotters rather than looking to comic works of Left-wing hacks for validation of your prejudices.

    A – Suburbs are what you make them, and much prettier than cities when you get up close and personal with them, which is how life is actually lived. Urban areas are what *someone else* made them (and thus less of a space for the independent-minded freeholder.) Rural areas are what God made them – but He didn’t make them for people who don’t want to put in a good deal of work taking the realities of their surroundings into account.

    Paul Z – I expect someone will write a book soon (once Moore’s Law sputters out) called Moore’s Wall, dealing with the failures of mathematical prognostication based on irresponsibly extrapolating data trends. (Las Vegas should have encompassed the population of the world by now, shouldn’t it?) Ignoring the laws of physics — which tell you quite emphatically that you can’t take a vehicle from here to the moon on a drop of gas — is never a good idea. But I guess the Blue Social Model’s favorite fields of economics and political science are based primarily on those sorts of reckless abuses of math, so the East Coast Establishment would never allow such a book to see the light of day. 😉

  • B Burgart

    Dr. Mead,

    Your statement, ‘A nation of family farms is a nation of family firms; suburban America was a land of employees’ ,is simply profound.

    I think technology will continue to encourage many people to start their own family firms or join the small family based business. How this evolution will affect society and politics will be very interesting to see. If an individual is self-employed (self-directed, not dependent on a large firm), works from home, is well connected with their family and community, they will view the world differently from a person who commutes to large (possibly unionized) firm / institution and works as an employee. The large firm offers stability (or at least the illusion of stability) but the employee is a ‘cog in the wheel’. It may be difficult or impossible to see or appreciate the fruits of your labour; you show up and work for two weeks and a paycheque comes. Contrast that to the self employed person, where a lot of very diverse decisions everyday day lead to success (or not). It may be a situation where that person either lands the new client or the money stops. That person somehow makes the project deadline or the client is gone. As you say, ‘you eat what you kill’.

    The self-employed person is still dependent on their family/community/network – no one who is successful is an island – but they are not part of or dependent on a large institution. Large institutions are typically managed by ‘leaders’ and ‘experts’. A self employed person is his/her own leader. Experts are only hired when needed and are chosen to by merit not by authority or position.

    How do these two people see the world? It’s not necessarily and right/wrong issue but they will see the world differently. As you ask, what societal/political changes will result from this?

    To Roberto above: there are plenty honest, hardworking people in the world that don’t go to church.
    I am not an authority on the specific ‘Christian’ work ethic, but I do think government largess has eroded the general work ethic to some degree.

  • Old Steve

    Dr. Mead:

    It was a nice noble attempt. But Charming Billy and Scott Cone (above) have it right: the suburban masses lack the skills to succeed in a post-industrial economy. And the many of the urban Lumpenproletariat have no skills at all.

    Your suburban idyll is a Utopia, a hamburger without the meat and in many cases, without the grill or even the house (in the wake of the foreclosure crisis).

    But the golden nugget in your essay was the part about education. We need a radical transformation for our kids to acquire the skills they need today. Public education, in days of yore a great lifter of the masses, today churns out unquestioning clones.

    They are ready for a lifetime of cubicle servitude or government subsidy. They are not ready to restore our republic to its former greatness. Education is the place to start your quest.

  • L. Nichols

    Mr. Mead,
    You did not address the fact that the latest census shows that married couples are no longer a majority in this country, which is a gaping hole in your analysis for future social organization. Would you please do so now?

  • stephen russell

    I say revive the suburbs into these:
    Ag Suburbs for farming, ranches
    Ind suburbs for Ind parks, see San Jose/Irvine CA as role models for uniting work & play into 1.

  • valwayne

    What American Dream? Obama is quickly turning the American dream into nightmare where all anybody strives to do is maximize their share of the Government dole. Why work hard for a better life? Obama will just strip it all from you to share the wealth with people who can’t or won’t work. Better to just give up the stress of working and struggling to make your life and the lives of your children better and settle into a life on Obama’s government dole. Obama’s turning the American dream into who gets the most from the Government!

  • Whit

    Small Business is going to have to retrench as well… no more making payroll by taking a short term loan.

    I don’t know if more families trying to strike out on their own is the answer but I can see more families diversifying their income streams or at least make some of their activities pay for themselves (gardens, trading of services with local neighbors). I can also see more folks desiring to work part time so they can spend more time at home and cut down on commuting costs. The only thing holding that down now is the hideous tax treatment of health insurance plans that practically enslave people to 40 hour work weeks for the sake of insurance plans that they can only get through an employer due to the bias against individuals holding their own insurance. If this Nation would ever fix health care in a practical way that empowers individuals (not the collective), I believe we would see a huge transformation in work patterns.

  • Wow, Dr. Mead has hit the nail on the head. At the great risk of the self-gratuitous plug, I believe that one part of the solution is greater participation in angel investor groups.

    I recently wrote a short book about these new investor groups, and about how eventually they may arise within our neighborhoods and invest in the small business ideas of our neighbors, and in our neighborhoods themselves.

    It’s called, “A Mid-Life American Dream”.

    See http://www.amazon.com/A-Mid-Life-American-Dream-ebook/dp/B002JCSU4U

  • tz

    Generally societies make changes because they are forced to, not because they want to.

    The middle class suburban dream has been on the decline for decades: no more steady job for dad, fifty percent of marriages ending in divorce, mom working during the day and returning home to work in the evening, kids raised in single parent households.

    Already adult aged children are moving in with their parents. Grandparents are parenting their grandchildren. Young people are scrounging up part time jobs.

    We’re back to the frontier again, but instead of chopping down trees to make a log cabin and oxen to pull up stumps, we’re recreating ourselves while living in the hollowed out shells of suburbia.

  • Wes

    Bravo, Mr. Mead, Bravo. I fear it is too late to re-teach self reliance to our citizenry and I too often fear our elites are licking their chops at the notion.

  • My recently released Kindle pamphlet, “My Jeffersonian Home” on Amezon.com, starts with Jefferson’s view of the farmer as the ideal citizen for our Republic. In moving through current technologies to enable the self-sufficient family I think it directly addresses all your points in this article. We ARE moving to a new structure, more integrated and loving than anything we’ve seen in generations. The CNC routers, 3D printers, aquaponics, and ever increasing grasp of the universe’s fruits via Xprize challenges are forever going to change us all.

  • Luke Lea

    @tz “Generally societies make changes because they are forced to, not because they want to.”

    And so, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, we make a virtue out of necessity, as all the world’s religions do.

  • Steven

    Your analysis fails on the premise that we are all passive actors in some transcendent historical experience. In Rome, we would all be slaves. In Europe of olde, we would sell our freedoms to a local politician for a bit of grain and ale.

    The truth is, groups that have a bias towards consumption or investment are not made so by virtue of which house they are in at any given time. Neighborhoods in New York have gone from well-maintained to trash-strewn and back and the buildings were the same in all three cases. The city, by and large, was the same. The owners of the houses in the neighborhood changed and the neighborhood changed with the people, not vice-versa.

    Two children will go to the same school. One will take honor classes, take calculus, learn to read and write, will excel. Another will fail through and graduate barely literate. The driving factor in their performance is their family and culture, the expectations placed on them. We see this routinely with the children of immigrants, where an emphasis is placed on education. I have friends who are educators who have also seen the opposing pattern in gang families, where the children are going to fail, it’s pretty much a given they’ll go into the system at some point, and their ability to read, write, invest or save are marginal.

    In both cases, family culture has a great deal more to do with the quality of education the child will receive and the course their life will take than whether they “cooked all their vittles in the same pot.”

    You’re lowering the quality of your analysis because you’ve fallen in love with your ability to quote from a book you read in junior high… and because it allows you to avoid serious analysis of the institutions that bias towards failure or success.

    Are some schools better than others? Yes. However, one-room school houses and families a hundred years ago did a far better job of teaching children to read and write than our public-union warehouses, today. The literacy rate and the overall quality of education has dropped dramatically since the public unions were allowed to form.

    You should focus less on ideal neighborhood formations and focus more on the institutions which promote excellence. Hint: public employee unions do not.

  • tom mclaughlin

    All due respect to our host, who’s trying as always to sketch a new paradigm of sorts with his “2.0” formula, but his vision of a nation of small businessmen, or free agent “subcontractors,” is nonsense. Running a small business is a nightmare for the vast majority. It offers next to no security and requires extremely long hours which undermine a parent’s ability to provide any kind of supplemental education to his or her kids. Despite its many benefits, the small business model is simply not appropriate for most people who are parents of school age children, which is why most people continue to work for huge employers and always will.

    Now, it’s true that new forms of information sharing and collaboration are revising the Coates definition of the firm. Certainly there will be new and many more forms of small market transactions and interactions that will expand the definition of what’s inside the corporate firewall.

    But you will still come up against the hard fact that the uncertainty created by replacing the corporate employment model with the market interaction model, ie transactions between free agents / small businessmen / subcontractors, is deadly for a stable family model. Unlike the 19c farm family model, we’re not going to have junior get involved in drafting mom’s invoices, or helping dad bash out code, or preparing sales pitches and marketing presentations. Kids can haul water or pitch hay. They can’t run a 21c business operation.

    Mr. Mead, I’d recommend you field-test your ideas with real people in real places. Come to Silicon Valley, where thousands work as subcontractors to the big cash cows like Cisco.

    Those without children hate the contractor life. They have absolutely no security, they have to buy health insurance on the private market, they have to pay middlemen a huge cut of their wages (the majors won’t hire independent agents), and to get health insurance they have to incorporate and pay outrageous California taxes.

    On top of which, they are now being laid off by the thousands as the corporate wheel turns and the likes of John Chambers decide that maybe 50 different businesses and thousands of independent hired guns running amok wasn’t such a good idea.

    You can rail against benefits all you like, but until you find a way to decouple health insurance from employment– and make good insurance available to everyone regardless of employment status– the free-agent fantasy will be a luxury for anyone with a family.

  • Peter Verkooijen

    The American Dream is that you can build a life from scratch for yourself and your children without being held back by government or class, that America is a place where everybody is equal under the law and everybody has the same opportunities, so you have a fair shot at succeeding if you just work hard.

    That dream is very real for me as a Dutchman who moved to New York a decade ago. It is about much more than just buying a house – I still rent… – and the white picket fence and all the other BS that cynical Americans talk about. Home ownership has been debased in the US, turned into a favor from the government.

    If the American Dream is dead – and under Obama it definitely is – I’ll have to find some other place to live my dream. Where?

  • chris

    To say not much (as opposed to nothing) about the internalized effects on genders. I read elsewhere that the ration of workers to population today vs 2000 represents as if all women were to leave the workforce.

    How long was it going to be before we realized that, while of course in this society women work, have right to work, etc….that it would show up as the number it is….more people competing for the same jobs.

    Everything about this genesis outlined has changed what was a basis for civilization for eons. The Bible predicts every bit of it, and soon we will be a nation with even stagnant technology, but really pretty cases to carry all the gadgets in.

  • Michael

    Perhaps a future essay might find parallels between Filmore, Pierce, Buchannan and Clinton, Bush, Obama.

    Seems like American Dream 3.0 is a tad interrelated with the trajectory of Chinese Dream 1.0. You can more easily speculate on scenarios where this goes horribly off-track than envision a process where an autocratic mercantilist society peaceably transitions to a long-term middle class-based liberal Western democracy.

    Japan never really made this transition and is now mired in a permanent demographic-driven decline, completely lacking in political leadership to chart a new vision for its society.

    Much is said of the lack of nimbleness due to our federal system and the modern political dynamic. However, our political and economic model has demonstrated repeated flexibility without breaking.

    This is the fundamental difference between the “old” and “new” worlds.

  • DONALD JAMES COX

    OMG! I recently turned 80…..what did I do? Born in the depression, educated in wars, retired alone, and home value decreased so much I can’t sell it, and don’t know how I survived and stayed healthy….maybe I am dead and don’t know it!

  • MinnItMan

    I’m always open to the idea that my views are skewed, but the archetype of small business to me was the local hardware store owner who shared many of the qualities discussed here explicitly or implicitly. Highly experienced, lots of particular knowledge, etc. How many of these are left?

    The political beauty of the real estate bubble (I’m not saying the goodness, btw) is that it absorbed all sorts of people into its big firms, created all sorts of small firms, and everything in between. Some of the big firms are still there, for now.

    Not to be a pessimist, but something I do see quite a bit of are highly experienced people with lots of particular knowledge, able to work hard and long hours (the primary determinants of income, IMO) whose knowledge and experience can quickly lose value. Smart is smart and hussle is hussle, but rapid change requires one to always being looking for the exits and new entrances. Almost all my friends do this, and almost all of them have had significant success – and long periods of wheel-spinning. Almost all are divorced (at least once). All of them are good parents.

    I went to a “good” high school in the late-70s that considered itself (and really was) cutting edge in preparing students’ expectations for the future. Maybe every semester, there would be a “Day of Concern.” One of those had Henry Steele Commager prefacing this era. Although an historian, this was definitely futurism, but turned to be pretty right, if understated.

    Now, 35 years later, we’ve learned a lot, but I’m skeptical about how close we are to making that knowledge and experience work, particularly as refelected by our political and civic institutions.

    Dyanamism – and the opportunities it creates and destroys – is an awesome force, and I’m trying to help my own kids come to terms with it. It helps to have good health, energy, and not a little luck.

  • Tim B

    What I find fascinating about this essay and the resulting comments the variety of perceptions about whose “fault” this is and which party or ideology is making “it” better or worse. The cult of consumption, its reliance on debt and its uncritical acceptance of this vision found voice with both parties and all our citizens at various times, but in different ways. I could present coherent arguments that both the GOP or the Democrats are mostly at fault, but that doesn’t help us answer Dr. Meade’s question, and our challenge . . . “what’s next?” Obviously, a culture that begins to question the value of consumption and challenges big business’s drive to get us to consume more than we “need” seems to undermine common GOP scripture and a sense that “we” need to “plan” the American Dream 3.0 (whatever it is) seems to play into Democratic instincts to “plan” rather than just let chaos produce something “good.” The next 40 years will be interesting to live through.

  • Engineer

    I think Jeff W has one of the most cogent observations on this piece with his distinction of Breadwinner vs. Service business. Like several of the other commenters I’m currently gainfully employed in the semiconductor industry, and I just don’t see how mom and pop free-lancers are going to more than peripherally involved with multi-billion semiconductor factories and their even more expensive and complex successors.

    One possible outcome would be that conventional employees come to a different understanding of their conventional Blue model implicit life-time employment contract to something more like free agency where the employees are always on the look out to pursue opportunities in their interest. I would hazard a guess that the economy is unevenly evolving toward that understanding now with some folks (like Silicon valley professionals) having already internalized its lessons and others (like a lot of Wisconsin school teachers)actively working to prolong their Blue Model social contract with most us scattered in between.

    I think that the commenters present a cross-section of assessments about the life of an independent contractor from nightmarish to utopian.

    This leads, for me anyway, to a hypothesis that income stratification may only increase. Take professional sports as the paradigm. Hundreds of millions of people know how to play basketball. At most, few thousand are good enough to earn a living at it in the entire world. A few dozen, the best of the best, are good enough to command truly obscene salaries. Translate that distrbution to engineering, program management, education, or even food service (there is a big gap in earnings between a burger flipper and an executive chef or even a waiter at a 5 star restaurant) Likewise, “breadwinning” industries with billions of invested capital will pay handsomely for top performing talent, but there will be brutally Darwinian competition for those slots so longevity in those roles is questionable.

    After digesting this, I’m persuaded that things may be rougher in transition than it seemed in a first reading of Dr. Mead’s essay.

  • Engineer

    P.S., is it only me or does it seem tacky to self-promote books and pamphlets in a comment thread? (However, if one is self-employed and deriving royalty income as an entrepreneurial author this might be a perfectly reasonable promotional strategy and part of American Dream 2.0).

  • Luke Lea

    @tom mclaughlin: “[Mead’s] his vision of a nation of small businessmen, or free agent “subcontractors,” is nonsense.”

    I have to partially agree. Due to the realities of the human material and the nature of mass-production on which a lot of modern productivity is built it is unrealistic to suppose that more than a small minority can be self-employed. People can’t make a living taking in each other’s wash, every community (household, family, town, state, country) must goods and services equal in value to those it imports, and for most people this means working for corporations that benefit from the economies of scale. Just look at all the stuff around you that belongs to you, including the food you eat, the entertainment you consume, the gasoline you burn, your books, clothes, even your health insurance: these are all mass-produced by big corporations that employ lots of labor and capital. A small number of talented people like Walt can sit in their underwear and provide a valuable to service at a distance over the internet or on his word-processor; but for the average person (processing insurance claims for instance) that would be at best something like to old putting out system in which peasants (and their children) toiled at their spinning wheels.

    Factories, including paper factories, owned and managed by corporations are here to stay. They will continue to be the main source of employment except in abnormal periods such as the last couple of decades when families, cities, states, and the whole nation ran a negative balance of trade, called going into debt. 🙂 In the next period we’re going to have to export more than we consume. It won’t be fun but manufacturing employment will definitely be up. Buy stock in Lincoln Electric.

  • Whit

    Luke- i agree with your reasoning- thats why i think we will see more change in work hours and work patterns as opposed to be running their own small buisiness. People will still want and need things that only companies that leverage economies of scale can produce. They might demand less and that in turn may reduce options and increase some prices but thats a far cry from every man opening a shop that has limited market. As I also mentioned- I think local barter economies will flourish, not so much in physical goods but in services and trades. They will in no way replace a money economy but as folks rethink the way they want to work and live, not to mention shortterm distrust in fiat currency, such a supplemental economy (to a still present national and international money economy) will have a natural place.

  • Ginger Nut

    Two regulatory changes could help things:

    1. Let’s tax consumption more than labor and investment (right now taxes dramatically punish income, not consumption). When consumption is more expensive and work/saving more rewarding, we’ll revitalize small businessmen, investors and dedicated savers. The return on your work and investments increases by 30% but all your consumption costs 40% more: what would you do? (Progressivity is easily maintained in a consumption tax.)

    2. The tax law forces companies to treat most of their service providers as employees. End that and more of us become consultants, temps, etc. Taking responsibility over our retirement, health costs, bookkeeping, tools of the trade and reproving our worth makes us hardier, more sober, more able and worthy.

    (Congress likes employment classification because it forces businesses to act as tax collector, pension advisor, health care broker, building inspector and execute any number of social policies. That dilutes nutritious individual responsibility.)

  • Ginger Nut

    We must invite intrepid, young immigrants (balanced from all over the world, not just one region). They bring energy, hope and appreciation. Hopefully they’ll dilute the boomers, this nation’s the least prudent, most overweeningly entitled cohort.

  • Luke Lea

    @Ginger Nut above:
    Two regulatory changes could help things:

    1. Let’s tax consumption more than labor and investment (right now taxes dramatically punish income, not consumption).”

    So true — but to do it progressively would require shutting down overseas tax havens, which requires international cooperation. There are no “national” solutions to our problems anymore.

    [I refer to the concept of a graduated consumption tax, aka, graduated expenditure tax, as outlined by Irving Fisher in 1942, implementation of which was not practical before the internet.]

    For those unfamiliar with Fisher’s proposal it would be roughly like converting all bank and brokerage accounts of private individuals into IRA accounts with no limits on contributions and no penalties on early withdrawals. Thus all accounts have to be registered. It would replace capital gains, interest, and income taxes at the federal level — estate taxes too possibly.

    A side benefit is that international criminal syndicates, terrorist organizations, etc., would find it harder to use the international banking system.

  • Software Specialist

    Well said Ginger Nut…
    “2. The tax law forces companies to treat most of their service providers as employees. End that and more of us become consultants, temps, etc. Taking responsibility over our retirement, health costs, bookkeeping, tools of the trade and reproving our worth makes us hardier, more sober, more able and worthy.”

    Companies need contractors to work on a temporary basis. The outsourcing revolution was not only about cost but flexibility too. If the tax law did not discriminate against contractors, many more successful companies could have resulted as a result of the bootstrap financing available. We might not be facing such an unemployment situation today, if our opportunities had not been exported all this time.

    Section 1706 has done US all a great injustice, the brain child of architect: Senator Frank Lautenberg, founder of paycheck processor:ADP.

  • John

    So although Jefferson was wrong about Hamilton’s vision because he did not consider the mortgage era and the responsibility that it would endow to its owners, might he be right about an era like today? Might some new Debs figure spring up and point out that with overseas competition, the dearth of cheap credit, and the accelerating brutal efficiency of new technology that the only realistic way for Americans to live better than their parents is with a European-style nanny state? Indeed, might Obama be the first sign of this?

  • Sorry for bringing up the rear more than a little late (or bringing it DOWN, as the case may be).

    Again, commendations on both chapters of a very solid essay. But I wonder if your very neat dichotomy of family farm vs suburban home doesn’t very neatly elide a certain middle chapter of the story – that of the city front porch, and so of the urban ethnic neighborhood. A period in which the family may or may not have been a production unit (family grocery or hardware store?). But certainly it seems to have been a far more stable and predictable unit of affection and love than anything we’ve known over the past 20 to 30 years. Granted it was a period of enormous influx of un-American types like Catholics, Jews and even (EGADS!) Orthodox Christians into our large cities. But I’m not sure even a majority of us saw our neighborhoods as merely springboards for exit into some leafy suburban paradise. Many families I know and know of stayed in those comparatively dense urban neighborhoods as long as they could, and even succeeded in retaining much of that same “dense urban network” flavor in the collar suburbs to which they eventually moved.

    Indeed, once we’re able to step back – a few decades hence? – from our present demonization of the Bad Old Twentieth Century (BOTC),* I would hope we might even see the period, say, roughly from 1890 to 1980 as a kind of golden age of the urban ethnic neighborhood. The first couple of decades, of course, were anything but golden for the working classes (pre-1910 urban America was no more a “workers’ paradise” than was Labour Britain in the ‘60s and ‘70s – much less any sick utopia dreamed up by Lenin, Mao or Pol Pot). But the entire period, at least in the US, does seem to exhibit a certain coherence and continuity of residence, pattern of life, and even aspiration towards a better life.

    *Needless to say I don’t include our blog host among that mounting (and growing?) chorus of demonizers. If anything I would describe WRM’s view of the past 80 years as one of critical affection – the affection and the criticism becoming more and more inversely proportionate (and in my view rightly) the closer we approach that fateful Year of Reckoning, 2008. But as always correction is welcome.

    At the same time, more globally, the Age of Urban Neighborhoods does seem to coincide with – if not culminate – a period of dramatic developments in the West. For 1890 to 1980 does in fact encompass (rather neatly, too) almost the entire period of:

    1) the closure of the Western colonial frontiers;
    2) the consolidation and integration of the Western colonial empires;
    3) the deconstruction and liquidation of those same empires.

    Ah, NO WONDER the Age I like to call the “Long and Short 20th Century” remains an era most controversial and bitterly-fought-over. Nowadays the concept of “the West” is one we’re not even sure we can stomach, much less remember fondly. In fact I shouldn’t be surprised if our present post-colonial era came to be remembered as a Golden Age of Western Self-Hatred. On the Left, more precisely, as one of ancestor-hatred, -guilt and -shame; on the Right as an era of hardly less vehement ancestor-contempt and -ridicule. So today we have the former side boasting of its moral and “political” superiority to our beastly colonialist Western forebears; the latter vaunting its intellectual and “practical” superiority. The Left indicting the final colonial generations for moral bankruptcy, the Right arraigning them for economic incompetence. Gee, do you suppose we’ll ever be able simply to LEARN anything from those blithering idiots, our Western grand- through great-great-grandparents?

    My own hunch is we may in fact have a great deal to learn. Of course the original Western colonizers – Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British – committed huge errors of judgment (to say nothing of their usual cruelties and atrocities) during the 1890-1980 period.* Yet the same era was also characterized by SOME effort actually to know and understand, from a standpoint of something more like direct and immediate experience, those same non-Western peoples with whom we’d been “distantly” trading, warring and slaving for well over four centuries. I’ll admit we Westerners approached this task from a vast array of motives good, bad and indifferent. But at least we TRIED – hardly good enough, I know, in this present age of robotized efficiency and business perfectionism – we tried to grasp something of the deeper wellsprings of culture, symbol, myth and motivation that seemed to actuate our many colonized peoples. Peoples whom in many cases we’d “known” for SUCH a long time that, indeed – up till then – we’d scarcely bothered to “get to know” them at all. And mind you, the task was undertaken largely from the humblest and most practical (if not downright base) motives. After all, with the final closure of colonial frontiers they were “our” peoples now as never before – or since, for that matter. If nothing else, we did a damned sight better than pontificating about them from some lofty distance, on the assumption that all non-Westerners were either:

    1) a priori indistinguishable from ourselves, and so prepared to do everything we did more or less instantly (and thus instantly morally culpable if they did not); or else

    2) separated from us by some unbridgeable gulf of capacity and understanding (and so, being “subhuman,” liable to be treated by us in whatever ways we deemed “necessary” and “efficient”).

    In short, we questioned assumptions under which we’d largely been operating, in our dealings with the “non-West,” since at least 1492. Assumptions we seem to be slowly falling back into, if I’m not mistaken, since 1980.

    *Are we supposed to believe their Axis would-be successors would have been kinder? more patient? more genteel?

    It is the seemingly “blank” openness and limitlessness of frontiers that often makes it most hard for us to see the humanity of the people on the other side of them. People whose land or resources – or labor – we may “urgently” need. Alternatively, “open” frontiers may incline us to gloss over real differences of culture and perception, creating unrealistic and unsatisfiable expectations of people whom we don’t really (care to) understand, thereby rendering us all the more “greedily” impatient when those expectations aren’t met. Of course I don’t know where our “next frontier” will arise – though I have little doubt it will be spatial and earth-bound as well as cyberspatial and electronic (Central Asia, anyone?). But if our new “vast and limitless” prospects have anything like the psychological effect on us of our previous ones, then I suggest we NOT expect the best side of our fallen human nature to be forthcoming anytime soon. I fear we may be in for some long, serious and grievous instability. And not necessarily a Divinely-inspired – or even a Divinely-approved – kind either. I mean rather the kind of instability that makes dictatorship, of one sophisticated variety or another, very tempting – and not least to our courageously innovative and freedom-loving rich and powerful. Above all we should take especial care, I think, not to over-idealize the gee-whiz, limitless possibility, open-frontier-driven American 19th century. We may find ourselves resuscitating more arrogance, presumption, cruelty, haste, and hasty misjudgment – in short, more needless and endless misunderstanding – than even we clever confident Yanks could ever have bargained for.

  • Prof. Mead,

    Well said. Some of us are indeed making the lifestyle and career choices to keep the American Dream alive. I may be one of those using version 3.0: an architectural engineer, I design buildings from my workstations at a small office or from my rural home. We have one of our children and our five grandchildren sharing our large rural home with us, as it will soon enough be theirs anyway; they may as well build the gardens themselves.

    They are being ‘homeschooled’ (actually ‘school’ is nothing like what is done around here, as you describe the rural life). The three living generations of our family constitute a microeconomy unto itself, interfacing with many other homeschooling families similarly adapting by the grace of God.

    Being law-abiding Nontaxpayers, we are among the estimated 67 million non-filers in America, as I explain on a site called “A Tax Honesty Primer”.

    Plaion, honest hard work. Something very like ‘family secession’ from the whirl and din of urbanity and the criminogenic Washington D.C. payroll-skimming operation.

    I think it’s something like what Davidson and Rees-Mogg posited ca. 15 years ago in their book ‘The Sovereign Individual’. It seems that America is still a city set on a hill; sui generis in all the world. For which we give thanks to God.

  • Tamar Frankiel

    Thanks for your analysis. As a scholar of American popular culture & religion, I think you’re correct. Jefferson’s assurance to his opponents that “America is different” because farmers are businessmen is very sound. The independent yeoman farmer versus the huddled masses of the city was of course partly mythological. But property ownership does give a person a real investment not only in “real estate” but in community and politics.
    The farmer, however, had a connection to the supply/demand cycle which suburbanites do not have – it is mediated mysteriously by a plethora of stores and advertising to consumers. I, as a child of the suburbs, have much less ‘business sense’ than my parents, one from a farm family and the other a federal employee, but who also ran a small business for several years. How do we re-create that kind of education back in, so that the coming generation can indeed build small businesses that will succeed?

    Personal notes that affirm your account: As a child of parents who came of age during the Depression, I heard this love song – the song of the American farm (without the hard work):
    With someone like you, a pal who’s good and true,
    I’d like to leave it all behind, and go and find
    A place that’s known to God alone, just the place to call our own.
    We’ll find perfect peace and joy will never cease
    Out there beneath the open sky.
    We’ll build a sweet little nest somewhere out in the West,
    And let the rest of the world go by.

    My parents ended up in the suburbs, and actually transferred the dream pretty well to their new life; it was not as alienated as the song you cite suggests, perhaps because we were still in a fairly homogenous Midwestern area, and maintained relations with extended family, so the feeling growing up was that we were an extension of the old homestead. Economically it worked because my dad had a solid government job, retired after 30 years with a good pension, and would have had a comfortable nest egg for the rest of his life, had he not remarried, after my mother’s death, a woman who insisted on buying a house in a very different economy.

    I grew up with the dream of owning my own home, and my in-laws also felt their son should have a home (my husband was more ambivalent), and we eventually bought one. However, reading your article, I realize that we probably would have run into a great deal more trouble, given our less stable incomes, had my husband’s family not recognized the great value of buying a place that also had rental property. That income more than once saved our ability to pay the mortgage. And, overall, it was the solidity of the previous generation’s savings that made a huge difference in our comfort over the years.

  • Yahzooman

    As usual your essay is provocative and insightful.

    I disagree a bit about the farm years in America. Those “halcyon” days were far from the Currier & Ives portrait. Rural life was brutal and hard. Farm work ground up and spat out every member of the family.

    There was a reason for big farm families, aside from the pill not yet being invented. Child labor was needed; and people died in farm-related accidents or perished because hospitals were 100 miles away.

    I was in a reality show series on The Discovery Channel. For six months, we lived in South Africa like farmers from the year 1820. We experienced disease, injury and animal predators. The romanticized past became a harsh reality.

    Yes, farm life was enriching in many ways. But it was also a slog, with little time for intellectual enrichment or entertainment. I prefer my modern life.

    The American Dream is not embedded in farm or factory. It’s in our hearts. Americans dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some of us achieve it, others do not. Nothing is guaranteed. All we need is equal opportunity; not guaranteed equal outcome.

  • American Dream is not for illegal immigrants.

    Victoria’s story is one of heartbreak, she thought the American Dream was to come here and work hard, make money to help her family and have a family of her own. Yes, both her and Jennifer are illegal; however, this does not mean that they are not human beings. Instead of the “American Dream” they have gotten the “American Nightmare”. Victoria has been bullied, DCF stole her sister and her nieces, she wants her family but they say because she is illegal she can not have them, she can not even see them. This is not true and we have asked for this law and it has not been produced. She wants her family. And Ms. Jensen lawyer for DCF has taken both of these children and her sister and removed them not only from their family but their culture to give them to the “American” family she feels is more appropriate, the legal, white family. These children are wanted by family. Because she is illegal and Hispanic her civil liberties are worth nothing. I guess this is one way to stop illegal immigration, steal their children.

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