I recently read “Shiny Objects” by James Roberts, who is a marketing professor at Baylor University. The book is about why people buy things they shouldn’t — written by someone who studies selling things.
It was good, and has lots of interesting tidbits about why people buy things they can’t afford. I think my favorite section, however, was the couple chapters he spent discussing the evolution of the American Dream. Dr. Roberts defines this as “a chance for men and women of all races and nationalities, from even the lowest rung of the economic ladder, to attain their fullest stature.” The book lists a couple of stages in how the American Dream changed from the founding of our country to today:*
Era of the Protest Work Ethic
This is the founding of our country – and of the American dream. Hard work and frugality aren’t just virtues designed to get you ahead and save you money: they’re an important part of religious and spiritual beliefs. At this time, certain Protestants believed that those folks who were “predestined” for salavation or “the Elect” could be told by their work habits and financial success. More on this from Wikipedia.
How the West Was Won
Quickly, however, people started taking short-cuts to achieving the American Dream.** One of the most popular attempts to get-rich-quick was the California Gold Rush. If you – like me – were taught to call this the California Gold Rush of 1849, we’ll put this down as one more thing learned in elementary school that turned out not to be quite true. The gold rush actually lasted almost a decade. At its height, the streets of San Francisco were almost deserted. Unfortunately, most people who participated in it would have been better off sticking with hard work and thrift, rather than selling everything they owned to buy a shovel and a ticket to California.
The First “Sell Lots of Stuff to Lots of People” Era
Then, the Industrial Revolution came along, and with it, the need to sell all the stuff that was being produced. Since ordinary people could suddenly afford to buy lots more of these cheaper goods, it made sense for the first time to try to advertise to lots of them at the same time. The Sears catalog comes out. So do brand name products. And people start buying things on installment plans.
A few years later, people start being able to buy CARS! due to the “Fordist Deal.” Henry Ford had the ground-breaking idea that his cars should be cheap enough that the people who worked on his assembly lines could buy them. This required: (a) making his cars inexpensive and (b) paying his workers enough. People start mortgaging their houses to buy cars. There’s even more advertising through the innovative new medium of television.
Then, like all good things, the party came to an end during the Depression. The book sees this as a time when the American dream was defined – and distilled down to its core. Specifically, the American dream was distilled into the “Four Freedoms” discussed by FDR and pictured by Normal Rockwell:
According to Dr. Roberts, the painting of freedom from want was the most popular. It’s worth thinking about what is NOT in the painting:
Though the plattered turkey is large, no excess or ostentation can be found in the painting. Over-the-top holiday decorations are noticeably absent, as is the holiday food orgy typically found in America today: only a bowl of fruit and celery adorns the simply appointed table, and everyone is drinking water.
Post World War Two
After taking a few years off during the Depression, consumerism comes back, stronger and better than ever. Buying things is seen as the antidote to Communism, and people do a lot of it. Especially of homes, in places like Levittown. Somehow, homeowner gets equated with the American Dream. And in addition to buying homes, people start buying lots and lots of newly invented technologies to put in them, like televisions!
Then, in the ’60s, people start questioning whether buying lots of stuff was really the right thing to do. Even with all those questions, however, people did not stop purchasing stuff. Credit card usage became widespread. In the 70s, buying things got more difficult, as there was soaring inflation and tons of unemployment. At some point, President Carter gave a speech saying that one solution might be that people should stop buying things they couldn’t afford. Dr. Roberts suggests the country reacted by electing President Reagan.
We’re getting close to the present day – and the invention of the internet. With the internet came a second gold rush – this one for technology stocks. Lots of people poured a lot of money into .coms – until the bubble burst in 2000/2001.
That bubble, however, had nothing on the 2008 housing bubble explosion. Remember how owning your own house became equated with the American dream in the 40s and 50s? According to Dr. Roberts:
But like all dreams, eventually you wake up. And what we awoke to was a financial cataclysm to rival the Great Depression. The American Dream had become the American nightmare.
This all was definitely food for thought. I’m still digesting what I think about this picture of American history. But one thing that stuck with me was: people over time have had lots of different ideas of what the American Dream means. At one point, it meant amassing money to prove you were favored by God. At another, it meant owning your own home. It has meant everything from trying to get rich with gold nuggets to trying to make it big in xxxx.com.
I don’t think any of these things really capture what the American Dream means to me. For me, the American Dream is the opportunity to use my own head and my own heart to achieve what I want to in life. And that’s not owning a lot of stuff, or getting rich. It’s being sufficiently independent to trod my own path, rather than society — OR LAW SCHOOL DEBT — choosing one for me. How about you?
*Some of these titles for the different stages I made up myself, with apologies to the author. Some of them are his own.
**I am skeptical that there was ever an era in U.S. history – or in the history of any other country – where “get rich quick” schemes weren’t common. See, e.g., El Dorado.