America has long been a country of limitless possibility. But the dream has now become a nightmare for many. The US is now realizing just how fragile its success has become — and how bitter its reality. Should the superpower not find a way out of crisis, it could spell trouble ahead for the global economy.
It was to be the kind of place where dozens of American dreams would be fulfilled — here on Apple Blossom Drive, a cul-de-sac under the azure-blue skies of southwest Florida, where the climate is mild and therapeutic for people with arthritis and rheumatism. Everything is ready. The driveways lined with cast-iron lanterns are finished, the artificial streams and ponds are filled with water, and all the underground cables have been installed. This street in Florida was to be just one small part of America’s greater identity — a place where individual dreams were to become part of the great American story.
But a few things are missing. People, for one. And houses, too. The drawings are all ready, but the foundations for the houses haven’t even been poured yet.
Apple Blossom Drive, on the outskirts of Fort Myers, Florida, is a road to nowhere. The retirees, all the dreamers who wanted to claim their slice of the American dream in return for all the years they had worked in a Michigan factory or a New York City office, won’t be coming. Not to Apple Blossom Drive and not to any of the other deserted streets which, with their pretty names and neat landscaping, were supposed to herald freedom and prosperity as the ultimate destination of the American journey, and now exude the same feeling of sadness as the industrial ruins of Detroit.
Florida was the finale of the American dream, a promise, a symbol, an American heaven on earth, because Florida held out the prospect of spending 10, perhaps 20 and hopefully 30 years living in one’s own house. For decades, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people moved to the state each year. The population grew and grew — and so too did real estate prices and the assets of those who were already there and wanted bigger houses and even bigger dreams. Florida was a seemingly never-ending boom machine.
Could the Dream Be Over?
Until it all ended. Now people are leaving the state. Florida’s population decreased by 58,000 in 2009. Some members of the same American middle class who had once planned to spend their golden years lying under palm trees are now lined up in front of soup kitchens. In Lee County on Florida’s southwest coast, 80,000 people need government food stamps to make ends meet — four times as many as in 2006. Unemployment figures are sharply on the rise in the state, which has now come to symbolize the decline of the America Dream, or perhaps even its total failure, its naïveté. Could the dream, in fact, be over?
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. It made Florida, Hollywood and the riches of Goldman Sachs possible, and it attracted millions of immigrants. Now, however, Americans are discovering that there are many directions that life can take, and at least one of them points downward. The conviction that stocks have always made everyone richer has become as much of a chimera in the United States as the belief that everyone has the right to own his own home, and then a bigger home, a second car and maybe even a yacht. 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.