Germany Asks: Is The American Dream Dead?

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The "American dream," the most common version of which portrays the U.S. as a middle-class suburban paradise with a chicken in every pot and a minivan in every driveway, dates from the years immediately after the U.S. helped defeat Germany and Japan in World War Two. So it's perhaps fitting that a prominent German magazine, Der Spiegel, now asks, "Is The American Dream Over?" A massive, six-part Der Spiegel feature, which carries no byline, argues that, yes, the American dream is dying and soon to be gone.

Americans have lived beyond their means for decades. It was a culture long defined by a mantra of entitlement, one that promised opportunities for all while ignoring the risks. Relentless and seemingly unstoppable upward mobility was the secular religion of the United States. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, established the so-called ownership society, while Congress and the White House helped free it of the constraints of laws and regulations.

The dream was the country's driving force. ... But at some point, everything comes to an end.

The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010. American companies are still world-class, but today Apple and Coca-Cola, Google and Microsoft are investing in Asia, where labor is cheap and markets are growing, and hardly at all in the United States. Some 47 percent of Americans don't believe that the America Dream is still realistic.

The articles argue that the U.S. has entered a economic, social, and cultural decline which it is unsuited to address. "The United States of 2010 is a hate-filled country," they write. "In a country with a limited concept of social cohesion, laughable from a European perspective, the quiet demise could have unforeseen consequences. How strong is the cement holding together a society that manically declares any social thinking to be socialist?"

The Der Spiegel story discusses what it sees as a doomed American obsession with endless borrowing in pursuit of ownership, a "perfect storm" of converging disasters, the political struggle to fix the economy, the "risky" U.S. "experiment" to move forward, and the "danger of currency warfare" with China.

For a look at the other side of Der Spiegel's argument, see James Fallow's January 2010 article in The Atlantic, "How America Can Rise Again." Fallows argues that the U.S., far from entering inevitable decline, is merely undergoing another cycle of reflection and eventual self-renewal, in a tradition he terms the American jeremiad.

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