Friday, June 5, 2009

The Fading American Dream

Years ago, I was having dinner with two young men, one from an affluent American family and one from Holland. I asked the young man from Holland, “Why did you leave your family and friends and come here?” He replied, “To pursue the American Dream.” The other young man responded asking, “What’s the American Dream?”

It was a sobering look into the shifting values of America and the declining appreciation for what has made our nation great…and prosperous. It seems, of late, that there is an accelerating transformation of social values in our nation.

It is important that we all take a thoughtful look back at the basic principles that have made America a prosperous nation. To be sure, our nation is a generous and principled society. To afford continued generosity, a nation must be prosperous. Only when the economic engine of a nation is powerful, can it afford to do good things for its people and others.

Economic value in a society comes from the private sector. It makes things, creates jobs and income for employees and provides tax revenue to the government. Government adds no value to a nation’s economy. It is like overhead in a business; necessary for certain essential functions, infrastructure and shared services. But, it does not contribute to the welfare of its people since it does not create anything of economic value. A society prospers when public policy supports and nurtures the private sector…and declines when it intrudes too much on that territory. In the 1800s, the author, Thoreau said “Government is best when it governs the least.”

So what did make America great?

Our forefathers and immigrants migrating to this country often referred to it as the “land of opportunity,” that is, a place where one’s hard work, individual initiative and creativity could lead to a better life for them and their family.

Now it seems that America has become the “land of entitlements” and rights. There has been a gradual, pejorative shift of orientation from those that produce (create economic value) in our society, to those that consume economic resources. This is not a sustainable equation. So, if there is a battle between those that want to “take” resources from society and those that want to create resources for a society, who will win?

The pendulum has swung too far to one side. It is a challenge in a democratic society when voters are presented with a choice between self interest and the greater good of society itself. For a democracy to prosper, its people must vote without self interest for what makes that society better. They must also have the level of knowledge to know what makes for a better society for all of its people.

What is going on now that should raise one’s concern? Government activism is on the rise…invading the private sector. It is deeply troubling when we see the long arm of government reaching into the private domain; including a frightening disregard for the rule of law by public officials. I recommend that we all go back and read the Constitution and “Bill of Rights”. It is really good stuff! One key provision is that, “all rights not granted to the government are to be retained by the people”. Political leaders seem to have forgotten the limited powers granted to them by the people.

Recently we have seen the American auto industry turned into a public works project, to be owned and operated by the government and unions. Certainly, Chrysler and GM have been badly managed for decades but, do we really believe that the government has any skill to run a business?

For sure, the banking system needed resuscitation, but government activism was extreme. Last year we saw the public officials force “shot gun weddings” between unwilling financial services firms (e.g. Bank of America’s acquisition of troubled Merrill Lynch and others). Major banks are being nationalized, driving talent out of those enterprises. Public servants are setting executive salaries and eliminating any pay-for-performance incentive. Through government ownership, political pressure is also being applied for banks to lend aggressively to borrowers with marginal credit worthiness …when their own balance sheets are already over-leveraged and feeble.

It is almost unbelievable that we have seen Congress propose the insidiously titled “Employee Free Choice Act” which would eliminate the secret ballot in forming union shops. This would allow old style coercion, deception and harassment by union organizers. Is this America in the 21st century? Under this proposed legislation, if 50% signed union “cards”, all employees would be swept into the union and the government (not the employer) would have the power to set wages and benefits. Why isn’t the public outraged about such legislation?

It is troubling to see the loss of a balance-of-power in Washington which has led to free wheel spending that will mortgage the future of generations to come. While the promise is stated, “no new taxes on 95% of Americans,” the message is silent about the tax burden to be borne in years ahead. With the current year deficit set to exceed the combined deficit for all Presidents in US history (200 years), there will be a price to pay for this lack of fiscal discipline.

Clearly the plan is to tax “producers” at a higher rate, but when that source is exhausted, which will be soon, government will have to apply the burden to Main Street America. There is simply no way to avoid it. This will be exacerbated as the increasing tax burden on the “producers” results in the diminishment of individual initiative, investment and innovation. Discouraging incentive will lead to lower growth in the economy and lower tax revenues. It is a vicious cycle that is certain to adversely affect our nation’s prosperity and the American way of life.
So, is there hope for the future? It is in our hands. We must renew our appreciation for the basic values that have led to our nation’s prosperity. We must relearn to celebrate an individual’s success and recognize that the success of one adds to the quality of life for all. It is not a “zero sum game.” We live in a world where the innovation, leadership, willingness to take risk and personal initiative of any individual can raise the quality of life for many.

A glimmer of hope occurred in the recent (May ’09) election in California, when voters soundly turned down the five propositions placed on the ballot by its legislature. These propositions were designed to let the state’s elected officials “off the hook” from dealing with the self-inflicted budget deficit. Had the propositions passed, Sacramento would have been able to push off the hard work of “living within its means” to a future year.

It would be wonderful if the cycle in society was beginning to turn back towards our basic American values. The California referendum on fiscal responsibility may be just a tax payer revolt and not reflective of a broader shift in social values. But, as California has led the way in so many aspects of this nation’s life, perhaps it may too lead the way back to the renewal of the “American Dream.”

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