For much of our history, we haven’t felt any need to negotiate our national faith in unlimited upward mobility. To the great American middle class, the path forward and upward to economic comfort and security was clear, dependable, beautifully simple: you went to work every day, earned a little more money every year, saved what you could, and didn’t radically overspend. In return, you were rewarded with your fair share of the most bountiful and productive society ever to exist on earth. You knew the value of money, you appreciated the value of money, and money thanked you, in its way, by allowing you to graze pretty freely throughout that fruited plain spanning the land from sea to shining sea.
True, there were always people having financial difficulties, but they were individual deviations from the norm, and most felt they could count on making more money than their parents. The default position in America was an implicit promise of perpetual abundance, as if an unwritten amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to several chickens in every pot and an SUV in every garage.
Within the last two or three decades, however, these relatively modest dreams of individual upward mobility exploded into grandiose and surprisingly widespread fantasies of striking it filthy rich in as short a time as possible. Getting money, always a significant leitmotif in American society, now became a major bass chord. In a way, this collective money mania harkened back to a fond, old American myth of rugged individualism, capitalist style: the plucky, clever entrepreneur pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, valiantly defeats all competitors, and ascends, unaided and alone, to the heights of wealth and prestige.
The current economic crisis—the worst since the Great Depression—may be no more than a rather large bump in the golden road of endlessly self-renewing American prosperity. Still, it’s hard not to have a sense of foreboding that, this time, things really are different; that the old familiar mold is broken for good.
In the meantime, like the threat of imminent execution, our current troubles concentrate our minds wonderfully, or at least enough to consider possible alternative meanings of “wealth,” besides frenetic getting and spending. So, if for no other reason than to take your mind off your nose-diving portfolio, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of our basic assumptions about wealth—what it means to us as Americans, how it defines us as a people, how it influences the way we think about ourselves, about freedom, success, and happiness, about what we really want from life and what the American Dream really means to us.
The American Dream
It’s sometimes seemed that, in America, money hasn’t been and isn’t now the most important thing in life—it’s the only thing. For generations we’ve been told that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” which probably nobody in America really believes. As the many thousands of glossy celebrotainment magazines and fevered websites devoted to the doings of the rich have amply demonstrated, money can certainly buy some very lavish facsimiles of happiness.
Renewing the Commons
As Americans, we probably have in our collective DNA the stubborn belief that we have an inalienable right to do and be whatever we want. But, paradoxically, free market fundamentalism and the cult of the completely rational Homo economicus have become increasingly irrational, as well as antisocial. It’s becoming clear that the success of the market, the growth of GDP, absent anything else, may be economically “good” in a narrow way, but bad overall for the society.
Selling more cars produces more pollution and hastens global warming; a huge market in junk food makes more people diabetic and obese, which requires them to purchase more health care. Overspending, overbuilding, and overconsuming are driving our society and our environment off a cliff, but don’t yield the intended satisfactions. Research indicates that, after a certain modest level, and factoring in momentary pleasure, novelty, and keeping up with the Joneses, these activities actually don’t make us any happier personally.
Clearly, “the economy” is making an appearance in therapists’ offices big-time, even if in the negative form of clients who are cutting back on therapy because they can’t pay for it anymore. But besides the usual things that therapists say and do to help clients get through any difficult life circumstance, what can they offer that seems germane to this particular national crisis? There’s obviously no easy answer to that question. Therapists can’t call a client’s bank to stop foreclosure proceedings, or plead with a client’s boss not to lay her off, or pony up to help a client pay down the thousands on his credit card bill. However, therapists can be aware of potentially life-changing and culture-altering shifts that might occur in our society as a result of the current convulsions. Possibly, they can help clients think more deeply about what they want from life, why they make lifestyle, as opposed to life, choices, and what a different, less consumer-oriented way of living might be.
It could be that the time is ripe for us to rethink some of our fondest assumptions about the economy as a whole, our personal family economies, and our own nature as economic animals. We may want to begin thinking about how we can strengthen what’s been called the “commons”—an old but strangely foreign concept in modern America—that refers to what we inherit or create together that contributes to the good of us all as members of a human community. In a society so besotted with market economics, we forget that much genuine wealth is natural and social in nature, and can’t be computed entirely according to strict quantitative metrics of supply and demand, profit and loss.
Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that we’ll see the end of the free enterprise system anytime soon, present tribulations notwithstanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: what capitalism does well—bolster independence and creativity, generate enormous productive energy, and make lots of great stuff—it does superlatively well, and besides, what else is there?
No matter how successful or rich, how driven or ambitious, how dynamic, inner-directed, adventurous, or just plain pushy any of us is, none of us can ever claim to be “self-made.” Like it or not, we’re embedded in a vast skein of individual human lives and public institutions, our path determined as much by culture, timing, birth order, social class, and sheer luck as by our own personal gifts. As the 19th-century political scientist Francis Lieber said, “Self-made men, indeed! Why don’t you tell me of the self-laid egg?”