Death of the American Dream

by Ed O’Rourke


The American Dream, which anyone can get ahead by diligence and hard work, is dead.  The Working Poor by David Shipler and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich depict the lives of people who with two jobs without benefits make just enough to get by or less.  In the 2001-2003 period, the number of people in poverty increased by 4.2 million and the number of people without health insurance increased by 5.2 million. Critics point to a number of causes:  extravagant compensation of executives, massive corporate political power, Enron ethics, globalization and a lack of social consciousness.  No matter what specific causes, political, social or economic models work only as long as the underlying circumstances continue.  With significant change, the model crumbles or changes to meet the new situation.

Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing The American Dream offers a vision that revolves around collective well being, sustainable development, quality of life, universal human rights and global cooperation.  His book delves in theology, philosophy, history, sociology, political science and economics to compare and contrast American and European cultures.  This will be a landmark book.

Rifkin offers an historical perspective to show how the American and European cultures formed from different experiences.  In the Middle Ages, people gathered together for security.  Outside the immediate farmland, there were vast forests with bandits and, sometimes, marauding barbarians.  Americans visiting Europe note the narrow streets, small homes, crowded cafes and tiny elevators.  The American experience with a frontier and wide-open spaces generated a feeling that more is better.  Being free meant controlling your own space.  Our idea of independence is having a detached house with lots of lawn to mow.  The American Dream associated freedom with autonomy.  American government policies encourage home ownership to renting.  Associated with the suburbs was government subsidizing freeways rather than public transportation.  European cities are far more compact.  Frankfort, Germany has three times the population density as New York City.

Europeans are most accustomed to governmental cooperation and the last 500 years has brought fewer governments.  In the 16th century, Europe had at least 500 governmental entities.  By 1900, 25 nations ruled most of Europe.  The European Union represents an effort to seek the common good by giving up some sovereignty.  The experience of two world wars and Soviet Communism has lead Europeans to seek non-military solutions to conflict.  Not mentioned in his book, there are two European based groups attempting to start a second Marshall Plan for the world’s poor, taking poverty out of being a source of conflict and terrorism.  See and There is a greater discomfort for Europeans to allow two billion people to subsist on $2 per day or less.

Europeans certainly have difficulties to overcome if they are to be a world role model:  growing anti-Semitism, resentment against immigrants and an aging population.

Still, with all of that, Europeans lead more fulfilling lives.  How can that be since the Gross Domestic Capital (GDP) per capita is higher in the United States than it is Europe?  Part of GDP is military spending.  The United States spends as much on the military as the next 23 nations combined.  It is as if we are in an arms race with ourselves.  About one fourth of the world’s prisoners are in the United States.  With 5% of the world’s population, we use 25% of the world’s energy.  Most states have legalized gambling.  Our country has about 3 million “lifetime” pathological gamblers and 7.8 million “lifetime” problem gamblers.

The United States has a $330 billion advertising industry that feeds a culture that indulges in instant gratification.  Credit card companies entice people to be their customers with few safeguards and are then surprised when they declare bankruptcy.

Moreover, 17% of Americans, or one in six, live in poverty.  Contrast this to poverty rates in Europe:  Italy, 14.2%; Finland, 5.1%: and Belgium, 8.2%.  The Luxembourg Income Study shows the US to 24th in income inequality among the industrialized nations. Only Russia and Mexico are lower.  The United Nations Children ‘s Fund (UNICEF) reports childhood poverty in the United States among the highest in the developed world.

Americans spend more time on the job than any other major industrial power, including Japan. With urban sprawl, it takes a lot of time to get there and back.  With our attachment to television, the Internet and electronic media, there is little time left for civic activity.  Increased time on the job increases the likelihood of stress related diseases that are on the rise in America – heart attacks, strokes and cancer.

Europeans work to live not the other way around.    They have chosen more time off rather more compensation.  The average vacation time in Europe is six weeks.  Most European countries mandate minimum vacation periods.  In the United States, where two weeks is the standard vacation period, there is no mandate.  No one on his or her trip to the hospice regrets not spending more time at the office.

Nation states cannot solve threats to their citizens by going it alone.  Global warming, terrorism, death of the oceans, AIDS, habitat destruction, poverty and population explosion are beyond the scope of any one country including our own.  The American rejection of the Kyoto Agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court are all backward steps in the road to survival and true prosperity.  It is a turning away from the inspiration the United States gave the world starting in the 18thcentury with democracy, limits to executive power and inalienable rights for its citizens as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Rifkin observes, “Today, the world’s attention is becoming drawn more to the new European Dream with its emphasis on inclusiveness, cultural diversity, universal human rights, quality of life, sustainable development and peaceful coexistence.”