Sunday, April 14, 2024

Some 2,500 teachers, care workers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, public servants and residents gather in the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., in February to protest anti-union efforts in Wisconsin. (Photo: William Wright)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, we were asked about the American Dream.

The health of the American Dream — which is impossible to talk about without either using cliches or mixing metaphors, as I have chosen to do here — is not good. The reason: It is being smothered.

And not with affection.

The American Dream is being smothered in its sedated sleep by an obese robber baron who is, in fact, sitting on its face. The American Dream (that we can make something of ourselves and live with dignity and possibly delight) is being smothered by the fatty rump of a robber baron in top hat and tails, and the robber baron is giggling distractedly over how much money he has and thinking only that he wishes the face of the American Dream, which is in fact our face, were a more comfortable place to sit.

But at least we’re not struggling!

This disgusting vision is brought to you by an increasingly rotten political system that thinks, for instance, corporations are people and should have unlimited “speech” in the form of campaign contributions but that people who aren’t corporations should more or less shut up — and that they have to, because they haven’t any money. What’s worse is that rhetoric such as this and the facts underpinning it are so common, so widely accepted, that it seems at once the most boring and maddening thing to repeat. Another example: Trickle-down economics were debunked before President Ronald Reagan even left office and yet we keep letting our politicians give tax breaks to the richest with the excuse that we’re going to see if maybe, maybe, maybe it’ll work this time.

Any screams of outrage merely cause the plutocrats to chortle, because they’re sitting on our face, smothering us to death, and when we squirm it feels like a massage.

I’m so bored by repeating facts outlining the death of the American Dream that I can’t even bring myself to rewrite them. I’ll just let Nicholas D. Kristof, the former New York Times columnist, run through the details in a piece he wrote in November (and he probably wrote a variation on this column at least annually, so here he might be quoting himself):

“The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. … C.E.O.s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.”

Boring, right? How many times must we keep repeating the same outrages when clearly we don’t actually care? How many times can you be told that our already terrible unemployment figures don’t even include people who are out of work but have given up on finding a job? How many times is it necessary to struggle to stay awake as we’re reminded that a full-time job paying the minimum wage doesn’t even put a worker above the poverty line? How many times does someone have to point out that, as Republican governors across the country try to crush labor unions, those unions are pretty much the only organizations fighting to keep the middle class and working poor dreaming the American Dream at all? Otherwise it’s all about winning the lottery or becoming a YouTube sensation.

If the American Dream is going to survive, the robber baron has to get off it, stop smothering it, let it breathe, get up and stretch itself back into fighting shape.

And if the robber baron doesn’t get up on its own, we’re going to have to develop a little political bite — a fierce, fast bite that’ll have it jumping up and finding another, slightly less comfortable, place to sit.