The American Dream Is Killing Us

Pocket Worthy – By Mark Manson – November 07, 2019

By almost every major statistical measurement, the average American is worse off than they were a generation ago.

Imagine this: you’re a kid again, and you want to sell lemonade in your neighborhood. So you set up your little lemonade stand with your cardboard sign written in crayon and get to work.

The first day, one person comes and buys some lemonade. Then the second day, two people come. Then the third, three. And the fourth, four. Within a month, you’re serving dozens of people lemonade every day and the demand just keeps growing.

But it gets better. Not only does the whole neighborhood want a taste of your sweet, citrus squeeze, but the price of lemons just seems to keep getting cheaper. At first, you can get five lemons for a dollar. Then the next week you can get eight for a dollar. Then the next you can get twelve. And on and on. Within a few months, you’re a lemonade money-making machine.

Of course, news gets out about your magical lemonade neighborhood. And pretty soon other kids are setting up their lemonade stands all around you.

But it doesn’t matter, the demand just keeps growing. So you welcome these other kids. You tell them, “This is the neighborhood of opportunity, where anyone can sell lemonade and make money.” Meanwhile, as if by magic, more people show up every day for lemonade, and the price of lemons just keep getting cheaper.

You and the other kids realize something: it is impossible to not make money in this neighborhood. The only way not to make money is to be either lazy or completely incompetent.1 Your lemonade opportunities are only limited by the time and energy you’re willing to put into it. The sky is the limit, and the only thing standing between you and your dreams of lemonade riches is yourself.

Unsurprisingly, a culture starts to develop around the neighborhood. Narratives are formed about certain kids who sell lots of lemonade and other kids who don’t. This kid is a genius and sells lemonade 20 hours a day. This kid is a loser who couldn’t sell ice water in a desert, not to mention he probably drinks half of his own stash.

Kids come to see life in a pretty simple way: people get what they deserve. Or put similarly: people deserve whatever they get. And if they want something better, they should have been smarter and/or worked harder for it.

Time goes by. And news of this magical lemonade neighborhood — now serving lemonade to thousands of customers daily — starts to spread widely. Kids start bussing in from faraway neighborhoods to try their hand at making it in the lemonade world. They take the worst jobs squeezing lemons and throwing out garbage because they know that with the boundless opportunity in the lemonade neighborhood, it’s merely a matter of time before they move up and start making good money themselves.

This goes on for months, and the kids in the neighborhood begin to realize something else: that their neighborhood is special. It seems to be chosen by God. After all, if kids are bussing in from all over town just to sell drops of lemonade here, there must be something truly special about the opportunities present. The kids here have far more money. And they work twice as hard as kids anywhere else. This really must be an exceptional place.

But then one day, things begin to change. First, you hear that the Japanese kids across town have figured out how to produce twice the lemonade for half the price, making it impossible for you to compete. Then, there are rumors that the massive influx of poor Chinese kids are undercutting your prices and stealing away your customers.

But secondly, some of the more successful lemonade vendors have gone around and bought up the less successful lemonade stands. So instead of hundreds of independent lemonade vendor kids, you have about a dozen uber-rich kids controlling the majority of the lemonade market. And to cut costs and bring in good returns for their investors, they start paying workers less for the same work. But instead of telling the kids this, they tell them to simply work harder. After all, people deserve whatever they earn, right?

It happens slowly at first. But then the reality becomes unavoidable: kids in the neighborhood are now making less money even though they are working harder and longer than ever before.

But beliefs lag behind reality. People who lose massive amounts of weight still see themselves as overweight and unattractive for years. People who used to get bullied when they were young grow up to be unassuming adults who constantly underestimate others’ ability to accept them.

And culture is no different. The economic reality of the lemonade stands has now shifted, and it’s not a bright outlook. But the children’s beliefs persist: the underlying culture stays the same.

As a result, the blame game begins. After all, it can’t be the beliefs that are wrong, it must be someone else who is screwing things all up.

The educated kids who had taken the time and money to earn degrees in lemonade squeezing and street vending looked at the kids without credentials as weak-minded and inferior simpletons who brought their misfortune upon themselves. The hardworking kids who started with nothing looked at the more fortunate kids who were handed their first lemonade jobs and blamed them for being entitled and unprepared for setbacks. Soon, the neighborhood turned in upon itself and began to devour itself. Battle lines were drawn. Factions were born. Factions that were political and extreme and fervent and contradictory. Yet the underlying assumption remained. The world changed, but the assumption remained.

American Exceptionalism

Since the beginning, Americans2 have always seen themselves as exceptional.3 And in many ways, the US has been an historic exception.

In no other time in world history has a group of relatively well-educated and industrious people been essentially handed a sparsely-populated continent replete with natural resources, wreathed by two vast oceans on each side protecting it from any potential invaders.4

Yes, for the first 300 years of its history, the US was the lemonade stand where more and more customers magically showed up. Whereas civilizations in Europe and Asia grew, peaked, and died many times over, the people of the US never had to deal with such limiting factors. Economic opportunity and progress appeared to be god given — such a constant that generations of people came and went without knowing life without it.

The United States’ meteoric rise to world superpower happened because of the confluence of four unique factors that it benefitted from greatly:

Unlimited Land – From the very beginning, the US enjoyed a constant state of expansion. It took over 100 years from the country’s inception for it to stretch itself from ‘sea to shining sea.’ In the 20th century, the US added territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, most notably Hawaii and Alaska. Cheap and fertile farmland was always plentiful. And natural resources appeared to be endless, with massive reserves of oil, coal, timber, and precious metals that are still being discovered today.5

Unlimited Cheap Labor – The vast majority of the United States has remained sparsely populated throughout its history. In fact, it was a real concern of the founding fathers and they believed they needed to attract a steady flow of immigrants from all over the world to develop a robust and self-sustaining economy. To do so, they created a democratic system that promoted entrepreneurialism and attracted talent. This generated an endless influx of cheap, industrious labor that still continues to this day.

And that’s not even mentioning that little thing we had for a while called ‘slavery.’

Unlimited Innovation – Perhaps the one thing the US system got right more than anything else is that it is set up to reward ingenuity and innovation. If you come up with the latest, greatest idea, it’s here, more than anywhere else, that you’ll get rewarded for it. As such, many of the great technological advances in the last few centuries came from brilliant immigrants that the US attracted to its soil.

Geographic Isolation – Civilizations in Europe and Asia were invaded, conquered, invaded again, conquered again, back and forth with the tides of history wiping cultures and peoples from the map over and over again. Each time, the destruction set society back, forcing them to reconsider themselves as they rebuilt.

But not the United States. It was just too bloody far away. I mean, if you’re Napoleon, why load up a bunch of expensive ships and sail for weeks, when you can just invade Italy, like, tomorrow?

As a result, the US developed a sense of being isolated from the world. With the exception of Pearl Harbor (which took a lot of fucking effort from Imperial Japan), we’ve just been impossible to get to.

Americans take this for granted. But its effect cannot be overstated. As recently as a couple decades ago, much of Europe feared an imminent invasion from the east. Hell, some European countries still fear that invasion.6

It’s from this intersection of good fortune, plentiful resources, massive amounts of land, and creative ingenuity drawn from around the world that the idea of the American Dream was born.7

The American Dream is simple: it’s the unwavering belief that anybody — you, me, your friends, your neighbors, grandma Verna — can become exceedingly successful, and all it takes is the right amount of work, ingenuity, and determination. Nothing else matters. No external force. No bout of bad luck. All one needs is a steady dosage of grit and ass-grinding hard work. And you too can own a McMansion with a three-car garage… you lazy sack of shit.

And in a country with constantly increasing lemonade customers, endlessly expanding land ownership, endlessly expanding labor pool, endlessly expanding innovation, this was true.

Until recently…

The Stagnating American Dream

In the future, people will probably point to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the inflection point where the US began its slow descent away from global dominance. But the truth is that the deteriorating forces have been at work within the country for decades.

By almost every major statistical measurement, the average American is worse off than they were a generation ago. Some pundits have taken to blaming the younger generations, saying that they’re entitled, self-centered, too absorbed in their smartphones to work,8 and while some of those complaints may have a grain of truth to them, the data suggests that the kids are not the problem.

Generally speaking, Americans today, especially young Americans, are the most educated and productive generation in US history:

But why? What happened? Where did we go wrong or did we even go wrong? Who can we blame in angry Twitter rants or at cocktail parties?

Well, there’s actually no one to blame. It’s just that the strategies and beliefs that the country were founded upon have finally bumped up against their limitations:

No More Land. Fact is, we ran out of land around 1900. So we conquered Cuba and the Philippines and like, Guam, and stuff. But after the World Wars happened we realized something the English never did: that is, why spend all of your time and money actually invading a poor country when you can just lend them money and tell them to sell you stuff for really cheap?

That’s essentially what we did throughout the Cold War. We called it a global hegemony, and it was basically like this low-level form of extortion of the third world: either open up trade for us, let our corporations come in and use your land and cheap labor, or get shut out and continue to wallow in poverty.

And it worked. Dozens of markets around the globe opened up to us, and in return, we promised that our military would protect them from communism.

But that too has dried up. Most of the poor economies have developed enough that they aren’t so cheap and easy to exploit anymore. Or at least not as much as they used to be. In fact, some of them may soon become our competitors.

No More Cheap Labor. Yeah, that all got outsourced. I mean, why employ a bunch of local laborers when you can build a factory in China and get the stuff made for ¼ of the cost? RIP, Detroit. Oh, and there was this whole thing called “slavery” you might have heard of. It ended.

Innovation is Now Creating Fewer Jobs, Not More. This may be the biggest and scariest one of all. With the rise of information technology, automation, and artificial intelligence, the fact is that we don’t need as many people as we used to.10 You know when you walk into CVS and that computer screen yells at you to put your shit in the bag and then you just swipe your card and walk out? Yeah, the whole world is going to be like that soon. Accountants. Pharmacists. Even taxi cabs and truck drivers. That’s potentially tens of millions of people out of work. With no opportunity for those jobs to ever come back.

But this isn’t just going to hit the service sector. This is also largely responsible for the manufacturing sector getting hosed. Despite what Trump may yammer on about, US manufacturing output has doubled in the past 30 years and is still the biggest sector in the US economy.11 The problem is that it’s done that while only employing about 75% of the workers that it used to.12 That’s not the Chinese stealing those jobs. That’s improved technology. You know, robots and shit.

In other words: the lemonade party is over. The customers have stopped coming. The market is contracting. The easy money for anybody who wanted it is now gone.

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Posted by Teri Perticone


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