American Dream?

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held annually in the spring, each speaker is given an 18-minute time-slot to talk about their “One Wish to Change the World.” Past speakers include Bono, who wished to connect every school and hospital in Ethiopia to the Internet, and Bill Clinton, who wished to develop a high quality rural health system in Rwanda. I applaud the daring spirit, their idealism, and their doer-mentality of these TED presenters; they are truly exceptional individuals. Yet, if given an opportunity, I wouldn’t hesitate to express my own wish to live in a more egalitarian society that relies on fewer of these exceptional philanthropists.

Have you ever wondered how future generations would characterize “us,” collectively understood? Who are we? What mixture of good fortunes and burdens have we inherited from our predecessors?

At the top of my list of concerns is the fact that we now live in an era of “such polarizing inequality that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent,” to quote Nicholas Kristof. It’s even harder to make sense of a widening gap between the rich and the superrich within that top 1 percent.

How our generation decides to interpret these numbers will have a more profound effect on the future of America than what we choose to do about our $14 trillion deficit. Some commentators appalled by this bifurcating trend called for an increase in inheritance tax, an installation of a billionaire tax, as well as a dramatic reduction in executive compensation.

This, however, isn’t so much an issue of redistributive justice as it is about our collective re-imagination of the true meaning of “American Dream.” We cannot meaningfully discuss these figures without addressing the deeper issue of what value system is driving the hopes and aspirations of this country’s youth.

For a typical American child, a journey begins when he internalizes the national ethos of this country—that in America, anyone can achieve anything through perseverance and hard work. The journey becomes a bit tougher when he realizes that this is a land of elite-dominated, meritocratic capitalism, and a ruthless competition awaits him.

The prevailing drive in society is to individual ambitions first and do the good work later. The journey ends when one achieves a social status and a financial wherewithal to engage in large-scale philanthropic works. Ask your parents or grandparents—theirs too was the era of John. D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Koch Brothers.

Notably absent in their narrative of “American Dream” is an understanding of our society as a “fair system of cooperation,” as John Rawls would have put it. With such mentality hardwired into us of our heroes and heroines, the ridiculously skewed income distribution that now plagues this country shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Concerned about the problem of entrenched wealth? Perhaps a time has come to turn the page in the Book of American Dreams.