Posts Tagged American Dream

Have Faith in America: Calvin Coolidge on Restoring Confidence

Calvin CoolidgePresident Obama has been re-elected, and as many commentators point out, he faces a nation even more divided than when he took office.

Over at the Acton Institute, I contemplate how President Obama might go about reuniting the country, using President Calvin Coolidge’s famous speech, “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” as an example:

I’m currently reading President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography, and in it, he describes a situation quite similar to our own. In the 1910s, Coolidge was a state senator in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, yet even in his local community, he witnessed severe conflict and division among his fellow citizens, including the now-famous “Bread and Roses” strike and the accelerating split in the Republican Party toward Teddy Roosevelt’s emerging progressivism

…It would be January of 1914 that Coolidge was sworn in as President of the Massachusetts Senate. He would now have a louder voice, along with more opportunity to change things: to face the tide of radicalism and class warfare and restore confidence and unity in the Commonwealth.

Coolidge responded by giving an inauguration speech for the ages (now known as “Have Faith in Massachusetts”), one that downplayed the power of government as the primary agent of cultural and economic change, avoided divisive distinctions of class, gender, or race, and instead elevated the redemptive, restorative power and potential of the human spirit. Instead of promoting a zero-sum view of human engagement, Coolidge emphasized and romanticized the type of cooperation and collaboration that the market provides and prosperity demands.

Here’s a sample of the speech:

This Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the Read the rest of this entry »

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American Idealism and Economic Opportunity for the Glory of God

flag, crossFrench Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that Americans “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”

Drawing on this sentiment, George Weigel argues that although materialism may reign in America more than it once did, “there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.”

Pointing to President Calvin Coolidge (no fan of materialism), Weigel emphasizes that Coolidge’s famous line—“the chief business of the American people is business”—shouldn’t be taken by itself. For Coolidge, and for most Americans (even today), promoting the dignity-conferring effects of business is part of a larger, deeper idealism.

As Weigel explains:

As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists…”

And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.

Weigel then explains how the market economy supports such idealism (emphasis added):

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.

A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.

Yet many of today’s Christians will shrug at any talk of an “American ideal,” and in some sense, rightly so. Our ultimate aim should be a Christian ideal, and we have a natural disposition to self-construct the latter for purposes of satisfying the former. But while we should be careful to make such a distinction, we should also recognize that a careful concern for the Gospel demands a careful concern for culture and country. Catholic social teaching aside, Weigel’s “vision of American possibility” fits quite nicely into the most generic understandings of Christian mission.

But we must dig deeper, even still, for just as American idealism has been watered down by self-centered post-modern thinking, so has our Christian idealism.

Even more fundamentally, the Christian should be concerned with the glory of God—an overarching, not-of-this-world notion that shatters our convenient cultural obsessions with “individualism” and “collectivism” and pushes us toward a different orientation altogether. Living a life focused on lifting up the King of Kings in all things will mean producing plenty of fruits that fit the current categories—responsibility, self-control, hard work, sacrifice—but I fear that we’re getting to a point where we can’t discern the fresh from the rotten from the poisonous. This is why the market, like any institution, needs to be analyzed first and foremost by how well it enables and empowers transformation at the root of individual worship. Otherwise, the byproducts we’re seeking will soon be replaced by nothing more than hollow do-gooderism cloaked in the lingo of the church.

Pro-market Christians can and should tout the market as the best mechanism for Read the rest of this entry »

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Celebrating the Artificial: General Motors and the Skeletons of American Industry

GM is Alive, Government Motors, bailout, subsidy, taxpayerThe Treasury Department is reportedly feeling pressure from General Motors to “sell the government’s entire stake in the auto maker,” a move that, at the moment, would result in an estimated $15 billion loss for U.S. taxpayers. But such are the realities of dysfunctional private-public-private back-rubbery:

GM executives have grown increasingly frustrated with that ownership, and the stigma of being known as “Government Motors.” Executives have said the U.S.’s shadow is a drag on its reputation and hurts the company’s ability to recruit talent because of pay restrictions.

Last week, I explored these tensions over at Values & Capitalism, critiquing the government’s malinvestment in GM as well as the Democratic National Convention’s overt attempt to romanticize such failures:

“GM is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead,” said President Obama in his recent speech at the DNC. The crowd responded with resounding cheers, energetically waving signs bearing the same slogan. Now, just a week later, bumper stickers are already primed for your Prius.

The problem is: Osama bin Laden is actually dead, and GM has resurrected into a zombie of sorts, fumbling and stumbling about under the control of autocrats—licking its lips for another round of taxpayer flesh.

Yet of all of the tall tales of glorious GM resurrection, the Obama’s administration’s underlying attitudes about human potential are made most clear by none other than Vice President Joe Biden, whose DNC speech rails against the “Bain way” (i.e. the profitable way), arguing that “the Bain way may bring your firm the highest profits, but it is not the way to lead our country from the highest office.”

And there she blows:

Profitability, we are told, should no longer be a priority of the American people. Further, we are told, it shouldn’t be a priority of the United States government. And this is what garners cheers from the ruling party of our nation.

We now live in a country where government-appointed know-it-alls waste tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on failing companies, only to then be hailed as “defenders of industry.” We now live in an era in which viewing government in terms of “balance sheets and write offs” is demonized; in which waste and inefficiency are downplayed; and in which those who pursue economic growth in a traditional sense are viewed as obstacles to human flourishing.

The truth, of course, is that “the Bain way” secures higher profits by discouraging wasteful behavior and drawing on everything that’s good in humanity. It is this—value creation and the reward of earned success—that makes the market much more than a market, empowering us to attain the American Dream.

The market can only be a source for good if it remains a free market: an arena where contributions come before rewards, not after. And the moment Americans forget this—the moment we join this overt celebration of government-subsidized failure—is the moment we start down the road that invariably makes America like every other entitled, vacuous Western democracy, rather than the exceptional nation we’ve always been.

If this is the contrast the Democratic party wishes to draw—a battle between Artificializer Obama vs. Realistic Romney—so be it. Americans will know what they’re buying, and if the pollsters’ current predictions hold true, we’ll get all the skeletons of “industry” and “economic progress” that we ask for.

To read the full post, click here.

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When Our Journey Is God’s Journey: Paul Ryan, Individualism, and the American Dream

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan provided a rare articulation of the true power and importance of the American Dream — an idea that, as of late, has come to either be derided as overly individualistic or exalted as a pseudonym for collectivist entitlement.

Ryan’s view:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now. And I hope you understand this too, if you’re feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.

None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.

It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.

Yet as romantic and well-put as I take this to be, I fear that many will still fail to connect the dots, claiming that any promotion of “my own path” and “my own journey” will necessarily lead to an atomized world of selfish, isolation-prone hucksters out to exploit others toward achieving their own narrow ends. For these folks, Ryan is promoting the very conditions from which fantastical Marxian crises of history are born.

The truth is that individual liberty lends toward community engagement and the market lends toward social interaction and cooperation—the real kind. The “American Dream” of President Obama—a vision in which caring for the “least of these” is reduced to Read the rest of this entry »

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The Search for Self: It’s Not About You…Until It Is

Hire Me, College GraduatesIn a recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks does a fine job examining the overall condition of today’s rising generation(s), describing them as a lot of self-absorbed, egotistical wanderers in need of what was once known as calling.

Brooks is dead on in his explanation of why individuals should set their sights outward, onward, and upward, rather than merely inward:

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Brooks places a good deal of emphasis on the value of the self to the other — how we as individuals can align our passions, courses, dreams, and inward searches properly and thus make a significant contribution to those around us. If you’re a Christian, this consists of syncing up your plans with God’s purposes, something the Apostle Paul called “pressing toward the mark.”

Brooks is also clear about the danger of what some might call “atomic” individualism, through which the self is only interested in his own (supposed) gain and thus rejects God or the other altogether:

If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

Yet Brooks is less clear, though still cognizant, about the value of the other to the self. Yes, he thinks our callings should be based in a specific pursuit aligned to external value. But will that process also produce value in our own lives? The closest he gets to this is in his statement about the self being “constructed gradually” by one’s calling. Toward the end of the piece, he also talks about fulfillment being “a byproduct of Read the rest of this entry »

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The Economic Spanking: Harsh Discipline from the Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

In my recent post at Ethika Politika, I argue that my generation is not so much addicted to wealth as it is spoiled by it.

Here’s an excerpt:

We take seven years to complete our bachelor’s degrees, and when we’re finally finished, we complain about our debt. We specialize in fields like literature and “diversity studies” and then complain about the lack of high-paying jobs. We live with Mom and Dad till we’re 30, only so we can have enough cash to buy the newest gadgets and clothes. All of this delayed development – all of this self-absorbed, childish dilly-dallying – has led to an unproductive and entitled generation.

My proposal? A good old-fashioned “thump in the rump” from the invisible hand:

In our current economy, we still have plenty of time to choose lesser punishments – to get serious about our goals, to reexamine our futures, to readjust our attitudes, to pursue new careers. But at some point, drastic misbehavior will require drastic measures. And when it comes to my generation’s defiant, entitled, know-it-all mentality, I fear that we will reject the milder forms of discipline in hopes that we can escape any discomfort altogether.

To read the full article, click here.

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Materialism vs. Christianity: The American Dream, the Megachurch, and the Gospel

Lakewood Church, Houston, TXI have only recently heard of David Platt, but from what I have read, I am thoroughly intrigued.

Platt has a new book out called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, in which he accuses the American church of manipulating Christianity to fit its consumeristic culture.

If you can’t tell already, Platt’s core criticisms are particularly relevant to the issues discussed on this blog, and thus I am looking forward to reading and reviewing his book in the near future. In the meantime, however, David Brooks has offered a thought-provoking introduction to Platt’s ideas, which I think is worthy of response.

On the whole, it seems that Platt’s main criticism has to do with materialism: American Christians have become wrapped up in wealth creation and individualistic pursuits and have in the process confused their worship of Christ with a worship of themselves.

Platt’s primary targets? Brooks explains.

Target #1: The Modern American Church

Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.

Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude.

Target #2: The American Dream

Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Read the rest of this entry »

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