For all the frantic, often chaotic political engagement swirling about us these days involving taxes, gun rights, religious liberty and foreign policy, Americans may well be overlooking an even bigger problem: Have we unconsciously consigned the American Dream to the proverbial dustbin?
Many of us might be too preoccupied with incidental, even trivial issues to notice what's happened. Even so, most of us -- whatever our political stripe -- know the state of affairs in the United States requires immediate action and a clear strategy if we are to deal with the many social ills infecting our culture and outlook.
Think of what we export. Besides weapons, one thing springs to mind, even if it's more intangible: our culture. Lately, more of us ought to be asking if the American Dream is even achievable. Some Americans -- at least many of us in the middle class -- would say no. One study shows that, from 2009 to 2013, the top 1 percent of Americans got 95 percent of all of the pre-tax, pre-transfer income gains (though it's also relevant to note that the top 1 percent took far bigger losses in the recent recession).
The illusion the American Dream is alive and well holds us tight while we fight over things such as whether felons should be able to carry arms or whether bombing Iran would be a good idea or whether we really should try to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants. The grand illusion: One can readily improve one's standing in society through hard work and education, that one can ultimately share a piece of America's prosperity with a home, property and other basic necessities and creature comforts. That dream dies hard.
Dream fades: For some, though, the reality is beginning to set in -- the reality that a reported 20 percent of households own more than 84 percent of the wealth. The American Dream, part of our very identity, is fading amidst our recklessness, ignorance and petty obsessions: political squabbling, corruption, a dysfunctional education system, income inequality, lack of meaningful investments, crumbling infrastructure and a broken tax system.
And all of this is yielding a defeatist attitude that makes us far more likely to lash out at others, including our neighbor if he or she is different than us in faith or appearance or political ideology.
Ironically, the American Dream is now more attainable for people residing outside the United States than for those who live here. The progressive think tank, The Century Foundation, argues recent evidence shows there is "much less (upward) mobility in the United States than most people assume" and that "rags to rags" and "riches to riches" stories now constitute the most likely lifelong scenarios in our country -- and, the foundation says, "to a greater degree than in many other developed nations."
Defeatist attitude: This suggests that little or no incentive exists anymore for Americans to work as hard to reach that dream. Is this defeatist attitude the result of a corrupt system in Washington? Or is it that many citizens have lost faith in the American Dream itself? Whatever the answer, more and more Americans struggle to make ends meet. Some dip into retirement funds; others fall behind due to poor financial management skills, including living beyond their means.
What concerns me most is the next generation -- the new high school or college grads forced to live in their parents' homes because of mounting debt or lack of opportunity. Student loans, car payments, keeping up with the Joneses impact many of us, at least to some degree. We've all become our government at large. It too spends more than it generates in revenue. This unrestrained spending by Uncle Sam focuses on some programs (Social Security, food stamps, etc.) that have nothing to do (at least directly) with significantly improving our country's productivity and the lives of all citizens.
We have much work to do. I hope policymakers turn their attention to domestic issues rather than pursing conflict overseas.
I have to agree with Harvard researchers who concluded that our collective lack of economic mobility is driven by income inequality. Yet the solution is not handing out more government checks to those who choose not to work hard or contribute to society. France proves that point.
'High-mobility': Americans like to think they have all the ideas, going back to the Founding Fathers (whom we think we know better than we actually do). But we might be wise to see what works for others, including some of our friends around the world. The Brookings Institution cited some countries we should study, including "high-mobility" lands such as Denmark, Norway, and our great ally Canada.
Suggestions: Reform our tax code to ensure overall equity. The financially well off should at least pay their fair share in taxes rather than below rates paid by the middle class. And let's invest in education by allowing state and local governments to decide how to allocate funding to improve academic performance. Mandatory, high-stakes testing as the federal government requires is simply not yielding the desired results.
Investments of all sorts are vital to improve our country's productivity. Aging infrastructure -- bridges, ports and highways -- are structurally deficient and in desperate need of restoration if not replacement.
One thing that the right and left ought to agree to address promptly: Term limits for members of Congress. While the debate could be dead from the get-go, just imagine the traction this reform might have gained had, say, the tea party expended some of its political capital on this issue rather than other pursuits far less likely to withstand constitutional challenge.
Last but not least, the federal government needs to limit its intervention into state and local governments' affairs. The latter have a better understanding of what their needs are, be they social programs, education reform or infrastructure.
The United States lost its economic edge due to poor management, lack of investment, ambiguous strategies and internal political fights beyond reason. When the American Dream is no longer a realistic goal for most Americans, it's pretty hard to claim our great nation remains the land of opportunity. And change will not happen till citizens take some responsibility and stop blaming the government for everything.