Saturday, February 5, 2011

New American Dream

I’ve been thinking a bit about this since I wrote my post “Changing Expectations”. We all need to acknowledge that the fantasy of the American Dream is swiftly becoming unobtainable for many, if it ever was obtainable, and is causing others to work harder and for longer hours than ever before. One doesn’t need to look very far to see how that has happened. Jobs that pay a living wage for those without a college education have all but disappeared, as our base manufacturing has been off-shored. One of the last bastions of good middle class jobs, the public sector, is under attack from every angle. As jobs, pay, benefits, and pensions are all under the microscope in these difficult times. Unemployment is over 10% in my State. No one sees it turning to pre-recession levels anytime soon. The truth is that labor hasn’t been in a power position for over forty years. Real wages have been declining since the 1970s. President Obama in his State of the Union address espoused the idea that we need to become more competitive on the global marketplace. Since we are one of the most prosperous countries in the world, what do you suppose that means for the average wage earner? Higher productivity. Healthier profit margins. These just mean that you’ll work for more hours, for less money in the global economy.

Here is how the New American Dream fits in. We can’t fight globalization. We could do a better job of managing it. We’ve already had a lot of collateral damage with the loss of our manufacturing base. Still, we stand to lose more. My proposal is simple on its face. As working people, we can’t fight globalization but perhaps we can minimize some of its effects by drawing up a new charter for our future. Here it is simply: we need to work less and downshift our expectations. Post-war prosperity enabled many Americans to enjoy a good life: a good paying job enough to support a family, a house of one’s own, a little extra money to enjoy life’s little luxuries. I don’t think we should give up on the basics. Everyone deserves to earn a living wage enough to support a family, everyone should have decent housing, and a little leftover to save or spend on a few luxuries. That is not to say that everyone needs a 2,000 square foot house, 150,000 a year, and a boat or a motorhome. Think simply. Think about one parent working with decent pay, benefits, and paid time off, a small apartment or house that is just big enough, and an annual trip up to the mountains to spend a week in a cabin. That might not sound terribly appealing to some people. Think about the time that we would all have to spend with one another, with family and friends. Think about the community that could be built if instead of competing with one another for the biggest pile of possessions, we would share what we had. One might argue that this is a great idea but it isn’t possible to achieve that in the new global economy. Part of that will have to come through government intervention. I’ll address that in tomorrow’s post.

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