In his most recent novel, Turkish-born Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk shares impressions of the United States in the early 1960s through the lens of his narrator, a 30-something playboy plutocrat: "Americans were very hard-working and at the same time very naïve; they went to bed early; and even the richest children were obliged by their fathers to go door to door on their bicycles delivering newspapers early in the morning."
I still get three papers delivered to my door. My carrier is a middle-aged mom. She goes to bed early and rises at 3 a.m. to cover the route by car, finishing in time to get her kids off to school and herself to her day job at Walgreens. She's married to one of those "deadbeat" vets who can't find a job and delights in scamming the welfare system.
Some would agree with Pamuk's cynical protagonist that the postwar America most of us (of a certain age) were raised to regard as exceptional -- a place where there were more independent drugstores than Walgreens stores, and where a CEO would have been ashamed to make 20 times more than his average employee (now the norm is 230 times) -- was an aberration, a fluke made possible by our nation's extravagant natural wealth and relatively small (after we'd done away with the Indians) population.
I think the American Dream is more complicated. For most of our admittedly short history, free enterprise and public education, hand in hand, did level the playing field by favoring those wholesome traits Pamuk mentions over such accidents of birth as race, wealth and social connections. Our political system, too, embraced newcomers eager to start at the bottom. Time and again, equality and fairness were put to a vote and won.
For young people today, the global economy has thrown a wrench in the works, exposing our nation's naiveté -- and by that I don't mean blind idealism but our penchant for magical thinking and the quick fix. Fairness and equality can't be exported like so many computer chips, not even by force, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Caterpillar Corp. is one of many multinationals that have lately displayed the Ayn Rand values that trickled down in lieu of wealth when taxes were cut and tariffs eliminated and unions busted and businesses deregulated during and after the Reagan era. Last summer workers at its Joliet, Ill., plant struck for a pay hike. The New York Times reported that despite 2012 projections even rosier than Caterpillar's record $4.9 billion profit in 2011, "the company is insisting on a six-year wage freeze and a pension freeze for most of the 780 production workers at its factory here." Take that, you peasants!
Even as it raises boats overseas, the global economy has polarized America because only a few marginalized liberal do-gooders bothered to reflect on its long-term consequences, and on why our most effective presidents -- from Lincoln, who insisted that a fair society mattered more than a booming economy rooted in the slave trade, to FDR, whose New Deal level-set our values in the aftermath of reckless speculation on Wall Street, to Eisenhower, who cautioned against what he presciently termed the military-industrial complex, all focused not on stimulating economic growth as an end in itself but as a vehicle for promoting the "pursuit of happiness."
Americans certainly are naïve, but not the way Pamuk's entitled young industrialist thought. Reagan wasn't a ruthless realist but a cockeyed optimist captivated by the sort of simplistic solutions that so many Americans, in their haste to move up in the world, often fall prey to themselves. Instead of raising all boats, the global economy has encouraged population growth so as to increase product demand and lower worker pay, thus promoting the interests of corporations accountable to no government, free or otherwise. It has exacerbated environmental challenges that instill in even the most fair and community-minded among us a tribal mind-set. Already our optimism is giving way to fearfulness. We're paralyzed by moral conundrums. Our SUVs may spew carbon, but at least they're safe. Gun violence is awful, but best to be packing when facing down a madman. Our nation's foreign policy may be a bewildering muddle, but it creates jobs.
The U.S. Department of Defense is the world's largest employer (Wal-Mart's third). The founders would have been aghast.
The DOD isn't a war machine so much as a massive jobs program that masks the ravages of our new global economy. Unlike the Depression-era WPA it does not build infrastructure. It does put a few bucks into the pockets of working families, so they can go out to eat at the world's fourth-largest employer, McDonald's, and shop at Wal-Mart, whose low-paid employees are hell-bent on organizing a worldwide union.
I wish them luck. But with America leading the way in income inequality (we're fourth among the world's 142 countries, nipping at the heels of first-place Russia), they face an uphill fight.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer.