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The American Dream

September 11, 2016

I was just reading an article about the Great Paradox in American politics.  The article described Louisiana as the most polluted state in the US.  It illustrated the paradox by questioning why both ordinary people there and companies operating there are supporting Donald Trump.  After all, these companies polluted the land and water of the state, and mistreated their workers at the same time.  One of the reasons for the paradox was that ordinary people saw the federal government, particularly the EPA in this case, as a foreign organization, one that only causes trouble for them.  The other reason was that these people still believed in the American dream, and found any attempt to take that away from them as unfair treatment.

The dream was that anyone could make a better life for themselves and their children simply by working hard.  They could do this without help from anyone else.  They could make a million dollars, or even a billion dollars, just through their own efforts.  Many successful people have claimed that they did it all themselves, often by starting a business.  I once read that ordinary Americans voted against higher taxes for the rich because they all believed they would be rich one day.  This is clearly impossible.  They can’t all become rich.  More than 99% of them will stay the way they were.  Only a very few of them can become rich.  It’s like buying lottery tickets all of your life, in the expectation that one day you will win.  You read about lottery winners all the time, but it’s never you.  The odds of you winning the lottery are still vanishingly small, just like the odds of being successful in the American dream.

I recently read a biography of Ben Franklin.  He was an advocate of the American dream, and used himself as an example.  He was a printer.  He made his fortune by operating a print shop in Philadelphia.  He said that everybody should do that.  Of course, he had the only print shop in Philadelphia.  He had no competition in that business.  I don’t know how many people there were in Philadelphia at the time.  Let’s say 10,000.  That makes him not 1% but 0.01% of the population.  Clearly it would be impossible that everyone could do the same as he did.  The vast majority of people have to be employees.  Only a very few can become successful in a business like Ben Franklin did.

We have the same paradox with the fisheries in Canada.  It’s easy to understand.  Whenever fish stocks are threatened by over fishing, scientists at the Fisheries Department recommend closing the fishery to allow stocks to recover.  People in the fishing industry will lose their jobs if the fishery closes.  In that situation, officials in the Fisheries Department have always disregarded their own scientists and chosen to preserve jobs instead.  Environmentalists outside of the region have been shocked at the decision.  Which is right?  Do we preserve jobs?  Do we preserve a way of life?  Do we destroy these things to preserve the fish instead?  Maybe there is no right decision in this case.


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One Comment
  1. You’ve illustrated a flaw in “the dream” nicely. It’s not working “hard” that determines success, it’s working “smart”, as in your example of Franklin being the only printer (Philadelphia’s population at the time was 30k btw). Innovators and those most adaptive gain the spectacular successes. Working hard only gets you to doing “all right”, to a middle-class level at best.

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