Grand Illusion

Has the American Dream Become Our Nightmare?

Magazine Issue
July/August 2009
Grand Illusion

For much of our history, we haven’t felt any need to negotiate our national faith in unlimited upward mobility. To the great American middle class, the path forward and upward to economic comfort and security was clear, dependable, beautifully simple: you went to work every day, earned a little more money every year, saved what you could, and didn’t radically overspend. In return, you were rewarded with your fair share of the most bountiful and productive society ever to exist on earth. You knew the value of money, you appreciated the value of money, and money thanked you, in its way, by allowing you to graze pretty freely throughout that fruited plain spanning the land from sea to shining sea.

True, there were always people having financial difficulties, but they were individual deviations from the norm, and most felt they could count on making more money than their parents. The default position in America was an implicit promise of perpetual abundance, as if an unwritten amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the right to several chickens in every pot and an SUV in every garage.

Within the last two or three decades, however, these relatively modest dreams of individual upward mobility exploded into grandiose and surprisingly widespread fantasies of striking it filthy rich in as short a time as possible. Getting money, always a significant leitmotif in American society, now became a major bass chord. As a people, we all seemed to go a little bats, thinking of ourselves, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, as canny financiers or budding real estate moguls. In a way, this collective money mania harkened back to a fond, old American myth of rugged individualism, capitalist style: the plucky, clever entrepreneur pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, valiantly defeats all competitors, and ascends, unaided and alone, to the heights of wealth and prestige. “My money, myself” could almost be the unofficial motto of this generic American go-getter, particularly this generation’s Wall Street buckaroos.

Whatever the outcome of this financial crisis, if it had appeared in a recipe book, it would read: mix equal parts greed, blind hope, confusion, ignorance, arrogance, abracadabra; smother the whole in a heavy sauce of lunatic optimism; bake in an overheated economy until burned through and through.

Now, as we gaze over the smoldering ruins, the classic American dream begins to resemble a collective hallucination. Of course, the current economic crisis—the worst since the Great Depression—may be no more than a rather large bump in the golden road of endlessly self-renewing American prosperity. In the past, we’ve met and surmounted any number of threats to our safety and security. Each time, we’ve emerged, breathed a sigh of relief, and settled back, complacently assured of our national birthright to be fat, rich, happy, and impervious to the afflictions dogging so many other people in the world. Still, it’s hard not to have a sense of foreboding that, this time, things really are different; that the old familiar mold is broken for good.

We look around us with varying degrees of anxiety and dread. What’s happened to us? What will happen to us? And yet, and yet . . . might there not also be a faint, elusive glimmer of anticipation, even of hope, behind all the gloom? The United States is undergoing a severe trial—economically, politically, socially—and we have no idea how it’ll all turn out. Maybe we are seeing a made-in-the-USA version of the End of Civilization as We Know It. Or, maybe, just maybe, we’ll come out on the other side a fairer, more economically responsible, more genuinely democratic society.

In the meantime, like the threat of imminent execution, our current troubles concentrate our minds wonderfully, or at least enough to consider possible alternative meanings of “wealth,” besides frenetic getting and spending. So, if for no other reason than to take your mind off your nose-diving portfolio, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of our basic assumptions about wealth—what it means to us as Americans, how it defines us as a people, how it influences the way we think about ourselves, about freedom, success, and happiness, about what we really want from life and what the American Dream really means to us.

A Peculiar Obsession

What is money, anyway? We think we “know” money—this substance so material and yet so maddeningly abstract—but our definitions of it seem to evaporate as soon as they’re articulated. It should be simple: money is just “a medium of exchange,” no? But the more you think about the subject of money, the more mysterious it becomes, like something vaguely perceived in drifting fog—one shape emerging, disappearing, reemerging in another. Money has been called a universal language, perhaps a kind of pecuniary Esperanto, in which all peoples are fluent. The flow of money throughout the body politic has been compared to the physical systems of the human body: the circulation of blood, the transmission of nerve impulses, the lubrication of the joints and sinews by body fat. Money is the acknowledged bulwark of worldly power, the engine of modern civilization, a guarantee of independence, the means for doing good works. But the desire for money is a notorious trap, a form of slavery, a wicked temptation, a drug, an addiction, the root of all evil. People live for money, they kill for money, they die for money.

But why does anybody accept something clearly useless in itself—a piece of paper or, for that matter, a gold coin—and give you something “real,” like food, clothes, a goat, in return? In 2008, American families lost $11 trillion in household worth. Even billionaires had a hard time. According to Forbes magazine, 1,125 of them in 2008 were whittled down to 793 in 2009, for a collective loss of $1.4 trillion. Where did that money go? What was it that went? Was it ever there in the first place? Ponder such questions too long and there seems to be no intrinsic reason why the whole gigantic money edifice doesn’t just collapse from the weight of its own implausibility.

Cash. Open your wallet and count the bills. Notice the slight uptick of mood when you find that unexpected $20 hiding behind the sheaf of paltry $1s, or the pang of dismay when you realize you’ve gone through most of the $100 you withdrew from the bank only the other day. Look at the $20—the delicately incised whorls on the top and bottom edge, the august and handsome face of Andrew Jackson with his luxuriantly tousled silver hair, the pale serial washes of springlike green, peach, and blue over the bill, the faint, nearly invisible watermarks, like little hovering ghosts, the words “In God We Trust,” a benediction over the whole. Rub the bills between your fingers and thumb and feel the crisp, dry, parchmentlike texture of new ones, the soft, limp, almost velvety touch of old, grubby ones—like small, ancient manuscripts in an unknown language, passed from hand to hand to hand, place to place, year to year, linking you to an endlessly receding chain of human trade and exchange.

Money can be virtually anything that people consider worth exchanging for something else—gold and silver ingots, copper blades, bronze bracelets, cowrie shells, cocoa beans, decorated belts, feather coils, animal teeth, but also alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, candy, rice, and barley. Anthropologists have long remarked on the ritualistic, fetishistic quality of money. Even today, we feel as if money carried some talismanic power, some juju in itself. As indeed it does, for this thing so intrinsically worthless, a symbolic piece of merde, can get you anything you want. It’s the genie that makes wishes come true, with the magical property of instant convertibility into something real and desirable—an almost metaphysical act of transubstantiation.

As if reflecting its elusively sacral quality, governments usually see to it that their currency is quite pretty in itself, each piece a little work of art. A good deal of thought obviously goes into designing and producing bills—finely engraved images of national landmarks, ancient legends, noble animals, impressive feats of construction like hydroelectric dams, historical personages, current royalty (or dictators)—often in vivid colors.

The face value of money is supposed to bear some relationship to its “real” worth, whatever that means. And yet, the assigned value, or “value,” of paper money can, in dire economic circumstances, become a matter of sheer fantasy, a money mirage. Take the hyperinflated currency of poor Zimbabwe, where estimates for annual inflation in 2008 ranged all over the place, but Asia Forbes suggested that, at one point, it was as high as 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent—that’s 65 followed by 107 zeroes. Before the currency was revalued in February by the simple expedient of lopping 12 zeroes off its bills and issuing new ones, the notes were increasingly strange looking. One bill released last July was for a hundred trillion “Zim” dollars—$100,000,000,000,000—an absurd line of zeroes parading across the top of the bill. These are literally astronomical figures—100 trillion is the number of stars estimated to exist in the largest galaxy ever found in the universe. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an insignificant 100 billion. But you can buy this same 100-trillion note on eBay for $8.50, including shipping! The idea that the currency of another country can be worthless in its own country, but be worth something as a collectible sold over the Internet reinforces the dizzying sense of hyperreality in Moneyworld.

The American Dream

It’s sometimes seemed that, in America, money hasn’t been and isn’t now the most important thing in life—it’s the only thing. Alexis de Tocqueville, the most famous of all foreign commentators on American peculiarities (for good reason), wrote during the 1830s that the passions of most Americans “either end in the love of riches or proceed from it. . . . I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property. . . . The love of wealth is therefore to be traced, either as a principal or an accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do.” For generations we’ve been told that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” which probably nobody in America really believes. As the many thousands of glossy celebrotainment magazines and fevered websites devoted to the doings of the rich have amply demonstrated, money can certainly buy some very lavish facsimiles of happiness.

Money trumps some of our most cherished assumptions. For example, we set great store by individuality—itself a kind of American folk religion. But can anybody afford a luxury like individual personality without adequate funds? How much of what we think of as our unique selfhood is defined by what we earn, what we’ve bought, what we own—our house and furniture, laptop and Blackberry, 42-inch plasma TV and CD player, home dŽcor, clothes, books and magazines, car or pickup truck, fancy hiking boots, special brand of handcrafted beer? Without money to pay for what gives substance to our naked, formless being, mere earthly clay, who in the world are we? In this culture, without the money to pay for our signifiers, so to speak, our much-nurtured singularity shrinks to a meaningless distraction. We don’t even notice it much ourselves—can’t afford to. There are too many other pressing worries.

Whatever Jefferson meant by “the pursuit of happiness” (most likely the virtuous pursuit of both public and private well-being), it’s generally been conflated with the individual pursuit of money and property. Freedom itself was in large part construed as the freedom to make money for oneself, by oneself, with as little legal impediment as possible. Democracy and equality and a relatively blank social canvas allowed people to gain enough wealth to look after their own individual needs, unrestrained by old-world customs or rules. This self-oriented worldview did have costs that couldn’t be toted up on a profit-and-loss sheet. As de Tocqueville observed about the distinctive American mentality more than 150 years ago, “Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

But in American mythology, the self-made millionaire (today’s billionaire) is revered partly because he’s a loner, a solitary striver, who vaults himself (or, increasingly, herself) up out of the anonymous mire of the crowd. The apparent solitude of these superrich icons is part of their glamour. Even if they’re known for being mean jerks and we hate them, we also love them for their single-minded ferocity, their solo triumph.

Of course, we want to be rich because we’d be able to spend as much as we want on ourselves, but we could also give as much as we want to worthy causes without sacrificing one dollar’s worth of personal buying power: to indulge both our selfishness and selflessness at the same time—what heaven! But perhaps the special appeal of being not merely rich, but obscenely rich, lies beyond visions of the stuff we could acquire and the good deeds we could do. In our fantasies, the megarich appear to have achieved a kind of solipsistic nirvana of pure untrammeled individual self-will—the absolute freedom to be what they want, do what they want, when they want, where they want, and with whom, or to whom, they want. Undoubtedly, genuine billionaires would deny that the real world remotely permits such hyperbolic freedom, but dreaming our own dreams, we can easily imagine that inexhaustible wealth would allow us to fashion for ourselves whatever identity pleases us, to rise above the mundane confines of ordinary necessities and obligations that keep us stuck in our plodding routines.

The fad for “space tourism” among a small coterie of multibillionaires—American billionaire Charles Simonyi just spent $35 million for a two-week trip to the International Space Station—seems a perfect metaphor for this dream of unqualified freedom and self-will. These spectacularly well-heeled astronauts are pulling off what no money wizard in human history has ever managed before: slipping the bonds of gravity itself and floating free of the viscid atmospheric medium that keeps ordinary mortals tethered to earth. “I call people rich when they are able to gratify their imagination,” Henry James has a character say in Portrait of a Lady. And, indeed, money seems an open sesame to fulfilling almost any fantasy or bright idea—whether genuinely original and exalted or pedestrian and cheaply grandiose, it hardly matters.

Nobody was more attuned to the magic, charismatic quality money bestowed on people than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Think of the famous passage from The Great Gatsby, about the feckless and irresistible Daisy, whose allure rests on the indivisible fusion of personal charm and great wealth. Nick, the narrator, struggles to fathom what it is that makes Daisy’s “indiscreet” voice—a voice that earlier in the novel he’s called “low and thrilling”—so attractive. Gatsby, who’s in love with her, replies brusquely, “ÔHer voice is full of money.'” And Nick understands instantly. “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl. . . .”

An exchange between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway is as famous as the Gatsby passage above (and why are these quoted so often, if they don’t strike some chord in the American psyche?). The former said, “The rich are very different from us,” to which the latter responded, “Yes, they have more money.” Years ago, literary critic Lionel Trilling pointed out in The Liberal Imagination that most people understand Hemingway’s words as a suitable democratic jab at Fitzgerald’s unseemly infatuation with wealth. “But, the truth is that after a certain point, quantity of money does indeed change into quality of personality,” Trilling writes. “In an important sense the very rich are different from us. So are the very powerful, the very gifted, the very poor.”

Wish and Grow Rich

Yet, according to long-standing popular mythology and with no regard whatsoever to historical or contemporary reality, Hemingway was right after all. The rich are not really so much different from the rest of us, we tend to think in democratic America: the reason they’re rich is that they just have a better attitude and more gumption than we non-rich slugs. In spite of studies showing that there’s more economic inequality and less upward mobility in the United States than in Europe, and in the face of an economic slide of historic proportions, Americans—particularly poor Americans—generally don’t dislike the beneficiaries of economic inequality (unlike Europeans, who do). Traditionally, the reason has been straightforward: why would you resent rich people if you expected to be one some day?

The idea that any clever, determined, hard-working, ambitious go-getter can get rich is a familiar staple in our folk ideology. But during the late 19th century, huge concentrations of wealth and power increasingly put the kibosh on the idea that ordinary working people could make it rich, no matter how hard they struggled. They often couldn’t even form unions for better pay and fewer working hours, much less get rich by raising themselves up by their own bootstraps. So, another version of the anybody-can-get-rich myth was born: it wasn’t what you did or how hard you worked that made you rich, it was what you thought and believed.

The American “mind-cure” or “new thought” movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries (that morphed into the New Age and self-help industries later on) built a phenomenally successful market around the proposition that God, or Jesus, or World Spirit, or Universal Mind, or the Great All, wanted you to have whatever you desire, particularly success and money (which amount to the same thing). Of course, as the mind-cure gurus constantly exhorted their flocks: you have to do your part to help the universe along—that is, concentrate with dogged, single-minded focus on the object of your wish and believe with unflagging confidence and relentless optimism that you will get it.

Among thousands of books with this numbingly repetitious message, some a hundred or more years old and still being published, are Think and Grow Rich, The Science of Getting Rich, The Magic of Believing, The Miracle of Right Thinking, In Tune with the Infinite, Prosperity God’s Way, and two all-time breadwinners, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, and The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, a liberal Presbyterian minister. Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold five million copies since its 1952 printing and is still popular, is a classic of the genre. To achieve success, Peale writes, “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image. That is most dangerous, for the mind always tries to complete what it pictures. So always picture Ôsuccess,’ no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment.”

The current biggest New-Age get-rich-by-wishing version of this rigmarole is The Secret, a book/film/website (and mainly gigantic marketing opportunity) dreamed up by Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television producer. The “secret” is the old idea that “like attracts like” (long a staple of the mind-cure movement), and that if you want good things to come to you, including money, you must put out good feelings, positive visualizations, and the right kind of energy to draw them in. “Ask, believe, receive” is the mantra. “You are a magnet attracting to you all things [including money], via the signal you are emitting through your thoughts and feelings.” In other words, thoughts are things, so a thought about money is actually just another kind of specie (try paying your mortgage with it).

Much of this is nuts, of course. But how much crazier is it than what Americans have been doing recently—flinging our money away from us as if we were afraid of it? Currently, U.S. personal debt—credit cards, mortgages, car loans, etc.—amounts to more then $13 trillion dollars, about the same amount as the country’s entire GDP. For years, many of us have gone through money like a blowtorch through snow, and regarded plastic as our personal little get-away-free card, as if scribbling our names on the credit card were actually signing away debt, not signing up for it. It’s as if we all thought that by acting and buying like rich people, we somehow were rich people—by the simple expedient of putting the American Dream on our visa card.

Back to Earth

Now we’re being forced (maybe “challenged” is a nicer, more therapeutic word) to rethink our long love affair with money and the fond belief that through some magic formula—real estate, derivatives, The Secret—we can go on piling it up forever. The awakening is a rude shock. What’s happened over the last year—what’s happened since last September!—isn’t the way it was supposed to be, according to the principles of free market economics, a matter of almost religious zeal in America probably ever since Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776.

According to the holy canon of the true faith of the unimpeded free market, if people are allowed to individually pursue what they regard as their own enlightened self-interest, their collective behavior will result in a general state of robust, healthy economic equilibrium overall. The market is by definition “perfect.” Most people will generally make rational choices about how to make and spend money, if given their druthers. Even the personal failings of individuals—greed, ignorance, dishonesty, fear, “irrational exuberance”—will cancel themselves out and the system will act “as if” every person were a perfectly rational, responsible Homo economicus.

Since everybody in the market is, in effect, a paragon of economic virtue and propriety, the free operations of the marketplace will be perfectly transparent, automatically and naturally providing access for all to the information people need to make prudent, well-informed decisions: buyers and sellers will have equal power and opportunity to settle on a fair, mutually-agreed-upon price. Self-interest will lead every person to act wisely, ethically, and with nice concern for the other players in the game.

This almost comically na•ve view of human behavior and how real human economies actually work has been the foundational dogma of academic economics and a linchpin of capitalist ideology for much of the past century. Given today’s ongoing financial train wreck, it now seems amazing that so many big economic brains held beliefs that are such an assault on ordinary common sense. Many of these experts are now walking around shell-shocked.

You almost had to feel sorry for Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chair and official White House financial oracle for the last 20 years—our own Yoda—as he sat almost quivering in the hot seat of Congressional hearings, admitting that he was as dumbfounded by the “tsunami” smashing the beatific free market vision as anybody else. He admitted that there was a “flaw” in his beloved model. He felt “shocked disbelief” that the “self-interest” of the people running banks and investment firms didn’t automatically lead them to be wise, honest, and protective of their clients’ interests. He seemed startled that the incredibly complex mathematical risk-management formulas that were supposed to remove any trace of disorder from the perfect economy had failed so miserably: economics was supposed to be as predictable in action as Newtonian laws of physics. Then Greenspan, the guy who never saw a government regulation of the market he liked, called for more government regulation of the market!

A Different Kind of Vision

It seems clear that the current economic debacle didn’t occur as a result of too much rationality in the market or because people making financial decisions—from housekeepers and store clerks taking out massive loans they couldn’t afford to Wall Street colossi taking out massive loans they couldn’t afford—were acting in the wise and thoughtful fashion you’d expect from Homo oeconomicus. In fact, they were acting just the way anyone who’s ever taken a Psych 101 course was taught—with the same mix of emotion, impulsiveness, sometimes solid, sometimes flaky reasoning, and normal craziness that lies behind pretty much everything we do.

And at last, today there are some genuine, card-carrying economists who’ve actually recognized these truths. A group of psychologically informed behavioral economists are getting their place in the sun now (after being long ignored) for doing what orthodox, mathematically minded economists never did: conduct empirical research on how flesh-and-blood humans make economic decisions in the real world. Their most famous proponent is Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for pioneering just this kind of work. Kahneman himself devised a variety of novel experiments revealing the many ways people are inclined to make decisions on the basis of fast, spontaneous, intuitive, uncontrolled reactions and subjective experience, rather than on objective facts and slow, strenuous deliberation. What he and other behavioral economists have discovered, incredible as it seems, is that people are often irrational, emotional, unable to discern their own genuine self-interest, prone to major cognitive distortions, bias, and overconfidence, and dependably driven by blind herd instinct to make bad situations worse. Imagine that!

Kahneman and others are now making a huge public splash because of their insights, apparently deeply shocking to the economic establishment, that Homo oeconomicus—the person who decides how to spend, save, invest, and constantly thinks about getting richer—is the very same as Homo affectus—the person usually awash in emotions (you know: love, fear, grief, greed, envy, anger, desire, need to be accepted, etc.) In short, these researchers are bringing back home to economics the whole psychological panoply of thought, feeling, and even ethics loosely referred to by Adam Smith in his first book as the “moral sentiments.”

Why is this important? Combining the insights of psychology about how and in what ways we act irrationally and about the unconscious, emotional subtext of many apparently “rational” decisions with the hard, numerical realities of economics could have a profoundly positive impact on our society. Recently Time magazine ran the long piece “How Obama Is Using the Science of Change,” describing some of the ways the new administration will bring behavioral techniques to public policy. The idea is to apply psychological knowledge of human quirks—inertia, shortsightedness, bias, herd mentality, and procrastination—to principles and regulations involving healthcare plans, retirement savings, energy, finance, home mortgage loans, and the like to encourage people to make better, more genuinely rational decisions. The goal isn’t Orwellian manipulation, but gentle pushes in the right direction (a key book informing this movement is Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by behavioral economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein, who happens to be the “regulatory czar” nominee in the Obama administration).

This discovery of psychology by at least some economists probably makes many therapists roll their eyes and shake their heads. “Are these guys only just figuring all this out now?” the question begs to be asked. These truths—that people are intrinsically emotional and not robotic, that we all want and need personal and social connection, and that what constitutes a genuinely human vision of the good life often doesn’t coincide with quantifiable profit and loss calculations—are the standard working assumptions of every therapist who’s ever practiced. So, finally, in the 21st century, at least some of the geniuses and money deities who presided over the current debacle actually seem to be listening to these strange, new ideas—and those who aren’t seem to be keeping quiet about it.

Renewing the Commons

It seems particularly relevant these days that the word economics derives from the ancient Greek term meaning the management of the household or the family, and it still carries something of this meaning, though the “family” may refer to a school, a corporation, a public institution, a community, even a whole nation. An “economy” in this sense is very much a social organism, a way of life shared by millions of people, which depends as much on public and collective resources as on individual enterprise. In fact, there couldn’t be any individual enterprise were it not for the public foundation—legal, educational, military, and monetary systems, regulatory agencies, social safety nets, police, firefighters—that allow it to thrive. Without this public network, we’d probably still be living in isolated little tribes bartering with the members of other tribes—when we weren’t killing them and being killed in turn. Ask Iraqis or Afghanis how much individual “freedom” or opportunities for individual entrepreneurship they have without public services, an effective police force, or government accountability.

This isn’t to cast too many aspersions on rugged individualism—in this culture, at least, we all feel our own sense of individual selfhood as the foundational rock of our identity. And, as Americans, we probably have in our collective DNA the stubborn belief that we have an inalienable right to do and be whatever we want. But, paradoxically, free market fundamentalism and the cult of the completely rational Homo oeconomicus have become increasingly irrational, as well as antisocial. It’s becoming clear that the success of the market, the growth of GDP, absent anything else, may be economically “good” in a narrow way, but bad overall for the society.

Selling more cars produces more pollution and hastens global warming; a huge market in junk food makes more people diabetic and obese, which requires them to purchase more health care. Overspending, overbuilding, and overconsuming are driving our society and our environment off a cliff, but don’t yield the intended satisfactions. Research indicates that, after a certain modest level, and factoring in momentary pleasure, novelty, and keeping up with the Joneses, these activities actually don’t make us any happier personally.

According to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey last October, 83 percent of women and 78 percent of men report being stressed about money. Nearly half of all Americans surveyed indicated they’re worried about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased from 39,465 in January 2008 to 50,158 in January 2009; economic stress played a significant role in the rise. On April 9, a New York Times story suggested that people were increasingly seeking therapy and getting or upping their prescriptions for psychotropic medications to cope with anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness, depression, irritability, eating poorly or overeating, and various psychosomatic complaints.

Clearly, “the economy” is making an appearance in therapists’ offices big-time, even if in the negative form of clients who are cutting back on therapy because they can’t pay for it anymore. But besides the usual things that therapists say and do to help clients get through any difficult life circumstance, what can they offer that seems germane to this particular national crisis? There’s obviously no easy answer to that question. Therapists can’t call a client’s bank to stop foreclosure proceedings, or plead with a client’s boss not to lay her off, or pony up to help a client pay down the thousands on his credit card bill. However, therapists can be aware of potentially life-changing and culture-altering shifts that might occur in our society as a result of the current convulsions. Possibly, they can help clients think more deeply about what they want from life, why they make lifestyle, as opposed to life, choices, and what a different, less consumer-oriented way of living might be.

It could be that the time is ripe for us to rethink some of our fondest assumptions about the economy as a whole, our personal family economies, and our own nature as economic animals. We may want to begin thinking about how we can strengthen what’s been called the “commons”—an old but strangely foreign concept in modern America—that refers to what we inherit or create together that contributes to the good of us all as members of a human community. (There’s even, of course, a website about the “commons” movement: In a society so besotted with market economics, we forget that much genuine wealth is natural and social in nature, and can’t be computed entirely according to strict quantitative metrics of supply and demand, profit and loss.

What belongs to the commons, for example, includes wilderness areas held in public trust, but also our social right to unpolluted air, water, and soil. The idea encompasses both volunteer and entrepreneurial efforts that support local communities and enrich small-scale public and private life—like shared city gardens and open spaces, neighborhood businesses (as opposed to the Walmartification of America), daycare coops, family farms and farmers’ markets, even cyberspace (Wikipedia, for example, the all-volunteer, peer-reviewed, socially constructed, and phenomenally successful online encyclopedia). The part of humanity that would respond to the commons isn’t a “sappy self-sacrificing altruist that marketophiles posit as the only alternative to their model of human behavior,” says commons spokesman Jonathan Rowe. “Nor is it the grim utilitarian socialist. Rather, it’s whatever resides in us that wants to be engaged with and around other people—whether to accomplish a task or just because it’s fun.”

Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that we’ll see the end of the free enterprise system anytime soon, present tribulations notwithstanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: what capitalism does well—bolster independence and creativity, generate enormous productive energy, and make lots of great stuff—it does superlatively well, and besides, what else is there? What Winston Churchill once said about democracy applies about as well to capitalism: “It’s the worst system in the world, except for all the others.” Even dedicated “commoners,” as they like to be called, aren’t predicting the end of capitalism—they’d just like to see a more humanely balanced political economy, a greater realization that “public” and “social” and “collective” aren’t dirty words.

No matter how successful or rich, how driven or ambitious, how dynamic, inner-directed, adventurous, or just plain pushy any of us is, none of us can ever claim to be “self-made.” Like it or not, we’re embedded in a vast skein of individual human lives and public institutions, our path determined as much by culture, timing, birth order, social class, and sheer luck as by our own personal gifts. As the 19th-century political scientist Francis Lieber said, “Self-made men, indeed! Why don’t you tell me of the self-laid egg?”


Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.