“I know how much is enough,” a friend of mine once said to me. “It’s just a little more than you have right now.”
And that, in two short simple sentences, is what drives the American Dream. Or at least it did until recently, when many dreamers woke up to find that a few people seemed to be getting a lot more, while many others were getting a lot less. Even though the pie hasn’t been growing all that much, some of the slices are suddenly enormous, while the floor is sprinkled with crumbs. The solution, from K Street to Wall Street, is what it has always been: bake a bigger pie.
But read my friend’s statement again. If it’s always “just a little more,” there can never be a pie big enough for you. As for sharing, well, if my piece isn’t big enough for me, why would I want to give some of it to you?
In my last post I wrote that the story of success in America has often required individuals to escape the limits of their communities, to set off alone and, in Huck Finn’s words, “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” This is by no means a bad thing: the conformity demanded by community norms can crush the ambition of dreamers, the vision of artists, the foibles of eccentrics, the courage of rebels. But going it alone can lead to what David Brooks has called “this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation” in which 40% of Americans now say they are lonely and suicide rates are at a 30-year high.
Just as humans have sought to break their communal shackles in search of personal fulfillment, so they have also sought to overcome nature’s limits in pursuit of progress. Doing so has produced unimaginable material prosperity in America, but it has also caused enormous environmental and social damage. For Republicans and Democrats alike, growth is the default position for solving the nation’s current problems. The destruction, on the other hand, we choose to ignore.
But “at a time of ecological and political crisis,” writes David Orr, we must move beyond a worldview in which “all problems are presumed to be economic and so can be solved only by economic solutions that mostly have to do with selling more of something unneeded to people who can’t afford it in order to increase the wealth of those already over-burdened with too much and further accelerate the speed of the treadmill.” Orr is one of the most interesting thinkers of our times, his essay, “The Life Required,” is a must read, and lest you think it’s just more tree-hugging claptrap, I should confess it was sent to me by my financial advisor.
Despite what some may tell you, the way we do business today was not handed down on a tablet from the Almighty but developed in relatively recent times. The “Gospel of Wealth”is not a book of the New Testament but an essay by Andrew Carnegie, who knew a thing or to about making money – and who argues, surprisingly, not for concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, but for redistributing it more equally to reduce the unhealthy gap between rich and poor.
If getting more can never lead to having enough, maybe we need a new definition of the American Dream.