Entitled And Enraged

In re: Paul Krugman’s column from Sunday, one thing I think many people don’t appreciate is how much anxiety our social and economic systems produce, even for those at the top of the heap.

Yes, there’s a certain amount of petulance from spoiled brats, but there’s more to it than that. Brad DeLong offers an intriguing explanation: increasing inequality makes keeping up with the Joneses an ever-more precarious goal, even for the objectively rich. When you bow down before the Golden Calf, you’re worshiping the God of more: more money, more house, more car, more education for the kids so they can get ahead and have more. That’s the American Dream, and increasingly people are starting to catch on to the false promises it makes. We can’t all have more than the other guys, forever and ever, world without end. The stark realization that the end of that pipe dream is very close makes people very very nervous, especially those with the most to lose.

Another underappreciated part of the equation is identity. Not just any identity: that identity conferred upon us by the nation-state. The specific promise made by the American Dream is that if you believe the right things and do the right things, you will receive material wealth in return.

This is, of course, and not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. God knows how many hard-working social conservatives have been barely able to eke out a retirement, but the numbers aren’t important. Belief in the American Dream doesn’t make anyone rich, we all know that.

But less obvious is the subtle promise that believing in the American Dream makes you an American. Being American, after all, isn’t an ethnicity. Nor is it a matter of subscribing to a particular creed. It isn’t even a matter of being born in a particular geographical location. No less a “real American” than John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

So what is the American identity? If William Cavanaugh is right, it’s a convenient fiction designed to bind citizens in a common marketplace. As the markets come crashing down around our ears, the identity becomes ever more transparently just another broken promise, leaving the disillusioned to lash out at the “others” they hold to blame. A falling tide sinks all boats, in other words, and once you get down to the muck, things start to get ugly.

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