A Superpower in Decline: Is the American Dream Over?

America has long been a country of limitless possibility. But the dream has now become a nightmare for many. The US is now realizing just how fragile its success has become -- and how bitter its reality. Should the superpower not find a way out of crisis, it could spell trouble ahead for the global economy. By SPIEGEL Staff

It was to be the kind of place where dozens of American dreams would be fulfilled -- here on Apple Blossom Drive, a cul-de-sac under the azure-blue skies of southwest Florida, where the climate is mild and therapeutic for people with arthritis and rheumatism. Everything is ready. The driveways lined with cast-iron lanterns are finished, the artificial streams and ponds are filled with water, and all the underground cables have been installed. This street in Florida was to be just one small part of America's greater identity -- a place where individual dreams were to become part of the great American story.

But a few things are missing. People, for one. And houses, too. The drawings are all ready, but the foundations for the houses haven't even been poured yet.

Apple Blossom Drive, on the outskirts of Fort Myers, Florida, is a road to nowhere. The retirees, all the dreamers who wanted to claim their slice of the American dream in return for all the years they had worked in a Michigan factory or a New York City office, won't be coming. Not to Apple Blossom Drive and not to any of the other deserted streets which, with their pretty names and neat landscaping, were supposed to herald freedom and prosperity as the ultimate destination of the American journey, and now exude the same feeling of sadness as the industrial ruins of Detroit.

Florida was the finale of the American dream, a promise, a symbol, an American heaven on earth, because Florida held out the prospect of spending 10, perhaps 20 and hopefully 30 years living in one's own house. For decades, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people moved to the state each year. The population grew and grew -- and so too did real estate prices and the assets of those who were already there and wanted bigger houses and even bigger dreams. Florida was a seemingly never-ending boom machine.

Could the Dream Be Over?

Until it all ended. Now people are leaving the state. Florida's population decreased by 58,000 in 2009. Some members of the same American middle class who had once planned to spend their golden years lying under palm trees are now lined up in front of soup kitchens. In Lee County on Florida's southwest coast, 80,000 people need government food stamps to make ends meet -- four times as many as in 2006. Unemployment figures are sharply on the rise in the state, which has now come to symbolize the decline of the America Dream, or perhaps even its total failure, its naïveté. Could the dream, in fact, be over?

Americans have lived beyond their means for decades. It was a culture long defined by a mantra of entitlement, one that promised opportunities for all while ignoring the risks. Relentless and seemingly unstoppable upward mobility was the secular religion of the United States. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, established the so-called ownership society, while Congress and the White House helped free it of the constraints of laws and regulations.

The dream was the country's driving force. It made Florida, Hollywood and the riches of Goldman Sachs possible, and it attracted millions of immigrants. Now, however, Americans are discovering that there are many directions that life can take, and at least one of them points downward. The conviction that stocks have always made everyone richer has become as much of a chimera in the United States as the belief that everyone has the right to own his own home, and then a bigger home, a second car and maybe even a yacht. But at some point, everything comes to an end.

The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010. American companies are still world-class, but today Apple and Coca-Cola, Google and Microsoft are investing in Asia, where labor is cheap and markets are growing, and hardly at all in the United States. Some 47 percent of Americans don't believe that the America Dream is still realistic.

Loud and Distressed

The Desperate States of America are loud and distressed. The country has always been a little paranoid, but now it's also despondent, hopeless and pessimistic. Americans have always believed in the country's capacity for regeneration, that a new awakening is possible at any time. Now, 63 percent of Americans don't believe that they will be able to maintain their current standard of living.

And if America is indeed on the downward slope, it will have consequences for the global economy and the political world order.

The fall of America doesn't have to be a complete collapse -- it is, after all, a country that has managed to reinvent itself many times before. But today it's no longer certain -- or even likely -- that everything will turn out fine in the end. The United States of 2010 is dysfunctional, but in new ways. The entire interplay of taxes and investments is out of joint because a 16,000-page tax code allows for far too many loopholes and because solidarity is no longer part of the way Americans think. The political system, plagued by lobbyism and stark hatred, is incapable of reaching consistent or even quick decisions.

The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance -- it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past. They devote almost no effort to reflection, and they condemn cleverness and intellect as elitist and un-American, as if people who hunt bears could seriously be expected to lead a world power. Demagogues stir up hatred and rage on television stations like Fox News. These parts of America, majorities in many states, ignorant of globalization and the international labor market, can do nothing but shout. They hate everything that is new and foreign to them.

But will the US wake up? Or is it already much too late?


YESTERDAY: AMERICA'S FALL

The sociologist Robert Putnam hems and haws, not wanting to be the kind of professor who drops names to make himself seem more important. But the issue is much too important for him to resist. "I have had the chance to discuss income inequality with George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and I can assure you both were worried about the trend," he says. "It was possible to have an adult conversation with them on this topic."

Putnam, a Harvard professor who sports an enormous beard, sounds pleased, as if this were an exception. He is a surveyor of the American psyche. A few years ago, he caused a stir with his book "Bowling Alone," in which he argued that more and more Americans are bowling alone -- and not in a bowling club -- because the average American hardly even speaks to other Americans anymore, and certainly not with those who hold views different from his own.

Now Putnam is worried about economic imbalances and new disparities within society. Today an American CEO earns about 300 times as much as an ordinary worker. In 1950, that number was only 30. The consequence is "social segregation," says Putnam, by which he means that people go to different schools and parties and live in different neighborhoods, and that there is no longer any overlap between groups.

"The fundamental bargain, the core of America, has always been that we can live with big gaps between rich and poor as long as there is also equality of opportunity," Putnam says. "If that is no longer true, then the core bargain is being violated."

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1. If 1/3 sit in front of computers, of course low standard of living
lakechamplainer 11/01/2010
I think the main reason US standards of living have stagnated is the ocmputer, for several reasons 1. Simply put, if 1/3 of the workforce sits in front of the computer, 1/3 of the work force is not doing something productive - farming, making furniture, teaching, cooking, etc. 2. Computers are used by management to monitor employees, which limit productivity 3. Capital spent on computers, which is almost all not providing a real return on investment, is capital not put into productive use. There are some good uses for computers, for example on controlling/monitoring high speed, high quantity production or assembly or packaging lines, but these are the exception to the rule.
2. Florida
esperonto 11/02/2010
Goodbye to it. Florida was always a skid row state, coursing with drug addiction, prostitution, voodoo, mafia, Cuban terrorists, and hurricanes. You see the failure of this new suburban retirement planning, but in fact this is only a small superficial section of Florida. Much of florida has always been homeless, poor, police brutality, and skid row. You can search through youtube to see pictures of police cutting up the tents of homeless people, young kids beating up homeless. The dream was only a superficial segment of Florida, that excluded much of the population. That is the most naive thing of all. For a state with only a shallow sense of community and grift work for old retired rich people and down to earth, straight forward Mexican slavery with all the bells attached. To me the only wonder is that people only feel sorry for these oblivious home owners! This is shot in Saint Pete Florida, a relatively small city: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrPdZmPB36U The reason they do that is not just about the physical act of removing homeless. Its psychological harassment to criminalize the minds of the tent owners. After their tents are cut up, their minds become more guilty, and they have more of a marked look. Normal people will realize they have been marked subconsciously. That is the mentality of the American South: guilty until proven innocent. I guess if I was a genius like these police I would understand that being smart and successful means being ruthless. Really smart people hate the poor and want to destroy them. When you are really smart and well pampered, nothing is better than killing the poor, destroying their homes in Palestine, or killing them in Afghanistan. When you are really intelligent, rich and successful, nothing is better than eating human flesh. Maybe you would care for a tomato instead: http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2009/03/politics-of-the-plate-the-price-of-tomatoes I know, If I had some self respect and pride or patriotism, I could kill and enslave the poor with a clean conscious like normal sane people. Then I would only worry about some middle class home owners and take the idiotic European view of the "American Dream". If I believed in the God, I could enslave and kill like a real Christian.
3. American dreams are at loggerheads
sirajul 11/02/2010
A great article by Spiegel, and I like to thank Spiegel staff writers Klaus Brinkbäumer, Marc Hujer, Peter Müller, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Thomas Schulz for this thorough 6-part story on America's past, present and future. With the midterm elections holding today, and both Democrats and Republicans distancing themselves from the brand America, the country’s leadership, as hinted by the storywriters, is coming to an end. Indeed, American leaderships have had hands in the initiation of the losing, though not publicly. Many months before the actual changing of the America, a political swing is on the move. Its scope and extent remain unclear, yet the seeds of a new foreign policy have clearly been implanted. The earlier strategy, which treated diplomacy as a second choice and saw the military pre-emptive strike as America's fundamental right, has verified to be unsuccessful. Despite the consequences of who are going to be the actual rulers in America, the return of the ‘Right’ is alarming. ‘The demonisation of political opponents, the end of debates, the condemnation of intellect, these are all maybe ominous signs’ that the American dream is over.
4. computers
esperonto 11/02/2010
Zitat von lakechamplainerI think the main reason US standards of living have stagnated is the ocmputer, for several reasons 1. Simply put, if 1/3 of the workforce sits in front of the computer, 1/3 of the work force is not doing something productive - farming, making furniture, teaching, cooking, etc. 2. Computers are used by management to monitor employees, which limit productivity 3. Capital spent on computers, which is almost all not providing a real return on investment, is capital not put into productive use. There are some good uses for computers, for example on controlling/monitoring high speed, high quantity production or assembly or packaging lines, but these are the exception to the rule.
Lets not forget computers control heart machines in hospitals, etc. I don't think computers can be blamed entirely. And you know farming and furniture making still go on, but as you know, capitalism has monopolies on small business. If IKEA makes furniture, how can I make furniture? If a giant corporation owns many hog farms, how can a normal person own a hog farm? Nevertheless, there are many people who are still farmers, furniture makers, etc. One thing that may have suffered is fine art. Painting, drawing, and many of the fine arts that were more prominent in the 1960s before computers are now completely passe. Also there is a "buy local" movement to counteract your problem of online shopping. At least where I live, people are encouraged to "buy local". I have seen it in other towns as well. I think the movies people watch decrease the standard of living. I was on a greyhound bus recently and it had movie screens in it that played an extremely stupid movie. Though I couldn't hear it, because I refused to put on the earphones, these monitors were reflected all around the bus in the windows at night. I was bombarded by one of the most stupid movies I have ever seen about someone who works in the house of congress who becomes Noah and builds an ark. I felt after I had seen its flickering mobs of bamboozled actors that my quality of reality had been reduced, even without hearing any audio. Its no wonder I have no TV and mostly watch older movies that have no special effects or CGI graphics. Definitely TV, Mass Media, and Hollywood films these days are reducing the population to very shallow reality. I have been very picky to choose only real socialist news and older movies with bad camera work and live action stunts where appropriate. Look at this for instance. I dont like the song so much, but this guy goes crazy. He jumps around with a kind of energy they don't have at all in these computer generated imagery movies. He does backflips off the wall. I am not even that old. This way before my time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW02c5UNGl0 Hong Kong films used to be like that in the 1980s. Stephen Chow for instance is extremely good. Many Kung Fu films are also quite good for this kind of humor action. A fat guy is often his side kick. The fat guy is maybe even as funny as him. He dresses up as a girl sometimes. http://www.youtube.com/user/tithya0youtube#p/u/206/hnMwKnkeYGY CGI just gives like magic powers to the director. It provides too much fantasy. The plots of these films get really stupid. I mean, Congressman transforms into Noah? Retarded. Still, some computer art is quite good, like this comical portrayal of Evelyn Rothschild and Rockefeller: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7Tz8l-t1o4
5. Travel
esperonto 11/02/2010
Zitat von lakechamplainerI think the main reason US standards of living have stagnated is the ocmputer, for several reasons 1. Simply put, if 1/3 of the workforce sits in front of the computer, 1/3 of the work force is not doing something productive - farming, making furniture, teaching, cooking, etc. 2. Computers are used by management to monitor employees, which limit productivity 3. Capital spent on computers, which is almost all not providing a real return on investment, is capital not put into productive use. There are some good uses for computers, for example on controlling/monitoring high speed, high quantity production or assembly or packaging lines, but these are the exception to the rule.
I have used computers for so much though. Once I got a job online in Turkey. I ended up going there for 9 months! All because I applied for a job online and emailed to a Turkish business owner. If it were not for internet, I would never have been in Turkey, so I can thank computer for that. Computer is very fun for me. I use it mainly to gather information. For instance, if it wasn't for the USA Esperanto website, I might not speak Esperanto. I did a mail order course with them for a certificate. It was by normal mail, but essentially I applied for it online here: http://esperanto-usa.org/ Educational tool unparalleled. Now I can read a book in Esperanto almost fluently.
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