I lost a friend this week for not having sufficient sympathy for one of my daughter’s in-laws. In retrospect, I think a good bit of our disagreement was about “the American Dream.” The term, "the American dream," first appeared in 1931. Author and historian, James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), wrote about this concept in his book, The Epic of America. He said, [the American Dream is] “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” That is pretty much in line with my own concept of what the American dream should be, along with the goal that my children will be able to come closer to a life that is “better and richer and fuller ” than my own.
Since the 80’s, the American dream has become something more closely linked to “stuff.” The bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys, wins” is more the current version of the American dream than Adams’ description. This is nicely tied to the business man’s claim that “time is money,” when every artist on the planet knows the reverse is true. Money is pretty much just paper or bits of useless metal, at best. Donald Trump proves, with his every living moment on this planet, how little money can actually buy. Most people wouldn’t choose his petty, selfish, friendless life over almost any other lifestyle, but (supposedly) he’s “rich.” He has a lot of toys, but he’s a miserable, miserly person. I’ve known homeless guys (We used to call them “hoboes.”) who were happier, more interesting, and were more satisfied with their lives than Trump and his family.
The lack of sympathy, mine, that blew up a decades-old friendship was over this disconnect. For almost twenty years, these in-laws have made it clear that my wife and I are not up to their standards of consumer-ship. They and their son took any opportunity to make comparisons between our possessions and theirs. Theirs were always heavily-leveraged with second mortgages and credit cards and ours were second-hand purchases made with cash. They lived on the edge of bankruptcy until they finally fell off.
My step-grandmother and other role models drilled into my head that I always needed enough savings to survive for at least three months without employment. After the recessions of the 1970’s--and 80’s and 90’s--I grew that paranoid safety margin to at least six months and the older I got the more safety margin I felt I needed to build. Through the Dotcom years and the insane first years of this century, as I approached my 60’s, my willingness to gamble with either credit or speculation vanished completely. The world looked insanely out-of-control and my investments became more conservative by the year until—against all advice from my stockbroker and bank—almost all of our money was in US federal bonds and FDIC insured CDs when the 2007 Great Recession hit.
In the meantime, our daughter’s in-laws doubled-down on everything from new cars, boats, a luxury home in the Nevada desert, and spent money they would never have like it was pixie dust. Then the market crashed and I had to worry about my conservative securities and property. They ended up losing everything and living in a leased cross-country semi, mostly running from debt and living day-to-day. They even resorted to selling their underwater Nevada home to their own daughter, transferring that back-breaking debt to her family.
Like the ant and the grasshopper story, I should (I’ve been told) feel sympathy for the grasshoppers and gamblers who bought into the “time is money” and “the most toys, wins” delusion. I suppose it’s the Midwestern Calvinist in me (according to my wife), but my patience with stupid is all played out. And there wasn’t much there in the first place. These are the same people who bought Reagan’s “greed is good,” who went along with Bush/Cheney telling us we can carry on two expensive wars and reduce upper-income taxes, and who now believe that Trump (a man who can’t make money owning a casino) will make “America great again” with a big wall and negotiating our national debt with China the way he negotiated the bankruptcy of his own six businesses.