Monday, October 29, 2012

The American Hallucination

The American Dream, New Jersey 1991, Marcel Dekker
There may be no more defining characteristic of the American identity than the so-called "American Dream", the idea of America as the land of opportunity where everyone can succeed.  This mythology, by now hundreds of years old, is as persistent as ever.  In many ways, it is an empirical question, and it is true that, as a relatively free, first-world liberal democracy, opportunity is immense.

However, there are two features required of the term opportunity.  First, it must exist as a possible avenue of action.  The opportunity to sit on the grass in a park requires there to be a park in the first place.  But second, and this is just as important, there requires the capacity in one both to desire to, as well as know how to, find the park and sit in it.  For opportunity to exist, it must be realizable objectively, as an external option, as well as subjectively, as a personal option.

In the real world, take the example of the opportunity to start a small business, the hallmark of the American Dream mythology.  Loans might be available.  Markets might be available.  But in order for the opportunity to be real, one must both have the desire and the know-how, as well as the time and energy to start it.  For many Americans, this is has been a very real, attainable opportunity.  But for many more, it has been impossible.  It isn't hard to imagine situations in which personal circumstance might prevent one, through very real obstacles, from following this path.  A single mother with childcare expenses.  Someone with a pre-existing condition for whom self-employment means losing health care coverage.

There are many for whom these kind of practical realities make the American Dream impossible.  But there is another kind of practical reality that arises from something much more complex and less talked about: personal agency.  To those without sufficient personal agency, opportunity is just as unattainable.  As an objective reality, it may exist.  But as a subjective reality, no less important, it does not.

When talking about the American Dream, and the question of opportunity, personal agency is rarely talked about explicitly.  For many, it is something that is assumed to exist in relatively equal measure among all adults.  Objective opportunity is pointed to, and its existence is assumed to be evidence that it is within the grasp of all.  The expectation is that everyone should be able to take advantage of it, and and failure to do so is simply a matter of lack of freely chosen will.

Yet there is no evidence that any such thing exists.  Wherever one looks, human behavior is driven not by free agency, but rather by complex forces of genes and environment.  Depending upon these variables, one either will or will not have the subjective capacity to take advantage of any objective opportunity that exists.

This should be obvious to every parent.  We strive to create the best possible environment within which our children might grow and develop the very best of their potential.  We know that positive environments are almost entirely determinative of future behavioral outcomes.  "Bad parenting" is defined in obvious relation to what is either "good" or "bad" for the child, profoundly effecting development - specifically their capacity for agency.

Somewhat ironically, this can be taken a step beyond.  A cascading effect occurs: "bad" parenting increases the likelihood that the child will reach maturation with a poorly developed skill-set, thus increasing the likelihood that he or she will in turn practice "bad" parenting, in turn increasingly the likelihood that their child will mature poorly, etc.  This process of cyclical, generational dysfunction is well-documented.

In Hart and Risley's classic study, Meaningful Differences, profound differences in language and cognitive development are tracked in granular detail through analyzing interaction in families of varying levels of socio-economic background.  Parent education levels correlated strongly with development of language and cognitive skills in children, which in turn varied greatly across, yet not within, socio-economic background.

In a fascinating follow-up study to Walter Mischel's study in the 1960's on child impulse control, in which children's ability to abstain from eating marshmallows found great variance in self-control as a seemingly tempermental skill, researchers recently found evidence that this skill was not nearly as innate as was once thought.  Environment was actually found to be a strong variable in a child's capacity for self-control.

This comes as no surprise given what we know about child development, and goes a long way to explaining differences in child development across socio-economic backgrounds, specifically with regard to patterns of school success across the nation.  A story emerges in which, from birth to maturation, people are heavily influenced by the environments in which they are raised.  In fact, there is little evidence that one has any capacity to transcend one's environmental or innate abilities.  The outlying cases, upon further scrutiny, always seem to turn up strong evidence of environmental factors.

And yet we seem to cling to the notion that humans can transcend the shackles of genes and environment.  The American Dream is alive and well, despite no evidence that it exists, and a great deal of evidence that it can't possibly.  All around us, we see the link between socio-economics and agency.  But, much like the faith in a God that makes no rational sense, we can't seem to let it go, even when surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

A recent episode of the news program 60 Minutes illustrated the American captivation to this mythology.  A Pakistani immigrant to America was profiled who, seemingly against the odds, through seemingly nothing but pluck and determination, built himself a hugely successful business and is now a multi-billionaire.  The schizophrenia of the American Dream mythology, clinging to its seductive charm, was on high display.  Shahid Khan was at first introduced as coming to America as a teenager from "the dusty streets of Lahore", with nothing but $500 to his name.  From this, he grew a small auto parts company into a profoundly successful enterprise.  A charismatic, jovial man, his optimistic attitude allowed him to become wealthy, proof positive of the American Dream, described as much by a Forbes cover story.

However, as the story quietly mentions, Khan wasn't quite the rags-to-riches story he is made out to be.  The son of a mathematics professor and businessman, he came to America after being accepted as an engineering major at the University of Illinoise.  As a college student in the US, he was clearly of higher socioeconomic status, despite his plaintive descriptions of washing dishes for minimum wage.  In Pakistan, far from the dusty streets, as we are shown, he rather grew up in a walled, two-story compound.  In a 3rd world country like Pakistan with nothing like a middle class, we're hardly taking about a poor kid.  Middle class - if such a thing can really be considered in Pakistan - is unlikely.  My guess is closer to the 1%.

Opportunity in America surely exists.  But in order to take advantage of it, one must first develop the requisite skill sets.  This doesn't happen on its own.  It takes a concerted effort of numerous environmental factors.  Social inequality translates into developmental inequality, and inequality of opportunity.  An American Dream that does not account for this is nothing but a fantasy.  Instead, maybe the American Dream ought to be a vision for all of us to do better, to reduce inequality not just of opportunity but of development of capacity to take advantage of opportunity.

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