An attitude problem

by Russ Roberts on January 30, 2009

in Politics

A  Zogby poll from this month found that 56% of the American people still "believe in the American Dream." Zogby is impressed that a majority still believes. What I found interesting were the reasons that disbelievers gave for their lack of faith:

44%: "The powers that be don't care about people like me."

29%: "Americans shouldn't think of themselves as special and entitled to an ideal life."

27%: "Where I live, it costs too much, and the American Dream is just out of reach."

14%: Not sure or other.

10%: "I am a pessimist."

8%: "I have been forced to take a lower-paying job."

7%: "I don't have enough education and can't afford to go back to school."

7%: "I recently lost my job and am out-of-work."

So the overwhelming reason for rejecting the American Dream is a lack of caring on the part of the powerful. I assume that if they thought the powerful people did care about them then they could believe in economic opportunity.

If that really captures their outlook, then my view and their view of how the world works is very different.

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The Other Eric January 30, 2009 at 4:45 pm

Who did the study, years ago now, of students who became pregnant in high school? The author came up with the terms 'bowlers' and gamblers.'

Bowlers are people who believe, at a fundamental level, that they can get better and achieve more through trial and error and learning as you go. Like bowlers, they could continue to adjust to what happens.

Gamblers didn't see anything as in their control. Things that went well were great, but things that didn't go well (like pregnancy, school, or any other problem) were attributed to outside forces.

Like the dichotomy of Sowell's constrained and unconstrained world views, there are people who think any negative shock is because of 'the system.' 'The Man' keeps them down.

Jeremy January 30, 2009 at 4:57 pm

"The powers that be don't care about people like me."

I think this is really more about different opinions about what the American Dream "is." By definition, it is a dream, some abstract concept, of which many different things can fit in. Is the American dream simply "I want my children to have a better life than I did?" That was what I grew up believing. That is what my folks believe. That is also apparently what the majority who still believe in the American Dream believe, according to Zogby, 59% of people said "I'm intelligent and work hard, so I should succeed."

I think that how The American Dream is defined is associated closely with how well people are doing. I wonder what a similar poll taken 3 years ago would've found. I bet most would still believe in the Dream, and it would also be because they "are intelligent, work hard and should succeed."

Phil January 30, 2009 at 4:59 pm

That comment "The powers that be don't care about people like me" is the reason people look to leaders to take care of them. They dont want to take responsibility for their life and just want someone else to give them things. It does seem that with many, many people believing this (not from the percentage but from my observations) that things will just keep getting worse and worse.

Morgan January 30, 2009 at 5:04 pm

I'm struck by the implied definition of the "American Dream" reflected by some of the other choices:

"Americans shouldn't think of themselves as special and entitled to an ideal life" seems to imply that the Dream is "an entitlement to an ideal life". A very strange definition, in my view.

"Where I live, it costs too much, and the American Dream is just out of reach" seems to imply that the Dream is something along the lines of the "economic opportunity" you point to, maybe a nice house and two cars – a fairly traditional definition, I guess. But it also implies that moving to a town with a lower cost of living is out of the question. Odd, when you think how many people have made much more drastic moves in pursuit of the Dream.

"I have been forced to take a lower-paying job" and "I recently lost my job and am out-of-work" indicate that belief in the Dream is something that can be negated by what happens today, which would seem (in turn) to imply that the dream is about constant upward material mobility, or that the people answering believe the future will necessarily be like the present, and is out of their control.

The Other Eric January 30, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Found it:

Rotter JB, Mulry RC (1965). Internal versus external control of reinforcement and decision time. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 2(4): 598-604.

Google Scholar, gotta love it.

Randy January 30, 2009 at 6:05 pm

It isn't that the powers that be don't care about people like me, its that they actively exploit people like me. Its not that the dream isn't possible, its just harder to achieve with those bastards insisting that their dreams have to come first.

SteveO January 30, 2009 at 6:22 pm

The saddest thing: I'd be willing to bet 95%-99% of the people polled were actually *currently living* the American Dream.

i.e. They have safe housing, they have a job and some control over their destiny, they put food on the table every night. They are able to love and marry who they want. They can spend or save money on what they want, and change their children's lives.

My dad wore steel-toed boots and a hard-hat until the day he retired, specifically because he didn't want me to do that. It worked. My parents saved money, bought a house in a better neighborhood, helped me start paying for college.

My dad never finished junior college, and my mom dropped out of high school. Now, because of their *choices* I'm applying for PhD grad programs, and I'll probably earn more in my lifetime than both of them combined, and I'll have products, medical services, technology they never had. I'm pretty darn poor as a college student right now- and I've got an iPhone- go figure.

I think the American Dream is not so small a rug that you won't know you're standing on it. Some people just need to look down and realize how much they have, because of so many that have come before them.

Martin Brock January 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

I thought of Randy when I read the first response, but he does have a point. "Powers that be" are not simply mythical. The Leviathan is freakin' huge, and its tentacles reach far beyond the most central organs of government. Our options are far more constrained than some of us like to pretend.

Sure, if you're able enough and willing enough to play by the established rules, you'll probably do okay in the U.S., but "able enough" doesn't describe everyone, and the rules certainly do benefit a few at the expense of many others. That's not just a self-defeating psychological profile. It's facing reality.

Maybe there's some merit in the selection of the few, but the fortunate among us would call themselves "meritorious" (or "rightful", "proper" or "noble") in any event, so it's always tough to distinguish useful merit from mere entitlement.

I suppose Obama is an uncommonly good peddler of vague platitudes. If the race is to the best bullshit artist and the winner gets the most entitlement to consume what the less gifted bullshitters produce, I'd rather drop out early.

BoscoH January 30, 2009 at 7:20 pm

You've got to be careful how you interpret poll results. They are an intersection of what the pollster wants to ask with what the respondents want to answer, filtered through how the pollster spins the results. This question and response are exceptionally loaded. All it tells me is that a lot of men think with their ovaries. Nothing new there.

Sam Grove January 30, 2009 at 7:42 pm

44%: "The powers that be don't care about people like me."

This fits in with the "public" education meme.

They test people for aptitude and slip them into classes to prepare them for their part as a cog in the great machine. This process promotes the illusion that, somehow, the system cares for you. You do you part and the machine will take care of you.

Isn't this the dream of progressive government?

T L Holaday January 30, 2009 at 7:45 pm

It seems likely that someone with tenure will have a very different sense of how the world works than someone in at-will employment.

gregg somerville January 30, 2009 at 8:17 pm
Methinks January 30, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Is there a concrete, universally accepted definition of the "American Dream"? I don't think there is and that renders the answers meaningless. My "American Dream" is the opportunity to live in a state that maximized individual liberty. I used to believe in this American dream, but my belief has dwindled recently. It's dwindled because I believe "the powers that be don't care about people like me". I'm a small voting block and it's easier to use people like me as scapegoats for political gain than it is to get out of my way so that I may continue to create wealth and employ people. The powers that be don't have the power to create a life I consider ideal for me, but they do have enormous power to destroy it.

How do we know how many people responded the way I just did and how many simply believe the nanny state will never redistribute enough of other people's wealth to them? I don't think we can know.

george from VA January 30, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Sam – I'm an at will employee and I'm living the dream. Hell if I was making a tenth of what I make and living in a one room shack I'd still be living the dream. I can speak my mind and do what I choose without the oppression most countries have.

If Americans only knew how the poor here live like the middle class or rich other places they'd respect what they have more.

Methinks January 30, 2009 at 8:48 pm

It seems likely that someone with tenure will have a very different sense of how the world works than someone in at-will employment

At will employment is going the way of the dodo bird. Prepare for unwilling unemployment as the number of protected groups grows. Just yesterday Obama signed into a law a bill that mandates women must be paid the same as men for "doing the same job". I don't need that land mine, so I'll be much less likely to hire professional women in the future. Good luck to them on that American Dream thing.

george from VA January 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

sorry Sam – I meant – T L Holaday
I don't know why I keep looking at the wrong name :)

george from VA January 30, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Greg that is awesome

Randy January 30, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Methinks,

I saw that, and my first thought was roughly the same. Unfortunately, if they can tell you what to pay, they can tell you who to pay. Soon, it will all be one big civil service nation.

Kevin January 30, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Soon, it will all be one big civil service nation.

Since I'm cheerleading for the good ol US of A today, I'll mix a couple of metaphors and point out that we have a number of canaries in the mine down the road to serfdom a long way ahead of us. Nobody in the US will be surprised at what happens, or wake up one day and realize that we're not free. The hubris of our friends in Europe will provide us with an unmistakable look into our future.

[/cheerleading] Of course, our hubris could be so great that we actually follow them thinking our fate will be different.

Mesa Econoguy January 30, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Russ, the attitude problem is a direct result of disconnect between public perception and economic reality, specifically that people don’t trust (and never really have trusted) politicians, and rightly so.

This is cause/effect disconnection, largely a result of stupid people, attracted to power and making dumb public policy decisions, based on imperfect information and sheer arrogance (i.e. muirgeo’s friends).

Let me reiterate: there is no economic theory, doctrine, idea, notion, or hunch, which states that increasing governmental transactional intermediaries somehow increases economic efficiency. None.

Which is also why Brad DeLong is wrong.

Gil January 30, 2009 at 10:02 pm

I wonder if vidyohs would take a baseball bat and break the legs of those who said "the power that be don't care" because they are apparently very child-like who see society as their parent who is expected to give them everthing thing they want because they breathe.

Gil January 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Or at least hug the 29% who are truthful enough to know they're not entitled to anything.

SteveO January 30, 2009 at 11:09 pm

I'd hug the first person I see that doesn't feel entitled. There might be a T-shirt there.

Honestly, I don't see too many in daily life.

brotio January 31, 2009 at 12:56 am

"I wonder if vidyohs would take a baseball bat and break the legs of those who said "the power that be don't care" because they are apparently very child-like who see society as their parent who is expected to give them everthing thing they want because they breathe." – Gil

No,

I suspect Vidyohs would interpret things along the lines that Methinks did, and want to take a baseball bat to the powers that be in the same manner that Mierduck envisions union thugs being able to knee-cap people who vote the "wrong way" in open-ballot elections.

Mesa Econoguy January 31, 2009 at 2:51 am

C’mon guys, vidyohs lives in Texas.

Shotgun.

Mesa Econoguy January 31, 2009 at 2:54 am

C’mon guys, vidyohs lives in Texas.

Shotgun.

Mesa Econoguy January 31, 2009 at 3:01 am

C’mon guys, vidyohs lives in Texas.

Shotgun.

Mesa Econoguy January 31, 2009 at 3:02 am

Firefox major problem:

1) refreshed, then closed window;

2) re-posted,

3) refreshed, then reposted.

4) checked with Bill & Melinda Gates re: what I should do with my money, after I fix their incompetence.

Obvious software/wealth compatibility problem here…..

Jacob Oost January 31, 2009 at 7:11 am

I think investors are worth worrying about far more than consumers. I want to know what they think. I'm terrified that we are in for four years of bailouts and macro stabilization (i.e. depression) during which private investment will just tank and tank, all thanks to crowding out by gov't borrowing coupled with the high risk factor and uncertainty that comes from having a President who thinks certain businesses shouldn't be earning a profit right now.

Call me crazy, but I'm thinking that some of the restrictions built into this "stimulus" bill on what companies who are recipients of the dough can do strikes me as a sneaky, stealth attempt on the part of government economists to send a message to businesses, which is "don't accept the money," so as to encourage companies to do business without regard to the government.

Jacob Oost January 31, 2009 at 7:22 am

SteveO, you gave me an idea. To satisfy/shut up all of those "income inequality"-obsessed economists, why not employ the simple, cheap solution of simply educating everybody with tv spots, bill boards, bus ads, mailers, etc. on how people live in countries like Cuba, Jamaica, North Korea, Ethiopia, etc.

Then all Americans will see they're in the top 5%, minimum. The alleged negative psychological effects of income inequality would disappear overnight. :-)

Gil January 31, 2009 at 8:18 am

Or you can visit:

http://www.globalrichlist.com/

(It's fun!)

Kevin January 31, 2009 at 9:10 am

checked with Bill & Melinda Gates re: what I should do with my money, after I fix their incompetence

Don't be too hard on them. The site was giving Firefox heartburn on my Mac last night too.

Mario Abbagliati January 31, 2009 at 11:00 am

When I read stuff like that I cannot, unfortunately, stop thinking that many americans are ready for a shot in the arm of real socialism. That saddens me a great deal, and I don't live in the US and I'm not a US citizen either. The US has always been to many people some sort of lighthouse, a country founded on an idea, unlike others, where race, religion and class have been the dominating factor, a nation where inmigrants feel at home within one generation and can work towards fulfilling their dreams.

vidyohs January 31, 2009 at 11:14 am

Jeremy (at the beginning) and Methinks are saying it closer to what I would than anyone else.

My thoughts have always been along the same lines as Jeremy. The American dream is what each individual truly wants inside himself, even though in expression that individual appears to buy into the sterotype of the "American Dream" preached by others.

Like "fair", "The American Dream" is individual and no one else can dream it for that individual.

George from Va, also hit it on the head when he said he could make a tenth of his present income and live in a shack and still be living the American Dream and he then states his insightful reasons why.

Ask Methinks (if you disagree with me) and you'll find that is a lot to be said for a daily full belly and a warm shack. Hell, that was the Socialist Dream in many nations some forty years ago, and still is in many of those places left devastated with Obamaism.

Myself I think that the responses above come as a results of the average doofus who has been enculturated in socialist schools and pressured by "feel good" socialism in Media, Entertainment, Justice, to be afraid to think for himself. Thinking for one's self is dangerous, it might conflict with the thinking of someone who can have a negative effect on one's life. Better to just accept their defintions and ideals.

An average doofus, who is told all his life that the "American Drean" IS a good job, a big house, a new car, and season tickets to a professional sports teams games, will believe it, because it does not require him to think about his own life, what he might want with it, and the possible risks associated with thinking something that diverges from his enculturation.

In short when one conducts a poll amoung doofuses, one should expect doofus answers. That is what I judge this case to be all about.

And Gilhuahua, yes I do believe in the self correcting nature of nature. It's called natural selection, and culling of the gene pool. It works to create healthy life forms. Humans override those laws to our own detriment.

An intelligent person has only to observe the process in action (flocks of sheep, Wildebeast herds, et. al.) to see that there is a natural process that steadily and ruthlessly eliminates the stupid, careless, and weak. It is called predators and flucuating changes in resources. Is this deliberate on the part of Mother Nature? Dunno, but it works.

Now with humans we don't have to stoop to murder to see a culling of our gene pool, we just have to stop interfereing with the natural process. Let the stupid, careless, and weak suffer the natural results of their decisions or lack of decisions, which ever applies. Voila, tis done! (No need to break their legs, my little pet)

The stupid, careless, and weak either pass on to that higher plane of existence that comes after death; or, they learn, become more careful, and obtain strength sufficient onto life. Either way the natural process improves the gene pool and individual appreciation and worth.

vidyohs January 31, 2009 at 11:53 am

Thanks gregg S.,

The first rap song I ever heard or was exposed to that I can say I like and will keep to listen to and pass along.

Thanks!

Mesa Econoguy January 31, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Normally, I’m a fan of emergent order.

It appears that one of the recent Windows “patches” (because Windows is such a disaster) has conflicted with numerous network & media drivers.

I have never seen anything like this. Windows is such a piece of crap that it cannot even recognize its own components. Plug & play my ass.

If this were any other product, this company would have gone broke long ago.

Short the living shit out of MSFT. It is an inferior product constructed by fools, and exists only because too many people were gullible enough to adopt at an early stage.

Bill Gates is an idiot, running (yes, still) quite possibly the worst company in the world.

I’m ordering an Apple laptop right now. There, I feel better. End rant.

muirgeo January 31, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Or you can visit:

http://www.globalrichlist.com/

(It's fun!)

Posted by: Gil

I plugged in $1,000 as my annual income and came up as in the top 43% of the worlds income earners. Some how I don't feel better about my real income and I didn't find that as "fun".

I'm a darwinist as much as any but some how I believe our species is to be different… at least we should try to rise above the laws of the jungle.

muirgeo January 31, 2009 at 6:21 pm

"It's called natural selection, and culling of the gene pool. It works to create healthy life forms. Humans override those laws to our own detriment."
vidyohs

You need to study Darwinism a little more. It has hierarchical components that select at far more complex levels then just the gene or individual traits. The very fact that no libertarian societies exist is because they don't work. Tribalism like communism is the natural state of humanity. But as populations grew and city-states and countries were formed a brief period of libertarian like societies existed when we had lords and vassals and serfs and all property was claimed. But such systems were selected against by large gene pools of dissatisfied peasants crashing gates, killing elitist and over-throwing governments. Those were periods of human stagnation. Their overthrow allowed for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. For now it is clear the social democratic organization of society seems likely to prevail for some time. Eventually it might evolve further. But libertarianism had its run and like the Dodo its now extinct. There's no clear genetic advantage to them. Humans aren't over-riding natural selection when they insist on a more equitable society… in fact they are simply expressing the fact that even though all genes are selfish the gene for altruism is even more so.

The elitist on top heirs to their fortunes and position are likely some of the holders of the weakest of genetic composition. These in-breed heathens with massive amounts of inherited wealth and little actual positive societal functioning are ripe for natural selection to act on. The clear mental derangements of the Wall Street crowd and their wayward offsping are the slow gazelles equivalents that will be culled from the heard. From the riff-raff good genes are reshuffled , gates are crashed and society is ordered and re-ordered. The genetic components that result in liberal and conservative thinking ARE a part of our evolutionary heritage as well as our future.
We are evolving and the days of elitist rule and concentrated wealth are being selected against by every Darwinian principle imaginable.

muirgeo January 31, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I’m ordering an Apple laptop right now. There, I feel better. End rant.
Posted by: Mesa Econogu

I think it's funny that it took you this long to figure out that pc's are so inferior. You Wall Street people… no wonder the global economy is in such a state.

Sam Grove January 31, 2009 at 6:33 pm

at least we should try to rise above the laws of the jungle.

We are more like dogs than cats.

The law of our jungle is the tribal hierarchy.
Formalizing it and calling it "government" does not change its nature.

When are you going to rise above it?

Martin Brock January 31, 2009 at 7:34 pm

… libertarian like societies existed when we had lords and vassals and serfs and all property was claimed. … Their overthrow allowed for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Even Marx didn't confuse serfdom with classical liberalism, and the Enlightment was precisely the classically liberal period or its genesis, not a period following it.

For now it is clear the social democratic organization of society seems likely to prevail for some time.

Market organization is democratic, far more democratic than biannual plebiscites electing powerful central committees commanding entrenched, hierarchial, authoritarian bureaucracies never more than a hair's breadth away from the corporatists commanding vast, collectivized resources labeled "private property". That you confuse our majoritarian central committees with "democracy" only demonstrates how thoroughly imbued you are with our neofascist state's Orwellian rhetoric.

These in-breed heathens with massive amounts of inherited wealth and little actual positive societal functioning are ripe for natural selection to act on.

But the classical liberals didn't particularly champion hereditary title, beyond Lockean property rights of the "family farm" variety far removed from the sort of corporatist entitlements that Bill Gates holds. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek distinguishes inherited wealthy from other property and gives it a less central role in the liberal tradition.

The clear mental derangements of the Wall Street crowd and their wayward offsping are the slow gazelles equivalents that will be culled from the herd.

Actually, they seem to be protecting their turf very effectively now, and they apparently have nothing to fear from the Obamatrons, who they supported vigorously.

We are evolving and the days of elitist rule and concentrated wealth are being selected against by every Darwinian principle imaginable.

This seems more like wishful thinking than any conclusion reached by observing the developing forms of government. If you think that liberalism much governed the United States in the last few decades, you don't know much about the tradition. Reagan talked the talk a bit without ever much walking the walk. Bush II talked the talk a bit less before he was elected but didn't even do that once in office.

Martin Brock January 31, 2009 at 7:43 pm

… the Enlightment was precisely the classically liberal period or its genesis, not a period preceding it.

muirgeo January 31, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Martin,

Classical liberalism has absolutely no chance of establishing itself in a true representative democracy.

The party platform or stump speech would be something like this; " Would you like to work longer hours, have less benefits, lower pay, less job security, no social safety net and less time off for smaller chance to be fabulously wealthy like me?", and it likely would not attract to many votes. But of course it's supporters would force this method of arranging society on others because they are all about liberty.

Indeed you are right the Enlightenment was the classic liberal period. It is now a defunct intermediary of human social-cultural evolution that was soundly rejected (naturally selected against) in the 20th century era of revolution of the peasant class against the property owners. Obviously the gene for classical liberalism still exist in our gene pool but is growing more and more in impertinence like those genes for whales femurs or human wisdom teeth.

Gil January 31, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Isn't that the point muirgeo? An annual income of $1,000 puts you in the top 50% of world income earners?

RayG01 February 1, 2009 at 12:06 am

The American Dream is of course a vague idea, open to wide interpretation.

Any number of valid, and credible surveys of the population show that even Americans that are technically below average on the financial ladder enjoy comfortable and prosperous lives.

The problem is that our definitions of prosperity have changed, and thus the elusive "American Dream" has gone from a comfortable middle class existence to a McMansion, two new SUVs, and so on.

So consider the math: The majority of those complaining about the elusiveness of the American Dream are in fact enjoying a very comfortable middle class existence.

They achieved the dream, but while they were watching "American Idiot" or some such drivel, someone moved the bar, and now they feel deprived.

muirgeo February 1, 2009 at 12:38 am

Isn't that the point muirgeo? An annual income of $1,000 puts you in the top 50% of world income earners?

Posted by: Gil

Yeah it's a point that underscores the failure of our global economy. The top 400 earners in America made more money then the bottom 2 billion combined. To think that is OK is sadistic and psychopathic. To claim yourself a libertarian and to be able to explain that away with your typical excuses is to be a self-deluded hypocrite.

Gil February 1, 2009 at 1:03 am

"To claim yourself a libertarian and to be able to explain that away with your typical excuses is to be a self-deluded hypocrite." – muirgeo.

Vidyohs would probably near die of laughter after reading that. He knows I never claimed to be a Libertarian. He know I lean towards Evil Liberalism. I could issue disclaimer to the tune of: how many people live off the land rather than a paycheque hence their dollar income is low but their standard of living is relatively high? BTW: I used the 'fun' as I hoped folks like brotio and vidyohs would actually look at the site.

Jacob Oost February 1, 2009 at 1:54 am

muirgeo, I really want to help, so don't take offense, but I think you come to the table with a lot of political baggage that's keeping you from having a factual, rational discussion about economic matters.

How often do you read (I mean really read, like entire books) from writers like Sowell, Friedman, Hayek, etc?

brotio February 1, 2009 at 3:42 am

In addition to learning the difference between 'then' and 'than', it would help Mierduck to learn the definition of 'hypocrisy'.

For instance:

It is hypocrisy to claim you support free and fair elections while supporting open-ballot elections, which allow bullies to know whom to intimidate, injure, or murder to ensure people vote "correctly".

It is hypocrisy to condemn profit-seekers in health care while seeking profit in health care.

I have never claimed to care how much people in Cuba or North Korea earn. I would like to see those people shed the shackles of government that you're so determined to place on me, but I don't care how much they earn. I only know they could earn much more if Socialists like you would get the hell out of their way.

BTW, I also don't care how much people in Australia earn. I don't even care how much my next-door neighbor earns.

Randy February 1, 2009 at 5:35 am

Muirgeo,

"The top 400 earners in America made more money then the bottom 2 billion combined."

So what, that's how it works. Aren't you the one who's always criticizing libertarians for not living in the real world?

"To think that is OK is sadistic and psychopathic."

That opinion isn't going to change reality. It simply marks you as a potentially dangerous lunatic.

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