A Numbers Guy’s View of The American Dream


Posted by Bob Lord

For those of you who haven't noticed, I'm a numbers guy. A geek to the core. 

A numbers guy probably should be staying away from a concept as lofty as the American Dream. It's ok to analyze the crap out of some things, but not the American Dream. The American Dream is for big picture people, right? Probably, but I can't resist. 

I've contended in prior posts that conservatives have bastardized the concept of the American Dream, and progressives largely have let them get away with it. According to today's conservative dogma, the American Dream represents the chance in America to go from humble beginnings to vast fame and fortune through hard work. To conservatives, Steve Jobs represents the American Dream. In my mind, the real American Dream is entirely different. It is simply the ability of any American who works hard — a teacher, a cop, an auto worker — to enjoy a good life. Under either definition of the American Dream, anyone can achieve the American Dream through hard work. After all, if it wasn't out there for all Americans, it wouldn't be the American Dream.

In my mind, the math and the logic are compelling. My analysis follows after the jump.

In mathematics, theories often are proved by assuming they are false, then reaching an illogical result. For example, to prove that there is an infinite number of prime numbers, you start by assuming there is a prime number, x, above which there are no other prime numbers. You then show that there is at least one prime number greater than x, thereby contradicting the original assumption.

Adopting that approach, assume that the new definition of the American Dream is correct. Well, if anyone can achieve the American Dream, then it must be theoretically possible for everyone to achieve the American Dream. And that's where the new definition of the American Dream breaks down.

If everyone in America worked really, really hard, could we all be living the lives of those Americans whom conservatives say represent the achievement of the American Dream? Obviously not, for two reasons. First, we can't all be business owners, professional athletes, Wall Street billionaires, or surgeons. We need teachers for our kids, cops to protect our communities, soldiers to serve in the Army, plumbers to fix our toilets, and employees to work in all the great new businesses we create. If everyone worked really, really hard to achieve the newly defined American Dream, and succeeded, society would break down, as there would be nobody handling the mundane tasks required to keep it operating.

Second, the resource base of America, or even the world, couldn't handle the load. We can't have a hundred million plutocrats because our sky doesn't have the airspace to fit one hundred million private jets. If every American owned five or more homes on large lots, there wouldn't be any land left for growing crops. And, of course, if everyone burned fossil fuels at the rate Charles Koch or, if you prefer, Al Gore does, we'd burn the planet by the end of the decade.

Thus, the conservative definition of the American Dream is mathematically impossible.

It's also, in my mind, mathematically immoral. There's a limit as to how well everyone in the world can live if we maxed out our productivity and the resources of the planet. We can't all own five homes and a private jet. Even if you're an ultra-nationalist, like the Nazis seeking "living space" for Germans through aggressive war, there's a limit as to how well all Americans can live. If you succeed in America and live at that limit, you're not taking from anyone else, even if they're living way below the limit, because the potential remains for them to live at the same level as you. Indeed, you're actually helping them, because your consumption is fueling the overall economy, thereby enhancing the lives of others. But once you live beyond that limit, you've reduced the potential lifestyle for others. Is that the moral line one can't cross? I'd say no. As a pracital matter, we never could reach a point where everyone was producing at maximum capacity. Thus, if one person goes a little past the thoretical limit, he hasn't harmed the potential for everyone to reach the practical limit.

But when people are living at a level that only a fraction of the population could achieve if our society produced at maximum capacity, that's taking from the potential of others. When we define the American Dream as reaching the very top level of our society, we glorify that practice and we make policy consistent with that glorification. The result: we create a society where a fraction of us do very, very well, but where average Americans, teachers, cops, steelworkers, are hanging on by their fingernails. And that's exactly where we are today.  

Somehow, some way, we need to return to the real American Dream — the ability of anyone who works hard and contributes to our society to have a decent life. If we continue to accept the new definition of the American Dream, we also must accept its corollary — that in order for lucky Americans to achieve the American Dream, it is necessary for other Americans — the majority of Americans — to live poorly, no matter how hard they try. It's just math.


  1. For all intents and purposes judging by their candidates and credentials, the con American dream is “I’ve got mine, screw you.”

  2. “Thus, the conservative definition of the American Dream is mathematically impossible.”

    If would help if you had know what the conservative definition of the American Dream is before you made such an absurd statement.