Ronald Reagan asked that question when he was running against Jimmy Carter in 1980. It’s a question that goes to the heart of what many of us believe is the American Dream: to live a materially richer life than the generation before. It’s a progressive dream that measures “happiness” in terms of wealth. For example, for your parent’s generation, their wealth is measured based on one segment of a line (T1). Your generation’s wealth is then measured on its own line segment (T2) and compared to T1. How does your current wealth compare? Are you living a monetarily richer life than your parent’s generation at the same age? Are you better off? Are you “making it?” Are you living the American Dream?

Maybe you can point to certain material comforts as indicators that, yes, you have more than your mom and dad had when they were your age. However, if you’re like many Americans, the “Dream” has been realized through a highly addictive drug called “easy credit.” Easy credit is only one factor in achieving the current incarnation of the American Dream. One can also factor in the housing bubble, and the ease of which people were able to get home loans — no matter their credit score — relatively cheap oil prices, and a consumer economy that thrives when a nice combo of these factors are going at full throttle. If the things are humming along with nary a care for how shaky this house of cards is, one can easily delude themselves into thinking that the good times are here to stay.

At the political level, it’s not any better. Low taxation coupled with deficit spending on credit lines from foreign creditors keeps popular government social programs solvent in the short term, but the center cannot hold if the we continue with these policies. The distractions on the political stage continue, but sometimes you can’t ignore what’s right in front of you: the declining standard of living for middle class people. Every now and then, you’ll see newspaper stories, books, and even the occasional “talking head” on TV showing us how rich folks are getting richer, while the middle and lower classes are making less money, or their wages are stagnant. I don’t know how long I’ve been hearing a variation of this message, but it’s finally starting to sink in. Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle devoted the “above the fold” story to the economic realities for many middle-class Americans who live in a part of the country that is considered quite wealthy (i.e., the San Francisco Bay Area); a place where the American Dream can happen because of the high number of so-called “good paying jobs.” Because it makes for an eye-catching graphic, the Chronicle put the following on the front page:

It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not dire, either. Things can turn around as long as people are willing to see that the American Dream in an age of global capitalism has been funded on a credit binge that has reached toxic levels. Things can also turn around if our current crop of presidential candidates can stop with the petty nothingness that has come to dominate the political discourse. And things can turn around if we can not only accept a kind of “new frugality” when it comes to consumption, but also a new responsibility when it comes to taxing ourselves for the governments services we expect.

None of this is new, but maybe it will help to see how the petty nothingness of what I wrote about last week (i.e., The Freak Show) has gone from the fringe to the center. In 1992, Phil Donahue (hardly a political fringe host, but one who could see how the media culture was changing and embraced it — much to the chagrin of his audience) decided to focus on the personal and not the political:

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Alas, 16 years later, and we’re still watching a variation of the same show while the American Dream built on a cardboard foundation of easy credit/low taxation crumbles.

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