By Bob Harwood

The American Dream


What happened to The American Dream, the dream that brought immigrants from every corner of the globe past the welcoming Statue of Liberty to a new life in the New World? They came to escape poverty or oppression in their countries of origin. They were not members of corporate elites. The landed gentry of that era were doing very well where they were and the custom of primogenitor kept their estates intact from generation to generation.

And Canada had its counterpart. My great, great, great grandparents emigrated from Scotland in 1775 driven by the Enclosures Act that took what had been Common Land freely available to all for grazing animals and enclosed those lands into the estates of the privileged upper class. My ancestors risked hazardous weeks on the uncharted ocean to start life anew on this continent. A decade ago I sponsored members of a Kosovar refugee family to facilitate their escaping the ethic violence of the Balkans.

But now new elites have emerged in America as the land of opportunity becomes a land of greed and gross inequities. When corporations become too powerful, when wealthy people exert excessive influence, resist reasonable regulation, have no desire to contribute to the public welfare, a new feudalism emerges. The democratic process is distorted by lobbyists, gross levels of campaign financing and beholden politicians guilty of ethics violations.

The distinction between legal and ethical conduct becomes blurred. Regulations to correct gross abuses beget yet more devious practices to circumvent the new requirements. The stage was set for America’s now astronomical debt burden when President Bush slashed taxes for the nation’s wealthiest.

Goldman Sachs came under intense scrutiny in Congress for complex derivatives sold to one set of customers while the company itself bet against those same products. With one hand they received large bail outs from the public purse, with the other paid multi billion dollar bonuses to the guilty executives. Prudential Insurance faces a class action law suit for a nefarious practice whereby benefits due widows of fallen soldiers were placed in “Retained Asset Accounts” which generated 5% for Prudential while paying just 1% to the intended beneficiary.

Americans have been hit harder than others by the recession. Jobs, houses, secure futures are no longer a given. Elsewhere health care is a universal right, not geared to the wealthy in privatized care. Europe’s remarkable recovery from the brink is a reflection in part of the social safety net they have provided for their citizens. In the midst of China’s rebound ordinary people are flexing their muscles to win better wages, greater freedoms. And the state is beginning to reign in private sector real estate speculation to keep housing affordable.

Lest I tar all with the same brush, I see a ray of hope with the news that Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have signed up more than 40 of America’s 403 billionaires to follow their example and commit at least half of their estates to charity during their lifetimes or on their demise. In the months ahead they will extend their campaign to China and India. A changed ethos at the upper economic levels of society could make This World of Ours a better place for all.

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