Saving the American Dream

The American Dream is under attack.

“The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work….” “The American Dream is to succeed by work, rather than by birth”. The Dream has attracted the world’s best and brightest to our shores making America the world’s leading economic powerhouse and enabling us to live freely as we each determine what we are willing to work for, for ourselves and our families.

Historically, individuals have been limited in what they could achieve by where they were born in society, by their parent’s position in life, and by who they knew. Companies of individuals were limited by the restrictions placed on them by their governments, often by the protections from competition government granted their friends (crony capitalism). Such traditional societies limited the freedom and ambitions of its citizens and limited the productivity of its human and physical resources. In short, traditional societies were keep poorer than they would have been if their citizens had been freer to innovate and compete.

The American Dream is now under attack by Donald Trump’s trade protectionism, crony capitalist government favoritism, immigration walls, and weakening of the international rule of law that has extended the benefits of specialization and trade globally. It is also being attacked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (LOC’s) vision of state leadership and control of production and a new generation of idealistic, but uninformed, voters who mean well but have missed the lessons of socialism’s failures. If we are to save the conditions in the United States in which the American Dream still lives, we must better understand what has led so many Americans to vote against it.

I am sure that the answers to that question are many and complex, but broadly speaking two stand out in my mind, both of which point to the measures needed to restore support for the dream.

The first is to better educate the public, especially its younger members, about the conditions that allow and encourage a productive, innovative economy. This includes understanding the proper role of government in protecting private property, enforcing contracts, maintaining public safety (the rule of law) and in providing the public infrastructure that facilitates private activities and commerce (the commons of public goods). It includes the lessons of why all socialist economies have failed as a result of the corrupting incentives of state direction of economic activity rather than the competitive search by profit seeking private enterprises for better ways to serve the public.

The second answer concerns the adequacy and efficiency of our social safety net. The American Dream concerns individuals who take responsibility for their own well-being. While on average this has opened the way for most to prosper to the extent of their talents and energy, some will, often through no fault of their own, fail and fall off the tightrope. Society has an interest (even beyond the obvious humanitarian one) in softening the fall. It has an interest in an effective social safety net. 

Some–those who have not understood the lessons of socialism’s failures–have looked to trade and immigration restriction to prevent them from losing their jobs. They object to the economic benefits of free trade when it means that they must look for a new job (however, most manufacturing job losses in the U.S. have resulted from technical progress and the resulting increase in productivity rather than from cross border trade). “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms”  “Trade-protection-and-corruption” Those with such views have supported Trump’s anti free market policies. They have been attracted by Trump’s “I win you lose, us vs them” rhetoric.

AOC and her friends point to the widening income inequality–the dramatic increase in the incomes of the wealthiest and the stagnation of the incomes of the middle class in recent years–and demand income redistribution. But she fails to understand that it has been the growth of government’s role in the economy and the incentives in big government toward corruption and crony capitalism (protectionism for the wealthy) that have reduced competition and protected the position and markets of the biggest companies with friends in government. Socialism would make those incentives even stronger.

America’s dynamism and success reflects the creative destruction of risk-taking entrepreneurs and their hard-working employees.  https://economics.mit.edu/files/1785  However, the workers whose jobs are displaced by new products and new technologies may need help in finding and retraining for new jobs. They may need financial assistance in between (unemployment insurance). If nothing else, this may be the cost of their support for such a dynamic system.  Our social safety net sometimes provides poor incentives and sometimes has holes. It is time to seriously consider replacing it with a less intrusive and more comprehensive Universal Basic Income.  “Our-social-safety-net”  “Replacing-Social-Security-with-a-Universal-Basic-Income”

The American Dream–the foundation of our freedom and affluence–is under attack from the left and the right. We should fight to preserve (or restore) it.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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3 Responses to Saving the American Dream

  1. Jim Roumasset says:

    Thanks, Warren. not sure that Biden would end the erosion of rules-based international trade and relations. That horse may have left the barn already.

  2. Joe Cobb says:

    When did the use of the words “Equality/Inequality” replace the word “Poverty”? The social concern should not be about economic equality but about opportunity and greater skills for less privileged people. Poorer people are offered smaller wages and heavier jobs. Social policy is still aimed at the original humanitarian impulse, but the nonsense of politics is not pushed on you.

    In the middle of the 19th Century in Europe, a theory of “conflict” was advocated, as an explanation for poverty – and supposedly victory in such conflicts would cure it? The “Social Harmonies” written about by Frederic Bastiat are brushed aside by the dreamers of combat “in pursuit of Justice.” Of course, they can’t define “justice” except by “inequality.”
    All their arid theory offers is a Zero-Sum view of human behavior.

    • wcoats says:

      Joe, I largely agree, but it is important to note that some of the income inequality is not the result of free market forces but of government granted protection and privilege, which we both oppose.

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