|Monday, November 3, 2008
16:42 - Constructor class
Good piece by Stephen Rider on the American Dream:
I remember a number of years ago (probably a decade or so now…) when a British actor came on one of the late-night talk shows. Frustratingly, I don’t remember the actor, and I can’t recall if the show was Conan’s, or Dave’s, or (less likely) Jay’s. He talked about how he absolutely loved the United States, and had an interesting statement as to why he thought things were better here than in England.
He said (paraphrasing):
“In America, a guy with no money can be walking down the street and he sees a hot sports car parked along the street. He’ll stop and look at it, saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s awesome. I love this car — one day I’m going to make it big and I’m going to have a car just like this.’
“In England, that car can be parked along the street, and the guy with no money will come along, and he’ll get mad. He’ll say, ‘Screw you you bastard with your fancy car.’ And he’ll pull out his keys and key the car.”
In the story of the sports car, the hypothetical American knows that even though he doesn’t have much today, tomorrow is another story. The course of your life can go in whatever direction you take it. The Englishman in the story sees his life as much more set. He resents that somebody else has such desirable things because he knows that he will never have it. There is a divide between the wealthy and the “common folk” that can’t be crossed, so why try?
There's another side to the coin of that last statement, too: the guy also resents the rich fellow with the sports car because he knows that he didn't necessarily come by it by hard work. He might have had his riches dumped in his lap.
I would venture to say that Americans, by and large, respect wealth because they sense that in most cases it was hard come by. Wealth represents effort and the creation of value. It rarely in this country represents heredity.
I remember reading in one of the James Herriot books (All Creatures Great and Small, the tales of the author as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire) that in his country the self-made man was viewed with deep suspicion. Nothing, if I may paraphrase from memory, was more damning than the darkly uttered statement, "He had nowt when he fust came here." (As a Scotsman, he found this attitude troubling—apparently in Scotland, land of ingenuity and entrepreneurship, it's much more alien.)
To extend the anecdotal illustration of this anecdotal argument, I would present the case of my mom for the American perspective. Born in Westchester County and surrounded by generational wealth, she lit out for the West as soon as her mobility was sufficient. All it took was a family vacation or two in her youth, and a glimpse of a simpler and a more earnest lifestyle in the wide open lands where they used to ride horses, and she was convinced of the innate, visceral need to earn an honest living, and the intractable lack of fulfillment of that need that would come from staying in Scarsdale. As a result, I was brought up in a modest and rural house in Northern California instead of a mansion with a manicured lawn in New York. And I think I'm much better off because of it.
It's a curious happenstance that I'm living within outstretched arm's length of those ancestral digs in Westchester right now, and running a company renting out the kinds of cars that might get keyed if they were driven in some other country and parked on a blue-collar street. It's my own little Joe the Plumber experience, selling aspiration to a bunch of other Joe the Plumbers. At least for as long as aspiration sells.