teisipäev, aprill 11, 2006

The American Dream

Recently my wife had a story published in Postimees about the demise of the "American Dream."
Like many of her American stories, it drew mostly on conversations with myself, family members, friends, and acquaintances about this international concept.

Unfortunately, her Estonian audience, particularly foreign Estonians living in America, didn't like hearing how many of my friends are over-educated, under-employed, and deeply in debt. I have heard that many of the individuals that frequent the Estonian House on 34th street, the local hub of Estonian-American culture, are actually fairly conservative, and are loyal Republicans. And we all know how Republicans feel about anyone who lobs a critique at America. It has been my experience that they are quite often upfront about their political convictions.

I understand why Estonians in the US, especially in second- and third-generation families, would be loyal to the Republican Party. Starting in the late 1940s, the Republican Party, which had lost four presidential elections to the Democrats in a row, began to run to the right of the Democrats on dealing with Communism, which was a reversal from their earlier, isolationist stance.

For foreign Estonians, the Republican Party was probably a more open vehicle for voicing their concerns, which was less likely in the Democratic Party, especially into the 1960s when issues like civil rights, the Vietnam war, and LBJ's great society tore that party into pieces. In the 1980s, their loyalty paid off with Ronald Reagan's uncompromising posturing towards the USSR. Reagan has gone down as the good guy, even though it was Democrats that refused to recognize the occupation of the Baltics in 1940, and it was Bill Clinton who told Boris Yeltsin that the Baltics would be joining NATO in the late 90s, and it was Dennis Kucinich, perhaps the most leftwing congressman, who introduced the resolution last year calling on Russia to acknowledge and apologize for the Soviet occupation. That's the way it is, and I understand that.

But for Republicans, loyal Americans, and anybody that still thinks everything is fine and dandy in the US and that the "American Dream" that is still nurtured in some quarters is still very much alive, I am confused about this vague ideal.

To me, the United States has always just been a country. And like all countries, it has its own very special problems. Today we do worry about health coverage. We do worry about the environment and immigration reform. We do worry about a great many things. Even President Bush likes to get his photo taken next to hybrid cars. These are not lefty pet issues. They are mainstream concerns. And people in my generation have been specifically affected in our peak earning years by a stubborn, individualistic economy where it is much easier to fail in life than succeed. My peers really are college graduates. Some have professional jobs, but others wait tables, answer phones, treat sewage, and still others went back to school, where they aspire to stay permanently. Opportunity has not exactly been knocking on their doors.

I am led to believe that things may have once been different. I can only assume that my grandfather and grandmother, who raised five kids on one salary, may have done so in a more advantageous economic environment. They lived that stereotypical 1950s dream, that supposedly is dead. Yet there are plenty of immigrant gas station owners and restauranteurs who find themselves amazingly wealthy and respected here in America. But for them there are also the migratory workers who sleep on concrete bunks in Southern California, or the Asian sweat shop workers who work in sub-human conditions in this very city.

Does that mean that everybody should have the same thing? No. But it does mean that if you are a foreigner thinking about coming to America to live out some sort of materialist fantasy, you should be prepared to handle the fact that you may not wind up being fabulously rich, and you may wind up living in a dump with cockroaches unable to see a dentist over your toothache because you are uninsured. This is the Americas after all, and yes, the US does share some similarities with its neighbors in Central and South America when it comes to living standards.

In my wife's story she referred to America as being in "crisis." Terrorists crashed planes into buildings a few blocks from here and I still am unsure if we are in "crisis." Things seem pretty much the same. But I can tell you that people consistently in opinion polls say that America is "headed in the wrong direction" and they cite things like health care and outsourcing as being among the top issues they worry about. People clearly are looking for something a little better than what they are getting in America.

The other night I met a man on the train. He was about 45. He appeared to have no college education, and worked for 20 years in a supermarket, working his way up to manager, until they downsized staff and he was let go. He then moved down south to take a job in a manufacturing plant making refridgerators, until he lost his job again - this time they moved the plant to Mexico. Now he lives at home with his mom and works at a drug store for $6 an hour.

For every wealthy investment banker on Wall Street there are dozens of guys like him. Just remember that any time you ponder the American Dream.

11 kommentaari:

Anonüümne ütles ...

I feel so sorry about middle aged people like this last example of yours. Or like that woman in the laundrymat who came to me and asked "Can I start babysitting your child? I lost my job but we have to pay for my daughters college... Or do you know someone who needs a babysitter...?" She was a legal immigrant from Puerto Rico.
Where is their hope? I mean young guys like your friends can still find their way. But these middle aged guys, they get older, they need health insurance and retirement money soon but where is it if they are jobless now, in their 40s.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Yep, many things have gone downhill but this country still beats whole lotta places like Russia, Belorussia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldavia, all the former Warsaw block, etc. Here you can at least tend to sewage and get paid for it, while there youd live in it. Without pay. And without cable TV.

Giustino ütles ...

Sure life isn't that great in Romania, but, then again, it's even worse in Haiti and Nigeria and especially in Iraq these days.

I don't agree with you about the former Warsaw Pact countries. Last time there were tens of thousands of English speakers living in Prague. So it can't be that bad.

The general point is that no place is all it's cracked up to be. Comparatively the US is a great place to live. But I have to say the air in Estonia is (cough cough) a little bit cleaner than our New York air.

And I have no doubt that the Norwegians have a higher standard of living than we do. I met a Canadian living in Norway that said compared to Canad, Norway's living standards were much better. And in general, Canada is seen as having higher living standards than the US.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Norway, man. Norway. Norway is heaven. Don't even bring it into the discussion. It's totally outside the leaque here.

Kaur ütles ...

I am not sure that US beats Belorussia in terms of citizens' happyness. The politics in the country are headed in a wrong way, that's for sure. But majority of the people are (told to be) very content with they socialist/autocratic tyranny thet have there. The official unemployment rate is 2%. And so on.

The "more successful" countries of the former Warsaw block may be different, because the reforms and revolutions were heavy on the older generation. Thus there is a class of people who are too old to work (or re-learn), and whose savings were totally destroyed in the post-socialist developments. However I also believe that even here (in Estonia), people are generally happier than in US. We don't care about cable TV so much, you see.

Kaur ütles ...

And... My wife has been to Albania and Russia and Romania and Bulgaria and in nearly all other Eastern European countries too. Yugoslavia went through a civil war and is still split up in ethnic conflicts, and this makes it a sad place indeed. But the people in the rest of the countries - or the regions of them - which did not have war on its territory are also living reasonably happy lives. Again no cable TV, but they probaby pity the americans even more because you cannot make your own wine and most of you have no sheep at all.

Evelin ütles ...

I agree with the the story. Those have been my observations, too, after coming to the US. It is not the land where everyone is 100% free or where everyone lives in a big house and has 3 cars (although, generally, people tend to have more cars than I think is necessary or sustainable) and travels to Hawaii every year. (Those are the stereotypes people might have about US - "I'll go there and get rich in a year".) It's a country like any other in that sense.
I had to read Cathy A. Small's etnography "Voyages: From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs" and I think it's just a perfect example of how the life for immigrants in the US has changed over the last decade or so and how globalization has affected the world. I'd recommend the book.

Anonüümne ütles ...

I was being ironic about the cable TV, too bad it did not check. Maybe they are happy under Turkmenbashi, who knows? Happiness is relative and it's all about getting laid anyway. Everything else is quite secondary. So just drink samogonka, ignore the fleas and the bad breath of these Tajik girls and you'll be in the seventh heaven. I believe you. Life in the communist wasteland could waste you in a good way, why not.

Wv Sky ütles ...

America's hype was always like that of a new movie release: Some of it was deserved, some not. Working hard in America however usually always guaranteed success. Many people who didnt speak English or have a good education managed to do very well in America if they simply worked hard. The rewards may not have affected them as much as their children but they were rewarded non the less. The days of the assembly line job paying good money is all but over however. Global economy is taking us in a new direction that we've never been before and we dont know the outcome. But we know that it appears the high school graduate of old is now the college graduate in many cases. ( making about the same money in many cases) We also know that greed and guilt has forced people to load-up on credit where it was unthinkable 45 years ago. My generation waited until we could afford things... even if it took 30 to 40 years. Not so today. I think too many people in America bite-off more than they can chew early-on, and then bitch about not making enough money. On the other hand, I think the economy is leveling-out. I mean... what's the point of making $26 an hour if bread is $8 a loaf?

Giustino ütles ...

But from my perspective - why not just stay in your home country?

I mean America is its own distinct entity. It's not just a place where everybody comes when they get employed, because we have our unemployed too.

Epp's point about finding work in Ireland or the UK made sense too - because it's getting easier to go find work (if you are unemployed) closer to home in Estonia than come all the way over here and risk working illegally (and being barred from reentering the country).

Obviously some people are adventurers. But the market for recent immigrants here is pretty much clogged by our neighbor to the south - Mexico. We have all the cheap, available, illegal labor we need.

Imagine for yourself unemployed Mexicans flying to Ireland to seek work. Doesn't that sound ridiculous?

Anonüümne ütles ...

Just to let you know, heaps of people have cable TV in Romania, probably more than in the US. That's not a good example :)

In any case, I think the former Warsaw Pact countries are doing very well since the last five years, and particularly in places like Czechia, Estonia, Slovenia, etc, living standards are starting to become very similar with those of Western Europe (Czechia already has a higher per-capita income than Portugal, and is fast approaching Greece and Spain). So, the difference isn't that big.

In Albania, Serbia, Moldova and Ukraine, there are of course many more problems, but even there the austerity and uncertainty of the 1990s has all but gone.