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American Dream: Is the Dream Turning Into a Nightmare?

The American Dream. You know what it is—the belief that prosperity, success, and upward mobility can be achieved through hard work. According to James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, written in 1931, the American Dream is:

Opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Do people still believe that?

There’s a story dominating the headlines this week about an anonymous man in San Francisco, California—supposedly he made a killing in real estate—who is leaving envelopes stuffed with cash hidden around town for others to find (and keep). He Tweets clues to the location of the bounty using the handle @HiddenCash. According to his Twitter profile, he’s conducting “An anonymous social experiment for good”. Not surprisingly, he went from zero to 348,000 followers in less than a week.

American Dream - Hidden Cash Tweet

This post isn’t about what the supposed real estate magnate is doing with his money—or why he’s doing it. This post is about the media frenzy that has ensued. The media—not just social media, but main stream media too—has latched on to this Robin Hood-meets-scavenger hunt story. They are hanging on every Tweet. They’re even getting into the action trying to solve the clues ahead of anyone else in order to be in position to take a photo or capture video when the “winner” claims their prize.

Stack of Money
Photo “All in a Day’s Work” by Damian Gadal on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The problem I have with this whole thing is the blatant hypocrisy of many in our society who glamorize those who come into wealth by chance or luck (what I call the “Lotto Riche”), but demonize those who work hard and earn their fortunes (the “1%”). Want to win praise, admiration, and gobs of positive media attention? Simply win the lottery. Or outwit, outlast and outplay your fellow contestants on a game show or reality program. Or score a ridiculous jury award in a questionably frivolous lawsuit. However, want to earn scorn, disapproval, and gobs of negative media attention? Start a business and grow it into a multinational corporation. Or make wise investments relying on a disciplined, diversified, sound tax-advantaged approach.

There’s a prevailing notion in the media and society at-large that people of means should be vilified since, obviously, the source of their wealth was obtained immorally and/or unethically. Workers were oppressed! Tax loopholes were exploited! Jobs were outsourced! Prices were fixed! Markets were rigged! Granny was deceived!

It’s so much easier to love the luckbox. The source of their fortune is obvious. It’s transparent. It’s “fair”. It doesn’t matter that few others will benefit from their success. Very few of the Lotto Riche will ever build something or employ others with their winnings. In fact, research conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education shows that 70% of all lottery winners are broke within a few years of receiving their jackpot.

Photo by Linus Henning on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Photo by Linus Henning on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

So, I ask, what happened to the American Dream? When did our ideals change? I, for one, am motivated by the prospect of hard, honest work coupled with disciplined living that can lead to financial prosperity and generational wealth creation. I want to believe in the uniquely American notion that “All men are created equal” and we have equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness—even though there’s no guarantee of equal outcome (hey, some people are going to fare better than others). I don’t begrudge those who get lucky. I simply don’t want these folks to be idolized. I don’t advocate for the elimination of lotteries or game shows or even anonymous scavenger hunts orchestrated by wealthy real estate tycoons. I simply don’t want these to become the new preferred paths to prosperity. When that happens, the American Dream becomes a real nightmare.

Header image by Unknown on Pixbay, CC0 1.0


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