Religion & Liberty Online

Is the American Dream Dead or Just Buried Under Government Debt?

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A new book offers some nuance to the typical left-wing critique of our economic woes, but doesn’t go nearly far enough in delivering a serious analysis of how Big Government policies are as much to blame as hyper-individualism.

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David Leonhardt is in a rare category of writers these days—a center-left moderate progressive at a dominant media outlet (the New York Times) who often upset left-wingers for telling the truth about COVID. He can be impressively objective, and even when a reader finds him disagreeable he is less polarizing than many of the opinion pundits known to grace the pages of our nation’s elite newspapers.

This reputation served him well in his new book, Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. A pile-on book from the progressive left arguing ad nauseum that fossil fuels had irreparably ruined the planet, that the religious right had despicably polluted the public square, and that free market orthodoxy had perverted equality and made the country an oligarchy (the latter being an argument oft-uttered by the New Right as much as the Bernie-Warren left) would not have been “on brand” for Leonhardt. He is more savvy than a cliché progressive and more nuanced than most Acela Corridor writers. Indeed, this new book extends his reputation for “left-wing nuance” over “left-wing cliché,” despite its numerous shortcomings.

The fundamental tenet of Ours Was the Shining Future is that Americans no longer have access to the same opportunity their parents did. The culprit, allegedly, is a less-regulated market economy that has inadequately harnessed the opportunities for business and government to work together. A general social cooperation from the private sector has dissipated, and the result is now a declining regard for the general welfare from a more individualistic class of capitalists that has succeeded in generating economic growth (and personal wealth) but failed to do so in a way that would benefit the larger society. At first glance, this may seem like a generic left-wing critique, and to a large degree it is, but he nuances his analysis by blaming Democrats for open-immigration advocacy and assaults on free trade. He is especially critical of Democrat behavior in the culture wars, essentially by leaving working-class white males out of their coalition in their pursuit of identity politics.

The cliché takeaway of the book, however, is that we once had a happy economy where unions and well-meaning bureaucrats cared for the common good, but now our good fortunes have been lost to the parasites of free trade, globalization, and of course financialization. It is an argument that plenty on the left and even on the New Right try to make. However, it dies upon the closer examination that such an incomplete assessment demands. How can the labor unions of the earlier 20th century be hailed as the victors in 1950s economic growth but not invite any scrutiny for the dormancy and financial doom brought to the airline industry and automotive sectors? Do the public-employee unions warrant any blame for the declining results in the public school system? If a greater public-private partnership is the need of the hour, why are the real oligarchies of Russia and Saudi Arabia not considered the gold standard of economic models?

Noticeably absent from the book’s analysis is the impact of excessive government indebtedness on economic growth. A debt-to-GDP ratio that limits economic vitality and distorts economic decision-making would have been a worthy target of the book. Alas, it may be hard to advocate for a greater governmental role in the economy and at the same time analyze the burden that growing debt ratios place on economic dynamism. Also lacking in the book is a discussion of monetary policy and its role in distorting markets to the favor of those who own risk assets. The incentives that overly accommodative monetary policy create to leverage assets already in the economy versus producing new assets are undeniable, yet never seem to be the target of those who bemoan the lack of broad opportunity in the current economy.

There is a vision for robust economic growth that distributes opportunity more freely and efficiently than we have seen. Leonhardt is right that it is not in an hyper-individualized Randian humanism. But the 20th century was less a testimony to the benefits of greater state cooperation than it is an indictment of it. A free and virtuous society that preserves our shining future requires a moral people, a devotion to the common good, and through it all a market economy that limits, not embraces, the distortions created by excessive state intervention.

David L. Bahnsen

David L. Bahnsen is the chief investment officer of The Bahnsen Group, a $4 billion national wealth management firm, and the author of There’s No Free Lunch: 250 Economic Truths.