Hunting the American Dream

From a voter’s perspective, below are characteristics of today's political landscape loosely organized from left to right:

  • Narrow, exclusive, insular, condescending.
  • --- ---
  • Stodgy, conventional, predictable, opportunistic.
  • Libertarian, rhetorical, nationalistic, arbitrary.
  • Divisive, authoritarian, imperious, intolerant.

From the presumption that ‘for the people’ is ‘by the people’ to the misguided belief that we can and should time travel to a misremembered past, over the last 60 years our leaders have consistently delivered injudicious, bureaucratic preservation to a majority of Americans.

This majority of Americans have fallen through a hole between condescending and stodgy. Other countries have managed to fill that hole, but in our ignorance, for varying reasons, we have not only not taken care of our own but in many cases deny them as a part of us.

It is not only the obvious; anyone less wealthy, less powerful, is (to varying degrees) lost. And it is apparent that the American Dream, paired with any combination of choices we are given in today’s political landscape, no longer works for anyone who is lost.

Many of these lost Americans don’t realize and/or won’t admit that they are lost. Many of these lost Americans believe they have more influence, more say-so, than what they do. Many of these lost Americans are still optimistic, still hopeful, still susceptible. Most of these lost Americans pick their path from the choices given, often based on a single characteristic. Many of these lost Americans don’t know that there can and should be additional options between condescending and stodgy; options more complementary with the American Dream. Things like:

  • Understanding, expressive, equitable, reciprocal.
  • Helpful, considerate, compassionate, respectful,

Taxidermy: “the art of preparing and preserving and stuffing and mounting in lifelike form.”

Today our political system is the hunter, our leaders are the taxidermists busy preparing, preserving, stuffing and mounting, and the American Dream is the head mounted on the wall.

If instead our leaders would be caretakers, custodians, curators, watchdogs, perhaps the American Dream would come alive for more Americans.

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One Rule

There is only one rule: once you put something in, you cannot take it out.

Imagine an empty container before time. It is yours. You can put anything in it you want. You can pile it in haphazardly, or you can plan and place methodically. Once you think you have it filled, you can stop or you can make more room. To rearrange and organize items in your container, you must climb in; you must be hands-on; responsible. Each container is open at the top and appears to be just taller than your outstretched fingers, about that same length, and as wide as you are tall. On its outside, each container has a built-on platform running the length of one side. There are visiting hours, (which you do not always get to set), when others can climb onto the platform and peer into your container. As you grow, your container grows.

During visiting hours, you will hear opinions, advice, judgements; and you will be swayed. You will work to hide this item or that item. You will move one item to a more prominent position, you will work to repair another item, and you will work to sell your items even though they are and always will be your items. You will display nice-looking items that are mere shells, empty boxes that make your container look more full. And you will scruff up a few items to make your container look more authentic; hard-earned.

After a period of time listening to everybody, you will find you agree with some and disagree with others. During their visiting hours, you will more frequently visit the containers of those you agree with and you will more frequently avoid peering into the containers of those that you disagree with; those that make you uncomfortable. You will (consciously and subconsciously) begin modeling your container to complement the containers of those you admire, those you respect, those who have gained your confidence, in hopes that they will approve and perhaps copy some individual elements from your container. You will work toward your security, your tranquility, your comfort; you will be disappointed; you may grow weary, become discouraged, complacent; you will be uncertain, you will struggle, you may question and challenge, you may prevail, you will laugh, you will cry, you will smile; you will work toward satisfaction, an ultimate topping off, a conclusion; you will stop growing.

Imagine your container, outside of time…

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Last week I sat for my yearly evaluation. I was told I was appreciated. I was told I was doing a good job. I was told of no areas needing improvement. I was told that due to a current hiring and wage freeze, there would be no personal pay increase and there would be no help forthcoming in a department that is overwhelmed, daily. I was told this by a man who conveniently received a 45% pay increase just before the freeze; a man who makes 7.4 times as much as I do; an arrogant, condescending, comfortably well-off white man. This is more than merely a lack of credibility. This is malfeasance, demoralization, venality, deceit, oppression. Overreaction? Only if you are a wide-eyed, unrealistic, unapologetic optimist.

I thought carefully about the words ‘arrogant’ and ‘condescending’ before using them above. First, I believe, to represent an organization that is those things is to be those things. And what better breeding ground for all-powerful demigods than a large state university with all of its layers; first between faculty and students, then departmental divisions that further separate faculty, management and staff in which top faculty and management can easily earn 20 to 30 times more than front line staff. Looking at the definitions below, It is reasonable that the larger an organization, the greater the likelihood of imperious demeaning stratification. So, in fairness, the self-important overlord who graced me with 20 minutes was following orders, fulfilling a role, same as the old boss, doing a job, keeping me in my place, same as it ever was.

  • Condescending – patronizing descent from dignity or superiority; stooping to the level of one’s inferiors.
  • Arrogant – making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; characterized by a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.

If this man did not feel entitled and/or superior, and if he chose to cut the strings and think independently, he would have recognized the exorbitance of his pay raise and willingly given up one-half to hire another individual and improve his department; or at the very, very, very least he would have willingly made an effort to understand my viewpoint. One-half of his pay raise is still more than my total compensation and if he chose to sacrifice, he would still be making six times his inferiors; and an extra hour or two (or, to truly understand, day or two) spent with his charges might have more successfully negated his pretension and substantiated his rhetorical claim of empathy. But of course there are reasons (excuses) that he could not do either of these things; there are reasons that power is only allowed to masquerade as willingness.

Moving past the superficiality of time constraints and bureaucratic justifications, the main reason there can be no actual empathy is fear – for an individual or an organization to actually be willing to listen and understand might compel them to also willingly narrow the gap which might in turn empower lesser individuals who cannot be empowered because they must be controlled and in their place, and they should be happy in that place. Those in power work instead to unthink and to maintain the status quo. Most days at work, I have a spreadsheet open that contains salary information across the entire organization. I do this so I am constantly reminded of my place and my value according to my employer.

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Looking Ahead

To look ahead we only have to look around.

  • Since 2017 homelessness has increased by 6%. Even during the Covid federal resource boom of 2020-2022, homelessness increased. (1).
  • Evictions today are higher than their pre-pandemic averages with nearly 1,115,000 eviction cases filed in 2023. That’s 100,000 more cases than in 2022 and 500,000 more than in the Covid-protection-era of 2021. Blacks comprise 31% of all renters and 49% of all eviction filing defendants. (4).
  • Since the 1960’s, the cost of buying a house has risen at 2.4 times the rate of inflation. (7). Since 1985, the cost of renting a house has increased 208% compared to 149% inflation. (8).
  • Among high-income countries with populations over 10 million, the United States leads the world in gun deaths. (9). In the United States there are more civilian owned guns than there are people. With 120.5 guns per 100 people, the U.S. nearly doubles the 62.5-per-100 second-place Falkland Islands. (10).
  • Since 1999, drug overdose deaths have increased from less than 20,000 to 107,941 with approximately 70% from opioids. (16).
  • Since 1979, the top 1% have enjoyed a 218% increase in income while the bottom 20% only achieved a 33% raise in average income. (14). In 1982 the Forbes richest American was worth 6 billion in today’s dollars. In 2023 Elon Musk topped the list with $251 billion. (13). Despite recent debates, the gaps are real and still widening; accessible spending power is not misunderstood data.
  • The United States has more prisoners (1.8 million) than any country in the world, including China whose population is more than four times that of the U.S. Per capita, we only lag behind El Salvador, Cuba, Rwanda, Turkmenistan, and American Samoa. (15).
  • Compared to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, life expectancy in the U.S. is 4.2 years less for women and 5.2 years less for men. “The U.S. has the lowest life expectancy among large, wealthy countries while it far outspends its peers on healthcare.” (12). What’s more, “from 2001 to 2014, the life expectancy of the wealthiest Americans rose by about three years—the equivalent of curing cancer—while the poorest experienced no gains.” (13).
  • Over the past three decades, adjusting for inflation, average yearly tuition at public and private institutions has more than doubled. (11).
  • There are currently more than 25 million uninsured individuals in the U.S. Uninsured numbers came down after Obamacare and increased during the Trump years, slightly decreasing again since Biden was elected. (2)
  • Since 2013 total premiums for family health insurance coverage increased by 42% (2) and since 2003 total out of pocket healthcare expense has increased by 241%. (3). The United States, “has the highest per-person health-care costs in the developed world.” (13).
  • From the 1940’s to the 1970’s, stock prices, the gross domestic product, and the median family income all rose faster than CEO pay. (5 pg. 75). But in an excessive reversal, since 1978, CEO pay has increased 1,460% “while the typical worker’s pay grew by just 18%.” (6).
  • During his administration in the 1950’s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower more than doubled (as a percentage of GDP) federal spending on research and development. It has gradually declined in the six decades since Eisenhower left office. (5 pg. 80).

Trajectory: the path described by a moving object. According to our trajectory, we are not a good people.

To look ahead we only have to look around.

In the third book of ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Cixin Liu, a then-present-day inhabitant of the year 2269 explained to a newly awakened hibernator (who had been asleep for 264 years), “in our age, conscience and duty are not ideals: an excess of either is seen as a mental illness.” If conscience is a complex of ethical and moral principles and duty is an obligation from a sense of responsibility, then the future is now. There is nothing complex or hard to understand about the reasoning behind our lack of ethical and moral principles and it is this politically simplistic selfishness that stigmatizes and trivializes duty and responsibility.

From the 1940’s into the 1970’s, driven by the Depression and the war, our American culture changed to account for inequities in income and well-being. We realized as a whole that to recover and to move ahead this change must occur. So we came together and made some things better. Since the 1970’s, like a virus that adapts and evolves, those who could, reverted once again to individualistic thinking and through divisive, inflammatory political rhetoric and an iron fist, the top 10 and 20 percent (and their acolytes) have managed to stay a step ahead of conscience and duty. In recent years this has been accomplished by portraying better than bad as good. So we spend all our time and energy arguing over which is the lesser of two evils when selection of one or any combination of both merely maintains our current trajectory. Why must it take a crisis to compel us to work together and improve? We saw a hint of this dynamic alongside the pandemic. A better question – why can’t we see homelessness, gun deaths, the cost of healthcare, the cost of higher education, the cost of housing, the ever-widening income and wealth gaps, opioid deaths, food and housing insecurity, decreasing life expectancies, our overall lack of forward-thinking as the crises that they are, and why can’t we act and react accordingly?

To look ahead we only have to look around.

Citations: informal.

  5. Ours Was the Shining Future: Book by David Leonhardt, 2023.
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They rushed…

They rushed, with only twenty minutes left in the meeting, to make an arbitrary decision that would randomly change lives. Granted, because we fear the cutting edge, those with power felt their only choices were arbitrary, but still wouldn't it have been better to at least take the time to make a well-informed arbitrary decision? And maybe peek over the edge to consider alternatives? Glimpse possibility? Flirt with Justice? But no; we are rushed by circumstance, limited by bureaucracy, protected by division, comforted by power, and numbed by distance.

“I don’t care what method is used, as long as we’re consistent.”

This thought was proclaimed multiple times throughout the brief discussion, reflecting the trap of bureaucratic justification that we equate with fairness and justice. It is interesting that in subjective judgements I’ve observed these same power-drenched people at times work to attain individual justice for one of their charges, but when faced with a definitive number they fall back on bureaucracy and resort to random, life-changing reward and punishment.

Their thinking?

If a regimented, consistent process returns an objective, inarguable fact, (such as a number), we feel obligated to believe and insist that the randomly assigned, subjective, arbitrary interpretation is also unimpeachable.

And from there it is a very small step for the rulemakers to believe and insist that they too are irreproachable; and from there, virtuous; and from there, entitled.

And from there it is much easier to justify the widening gaps, and call it justice.

Perhaps, as individuals, we are not meant to be anything beyond our own small egosphere. And in that role, there is potential for significant meaning. Yet still, we aspire to find meaning on a larger scale. But I would argue that meaning found in irreproachable, virtuous entitlement is not only still in one’s own small egosphere, and not only individually insignificant, but also powerfully destructive. In recent years, here, in later life, I have often looked back with regret on decisions that if made differently, could have taken me to the realm of the irreproachable. But now, considering… perhaps I am better as a background functionary.

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