The American Reality versus the American Dream

By Daniel Lende 

Bob Herbert, in his editorial The Nightmare Before Christmas, highlights the growing inequality in the United States.  That’s what I want to talk about today.  Sapolsky emphasizes the biological effects of inequality, in particular being in the “wrong” rank.  The question then arises, what gets defined as “wrong”?  And how do people experience that? 

Bob Herbert’s piece offers us plenty of clues that a more sustained research program would surely substantiate (along with discovering the interesting surprises and twists that make all the difference, but that don’t always make it into newspaper editorials).  We can think about the problem in two ways.  Sapolsky pointed to psychosocial stress as mediating the impact of inequality on biology.  Blakey highlights the actual reality of inequality as also shaping biological outcomes.  Both are important. 

On the psychosocial side, Herbert mentions “Wall Streeters are high-fiving and ordering up record shipments of Champagne and caviar,” and normal people see this sort of stuff all the time—it’s on television, in magazines, part of our everyday gossip.  We know there are people who are enjoying these extraordinary “rich” lives, and we know that it’s not us. 

Herbert also writes, “[Working families’] belief in that mythical dream that has sustained so many generations for so long is fading faster than sunlight on a December afternoon.”  Based on a poll by Lake Research Partners, “nearly 50 percent held the exceedingly gloomy view that today’s children would be ‘worse off’ when the time comes for them to enter the world of work and raise their own families.”  Here we return to a theme explored in the post on Everyday Design, that not having a sense of control and that one can work to make a positive change is frustrating and stressful. 

Finally, Herbert simply sums up, “Ordinary working Americans are filled with anxiety about their economic future.”  As Sapolsky wrote, anxiety worsens the physical impact of stress.  It can also make you acutely aware of the contrast between the daily frustrations of your life and the high-living style of those who are in that “right” spot.  Thus, we have a psychosocial trifecta—the everyday experience of seeing well-off others while have an increasingly limited sense of control and more anxiety over the present and the future. 

But as Blakey would remind us, actual reality plays just as important a role.  Here the data, in my mind, are even more gloomy (and maybe that’s because I am feeling it.  Ah, the joy of another cost-of-living raise—that is, stagnating income—as my kids grow up and our car wears out and gas prices skyrocket).  So, step one, reality against the dream.  Herbert quotes a Pew Charitable Trust study, “‘for most Americans, seeing that one’s children are better off than oneself is the essence of living the American dream.’ But for the past 40 years, men in their 30s, prime family-raising age, have found it difficult to outdistance their dads economically.”  Wages are simply flat for most people.  Family incomes have risen mostly through by women entering the workforce, except among the very rich: “the after-tax income of the top 1 percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005.” 

Step Two, “families have taken on debt loads — for cars, for college tuition, for medical treatment — that would buckle the knees of the strongest pack animals.”  Sure, many Americans buy big-screen televisions, but the basic things are what are really wearing us down.  American have taken on enormous debt to “bridge the gaps created by stagnant wages and higher costs of living.”  Drowning in enormous debt?  You tread water to survive. 

The American Dream, Herbert writes, has helped to buffer Americans against economic downturns and the long existence of inequality in our system.  We’ve made great strides in offering that Dream to people who once were excluded.  But we’ve also entered a new situation over the past four decades, where the wealth of the rich has exploded, along with their power through corporations, lobbyists and funding to shape government, and becoming political representatives themselves.  The rest of us make do, except the cost of education, of medical care, of a worsening environment, of increased competition for natural resources, and all the rest makes “making do” not as enjoyable as it once was. 

So, why isn’t the American Dream the buffer it might once have been?  Both the reality of being able to ascend the economic ladder and the hope of a better life for one’s kids are being assaulted by the way inequality plays out in the United States.  Today we face both the “absence of optimism” and the reality of distribution.  It’s not a question of overall growth or wealth—this systemic view hides precisely the processes that are making a reality of human inequality and a mockery of our primate past.  More flexible social distribution, human evolution based on cooperation and protection in social groups?  No, today we have the trifecta of psychosocial stress and a one-two punch of economic reality. 

Herbert’s conclusion: “The fundamental problem, the problem that is destroying the dream, is the extreme inequality pounded into the system by the corporate crowd and its handmaidens in government.”  It is a view echoed by Sapolsky, that when there is not mobility and when resources accrue to those in the higher ranks, then the biological and social outcomes will not be good for the “wrong” people. 

For the “right” people, the outcomes will be very good indeed, and like good primates evolved in hierarchical systems, they will likely fight hard to maintain what they think is both the “natural” status quo and what they believe they deserve (they earned it, after all!).  They are willing to fight.  Are we? 

That’s the big question.  Here’s a smaller one for this blog.  Why write this depressing post?  Isn’t it against the Christmas spirit?  For neuroanthropology, it is my hope that we won’t get too caught up in the minutiae of showing how particular brain and sociocultural processes connect.  That’s important, vital even to the growth of a better understanding of ourselves.  But we live in the world too.  I hope we find the voice to speak and act for those who cannot speak and act and against those only too willing to put us in their system for their benefit.  That’s my neuroanth dream, matched up with the reality of figuring out the particulars.

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