I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but I had a bona fide epiphany while watching The X Factor (for those of you who live without TV, this is a singing contest like American Idol). I know -- I probably should have been polishing off the most recent issue of The Economist or rereading Aristotle. But as it happens, I discovered something profound.
Watching X Factor contestants explain their hopes, I was saddened to see story after story of economic ruin. These tales sometimes came out of the canon of classic American rags to (possible) riches, but also included stories that were more nuanced. One contestant described some early success as a musician, followed by substance abuse and homelessness on LA's skid row. Another contestant, who worked as a professional DJ, explained that his work had dried up, he was on the verge of losing his home, and expressed his fears over how to care for his children as well as an aging mother.
Here's what brought the Occupy Wall Street protests instantly to mind. To a person, nearly everyone I heard on The X Factor felt that winning the $5m prize was the only way that they could possible gain a share in the American Dream. I was especially gobsmacked by this when a 30-year-old sales manager from North Carolina said as much, almost verbatim. Have a look at the YouTube clip below to hear his story (and his great singing voice):
Running EARN, I hear many sobering statistics about the barriers to prosperity for working Americans. A colleague at the D2D Fund recently shared data that suggests many lower income Americans think their best shot at economic gains is through winning the lottery. Other research, discussed in this fascinating piece , mentions just how much Americans overestimate their likelihood of getting rich.
Has the American Dream really become so hollow that we think winning prizes is our best hope for upward mobility? For millions, the answer is yes. To me, fury at this profoundly unfair reality is propelling the OWS protests. Many excellent minds have shared their thoughts on the specifics of why people take to the streets. Nic Kristoff provided some eye-popping numbers in a recent column. The data on wealth and income inequality is certainly incendiary. But I believe the real fuel for this fire comes from the profound lack of fairness that Americans not only observe, but really feel in the economy.
While many would argue that this is how the economic cookie crumbles, I don't think there's any way to call the current dynamics of the economic fair. Put aside high unemployment and underwater mortgages, and even gainfully employed folks are souring on their prospects. With real wages falling, people feel their own economic status eroding even as they work harder than ever. Meanwhile, with a few very small exceptions, there have been no consequences for the bad (called criminal by some) behavior of some financial institutions with regard to the meltdown.
We are a nation that believes fairness is a birthright. As Americans, we supposedly share a dream anchored by hard work that yields success. But just the opposite seems to be happening right now, in a way that is, unusually, clearly visible for Americans. And this dynamic is enraging millions of people who believed they met their side of the bargain encapsulated by the American Dream.
As a nation, we have a very tricky path we need to navigate back toward lasting prosperity. It's not enough to vilify those who have been unjust and demand policy changes. This is certainly part of the answer. But I would argue that we must be thoughtful and real about the role of optimism in the American Dream. Optimism is America's secret sauce, and we'll stagnate permanently without it. The puzzle for our leaders and policy makers is how to square our need for optimism with our need for fairness. (Good luck!)
Real leadership for America must acknowledge this tension and then pursue a path to make our country believe in fairness once again. The alternative isn't pretty. Hard-working Americans shouldn't have to sing for their supper.