What the American Dream is all about

I recently watched Senator Chuck Schumer’s speech to the National Press Club about the future of the middle class and the Democrats’ plan for the 2016 elections.

The most revealing comment he made was the one in which he defined the American Dream as “If I work hard, I’ll be doing better 10 years from now than I am doing today.” In another speech, Hillary Clinton modified this description slightly by saying that the American Dream has consisted of “working hard and playing by the rules.”  Both statements are depressing characterizations of the American Dream.

The American Dream, what makes immigrants come to our country year after year, is not the dreary expectation of getting a middle class income and lifestyle by “playing by the rules,” but the opportunity to fulfill their unique dreams. People are happiest when they are redefining the rules or making new rules that enable them to fulfill their uniquely defined opportunities in ways that transform others’ lives.

The essence of the American Dream is that each of us has the ability to define success in ways that satisfy us.  We can each be excellent in very different ways.  In the past few years, I have met a variety of trailblazers, some of whom have started transformational for-profit businesses, and some of whom have changed the paradigm in not-for-profit organizations.  I have even met people who have taken an ordinary job in a large organization and done something phenomenally different and innovative with it.

Not everyone will get rewarded by becoming wealthy or even being recognized broadly.  Some people just want the satisfaction of having done their job extremely well.  I particularly like it when someone takes a thankless job, like a customer care center representative position, and turns performance in it into a thing of beauty.  These individuals operate within broad performance guidelines, but they succeed by breaking out of rigid, rules-driven approaches to the job.

So why do two otherwise very intelligent public servants define the American Dream in such a stultified, unrealistic way?  The answer lies in the difference between how governments, particularly elected officials, want the world to work to serve their needs, and how the world has to work to be consistent with the American Dream.  I would also suggest that, as consumers, we also want the American Dream to work in a way that delivers transformational and continuous improvement and change.

Governments like well-defined, standardized, rules-driven jobs that they can tax, regulate, and, if they are Democrats, organize into labor unions.

Why do they like to have standardized jobs created by large organizations?  They can collect withholding taxes from the employer on a wide variety of federal and state levies from a standardized job.  When someone is operating as a freelancer, he or she is responsible individually for tax payments, a far more uncertain collection mechanism for governments.

Why do election officials like an economy of unionized jobs?  They can secure campaign contributions much more efficiently from a small number of union leaders, as opposed to having to solicit contributions from millions of separate individuals.  Unions and Political Action Committees are “one-stop shops” for bundling campaign money and grass roots support.

Governments also like standardized, rules-driven jobs because rules are easier to create and enforce, and subject them to far less criticism from vocal special interest groups.  Philip Howard, in all of his books, but particularly, his latest book The Rule of Nobody, points out the negative consequences of inflexible, standardized rules, as they are applied to many non-standardized situations.  The laziest, most achievement-unfriendly members of a population of workers use rules to prevent the most ambitious members of their group from raising the bar to a higher level.

Senator Schumer described the American Dream in terms of an idealized past in which his father was the primary family breadwinner, when America reigned supreme in the 1940’s through the early 1970’s. However, in those days, most businesses did not compete through innovation, and products and services were frankly inferior to what they could have been.  Many people made middle-class incomes doing repetitive work in stagnant, monopoly businesses, because costs could be passed on to consumers, who had no way of mobilizing against substandard products and services.

Like many people with a selective recollection of history, Senator Schumer zeroes in on what was good about the 1950’s and 1960’s, but blocks out the negatives:

More importantly, consumers are far more empowered today.  They can post an online rating or review on a service designed for that purpose, such as Zagat’s for restaurants, TripAdvisor for travel and hotels, or Angie’s List for contractors.  Amazon.com and eBay make vendor access to their marketplace sites depend on achieving a high customer rating.

Continuous improvement and a high degree of attentiveness to customers are prerequisites for staying in business in just about every marketplace, with three glaring exceptions, all dominated by governments and/or labor unions, or both:

In the case of colleges and universities, there is another constraint on excellence: the backwardness of accrediting bodies, which require antiquated and standardized classroom teaching models and far more bricks-and-mortar assets than is optimal today.  In all these markets, millions of Americans continue to achieve middle class incomes and lifestyles and live Senator Schumer’s version of the American Dream by delivering mediocre or even poor service quality to their customers.  Most importantly, they fit the mold Senator Schumer and Hillary Clinton describe:  they operate within heavily rules-driven processes.

Although nurses and doctors work exceptionally hard in healthcare to operate in a broken, rules-driven system, the prevailing rules in education militate against hard work, adaptability to what is needed to achieve the mission of education and learning.

It is quite instructive to see the degree to which governments ferociously oppose innovations like Uber to retain mediocre and poor taxicab systems.  When I travel in the Washington DC taxicabs, it is a hit-or-miss proposition whether they will accept a credit card, whereas Uber handles payments completely on line and painlessly.

State-operated train, subway and bus systems in America are a disgrace, compared with those operating in places like Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Japan and even Italy, because of indifferent and customer-unfriendly service.  I can understand that funding limitations minimize the ability to do needed capital improvements, but unionized transportation workers in America do not even exert the effort to tell customers about the sources and probable duration of delays.

Elected officials and the media have to redefine the American Dream to recognize the convergence between our expectation of excellence and innovation in product and service delivery on the one hand, and the kind of adaptability that is needed for workers to deliver that continuous level of excellence on the other.

Most Americans want to learn, grow, adapt, and be better at their jobs tomorrow than they are today.  They want to feel that the job will be more challenging and they will rise to that challenge tomorrow.

Elected officials and regulators who do everything possible to freeze them in standard, non-changing jobs over a significant period of time are acting contrary to the New American Dream!!

I wish that government officials would operate differently in promoting the American Dream.  What would they need to do?

The American Dream is about enabling each individual to fulfill his or her full human potential, not about rigidly stratifying individuals into job categories and moving them forward in a lockstep fashion. 

We are most likely to achieve that goal when government stretches, challenges, and lifts us up, not when it treats us as victims, distributees of favors, or sources of tax revenues!!