My Turn: Achieving the American dream doesn’t happen by pushing others back


Thursday, December 07, 2017

In constantly looking for a handhold on the slippery slope of politics and government in 2017, I came across one of the best articles I’ve ever read. Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston and public health analyst, explored American attitudes about health care rights and progress toward the American dream in The New Yorker on Oct. 2. He uses one analogy that helps me see our current society more clearly.

Gawande borrows the analogy from the book “Strangers in Their Own Land” by A. R. Hochschild, formulated in five years of interviews in rural Louisiana. Gawande found many in his hometown near Appalachia who found it applicable.

In recent years, many Americans have suffered from a series of economic trends: automation that erases good factory jobs, globalization that drives down prices at the expense of American jobs and wages; a systematic transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the top 10 percent and 1 percent through tax rates, wage cuts and financial industry manipulations. Hochschild points out that people born in 1950 and later are the first group in American history to see their income and net wealth decline each decade in comparison to those born 10 years earlier.

The basic analogy places these Americans in a long line on a hill. Just over the brow of the hill lies the American dream: owning a home, providing for children, enjoying a steady income in good health. This American dream involves some combination of prosperity and security. But as people wait in line for years and do their best to keep their jobs or find another after a layoff, they feel that their progress toward that dream has stopped. In fact, they are moving backward because people are cutting in line ahead of them, often with government help.

The people cutting in line don’t deserve their place near the front. They haven’t paid their fair share in taxes or suffered through years of hard work at minimal pay. They appear to be very different from those already in line: they have different skin colors, backgrounds and languages; different religions; different sexes (since most who see themselves in the line are male); and seem to have different values from the traditional Christian values of years gone by.

People’s anger at their inability to advance up the hill or to even get a glimpse of the American dream over the hill had been building for years and is deep and powerful. I see it as the force behind the virulent chants of “Build the Wall!” and “Lock Her Up!” at Trump rallies. It is a primal anger that has been shrewdly manipulated by the Tea Party and its darker successors: Bannon and Trump. Obama was painted as a line-cutter himself: “No birth certificate? Favoritism for African Americans through Affirmative Action?” Destruction of his signature accomplishment — Obamacare — became a righteous Republican crusade.

I see the strong opposition by some recent, legal immigrants to amnesty for illegals as springing from the same type of anger. Amnesty gives some people a place near the head of the line they don’t deserve because they didn’t put in the years of bureaucratic work that the legal immigrants did. (This comparison doesn’t take into account the desperate, and often deadly, circumstances many illegals are fleeing.)

Gawande points out the essential fallacy in this view, and I see the inability of Democrats to clarify the fallacy as their greatest failure in 2016. Trump’s views rely on the assumption that the American economy and our broader culture is a zero-sum game. To use another analogy, the American dream of prosperity and security is like an all-American apple pie. If one person or group gets a larger slice, everyone else gets a smaller slice. It is a dog-eat-dog world in which people and groups are constantly battling over a finite and limited-resource pie. If one person or group moves ahead in the line going up the hill, everyone else must move back.

But our society and economy have never been that static. Additions for one group don’t ensure subtractions from another. Helping some doesn’t necessarily mean hurting others. A “win-win” proposition became a popular business term in the 1980s and is a powerful social concept: some actions can result in long-term gains for most or all of the parties involved.

For example, universal health care provides benefits for everyone through increased economic productivity across society, lower expenditures per person, and increased entrepreneurship as people are willing to leave jobs without fear of losing health coverage. Another example is the acceptance of immigrants, which has greatly enriched our economic, social and cultural lives throughout American history rather than pushing resident Americans to the back of the line.

I propose judging political and government actions on their ability to lead us up the hill as a group rather than push a few ahead and others further behind. I don’t include the 1 percent or 5 percent at the top in this group. They aren’t climbing the hill, and no reasonable government action could push them below a very high level of prosperity and security.

My dream — and I think of it as an American dream — is that the line can be turned 90 degrees, changed from vertical to horizontal, so that it stretches out on both sides and people can advance up the hill together. A universal health care system helps everyone climb the hill because it increases our sense of security. A “tax reform” that gives huge breaks to those already at the top does not because it has been proven that greater riches at the top do not “trickle down.”

I realize the idea that our society could lock arms and march ahead together is a bit of “pie in the sky,” but I think we can at least aspire to an unruly crowd going in the same direction. Most religions reject the anger and hatred of a zero-sum game and back “win-win” possibilities as a matter of principle, including a form of the Golden Rule in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. We need to find leaders who will unite and lead us all, rather than divide and conquer those furthest behind.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer and author living in Greenfield. Comments are welcome at his website: www.theswordandscabbard.com or awoods2846@gmail.com.