January 19, 2024
January 19, 2024

The American Dream – the idea that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can achieve success in the U.S. through hard work and determination – is under scrutiny. Compared to post-World War II where most people could create a comfortable lifestyle, the viability of homeownership and stable employment doesn’t seem attainable to younger Americans and immigrants, according to some economists and policymakers. Those who see a challenge say there’s a growing wealth gap between the richest and poorest people and that increasing healthcare, education, and housing costs create hardships for many. They also argue that the shift towards a more gig-based economy and the impact of automation and globalization on traditional jobs create uncertainty. Those who remain optimistic about a meritocratic path to success, say that compared to other countries, the U.S. still offers more opportunities for personal and financial growth and that new industries and technologies continually emerge, creating new pathways for advancement. Younger Americans also see different ways of achieving the American Dream than their parents, opening possibilities of a less rigid definition of the term in the future. 

  • 00:00:01

    John Donvan

    This is Open to Debate. I’m John Donvan. Today we’re taking on that soaring promise of American life that we call the American dream. Journalist and documentary producer Nayeema Raza is stepping is at moderator for this one, and she will explain more. So Nayeema, it’s all yours.


  • 00:00:18

    Nayeema Raza

    The American dream. It’s a term that was dreamed up and popularized by the writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, “The Epic of America.” Since then, the American dream has been conflated with home ownership. It’s become synonymous with ideas of upward mobility, meritocracy and generational progress. In 2012, 53% of Americans surveyed said that they believe the American dream held true. Today, that number has fallen to just 36%. Almost 20% of respondents in the same survey said they thought the American dream never existed.

  • 00:00:53

    So, is the American dream a mythology, some aberration of history, or a reality? Our debaters today have conflicting viewpoints. And they’re here to duke it out, respectfully, of course. Arguing yes, that the American dream is in decline is David Leonhardt, a senior writer at the New York Times who might show up in your inbox in the mornings with the Morning Newsletter. He’s also the author of the book “Ours was the Shining Future. The story of the American Dream.” Welcome David.

  • 00:01:20

    David Leonhardt

    Thank you. It’s great to be here.

  • 00:01:22

    Nayeema Raza

    And arguing no to the question: Is the American Dream in decline? Is Michael Strain, political economist and director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s also written a book. This one called “The American Dream is not Dead but Populism Could Kill It.” Welcome Michael.

  • 00:01:38

    Michael Strain

    Thank you for having me. Great to be here.


  • 00:01:40

    Nayeema Raza

    I’m thrilled to have both of you here because essentially, you’ve written kind of diametrically opposed books. Um, Michael’s specifying that populism is the threat that could kill the American dream. And David arguing that at least somewhat populist policy is this kind of resurrection of what you call small-d democratic capitalism, is the only way to save this American dream. Um, before we jump into opening arguments, I just wanna start off with a question because David, you used to ag- be more on Michael’s side of the debate. And I really wanna know, uh, before we get into it, kinda the headline of how that changed for you.

  • 00:02:13

    David Leonhardt

    Yeah, so I started covering the economy around the year 2000. And, um, m- many signs, economic signs looked brighter back then. Um, I think people were more optimistic about the, what used to be called, and still sometimes is, the neoliberal order. This idea that if we have more free trade, if we have less regulation, um, United States will become freer, uh, and richer, and the rest of the world will also become freer and richer. I just find that, um, I find that less persuasive, uh, and less likely to be true than I did during those heady days, uh, of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

  • 00:02:50

    Nayeema Raza

    That makes a lot of sense. Michael, I’m curious what you make of the, the changes that David is speaking about. The increased pessimism, the recession, the post-recession era economy, has that ever made you doubt your conviction that the American dream is alive?

  • 00:03:04

    Michael Strain

    No. Uh, (laughs) it has not.

  • 00:03:07

    Nayeema Raza


  • 00:03:07

    Michael Strain

    I, uh, uh, have enormous respect for David and first became a regular reader of his following the 2008 global financial crisis for which I believe David won, uh, the Pulizer Prize. And very well deserved. Uh, you know, that was an incredibly traumatic horrible event. If you look at the years that followed the 2008 financial crisis. It took until 2014 for the median wage of workers to recover its 2007 level. And then you’re talking about, you know, six years, seven years after the crisis, you’re, you’re back to even. Then you have to grow. And so there was a, a period of time where the American dream was not, was not doing well. What I wanna do is zoom out.

  • 00:03:59

    Nayeema Raza

    I wanna do that too. So I’m gonna move on to our opening arguments here. Um, (laughs) want each of you to take a few minutes to explain your position. David, you’re up first, and you’re ar- you’re arguing yes to the question: Is the American dream in decline? Tell us why.



  • 00:04:14

    David Leonhardt

    I will. And let me also start by thanking you for hosting this debate and thank Michael for participating in it. Um, uh, I have a lot of regard for Michael’s work and, and I appreciate his optimism. I, I, I think sometimes there is a bad news bias out there. And I think, uh, pointing out good news is an important thing and I, and I appreciate that Michael does that.

  • 00:04:30

    So, Nayeema, as you mentioned in your opening remarks, the Freeze the American Dream, um, dates to 1931. A book written by James Truslow Adams, a historian. Um, and it’s remarkable to think, speaking of optimism, that he wrote this book and coined this term in 1931. That’s really the depth of d- the Depression. And he said, “The American dream is that dream of a better, richer, happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” And Adams called it the biggest contribution that the United States had yet made to world culture. And I love that definition because I, I think it’s still true.

  • 00:05:06

    First of all, he basically defines it as progress a better, richer, happier life. He defines it as being broad, as being universal. He said it has to be for all our citizens of every rank, which is a distinction with Europe where, which was a more class bound society. So from the very beginning the American dream contained this notion of upward mobility. And he said it’s the United States’ greatest contribution to the world, which suggests that there’s something distinct and American about it.

  • 00:05:34

    And I still think that basic notion of progress, which is, are Americans enjoying better living standards over the course of their own lifetimes? Are they enjoying better lives than their parents have enjoyed? And we’re here to debate, is the American dream in decline? Which is to say, um, can people expect progress less than they used to? And I think the answer is clearly, yes. And I wanna cite three main pieces of evidence.

  • 00:05:59

    If you look at the economic evidence, um, Americans of nearly every point on the economic distribution enjoyed faster wage gains in the decades before 1980 than they have in the decades since 1980. You can see these trends in any number of data points. A t- Internal Revenue Service data, Labor Department data, Census Department data, Congressional budget Office data, the papers published in the top academic research journals out there.

  • 00:06:25

    And I think it’s important to say that this isn’t just an inevitable slowdown from the heady days of the 1950s and 60s because income gains for the very rich have still been very good. They’ve been better than they were in the past. But the way it has slowed has meant that income growth has been really weak for most Americans and really strong for a small subset of them. That’s what most of the evidence shows. I know Michael will, would, will argue that there is some other evidence that he thinks is more conducive to his argument, but I think there are two other things that make it clear that the American dream is in decline.

  • 00:06:59

    One, ask Americans how they feel. It’s not simply the last few years or the last 10 or the last 15 years. For most of the 21st Century, most Americans have said the economy is weak. Most Americans have said that the country is on the wrong track. So, when we just ask people, what do you think about the American economy? They are unhappy with it.

  • 00:07:18

    And then finally, if you loot a- look at a set of me- measures that are not economic. Um, look at the number of children growing up with only one parent. Look at chronic pain. Look at drug use, and perhaps most alarmingly, look at life expectancy. In 1980, the United States had a normal life expectancy for a rich country. For the last 15 years, we have had the worst life expectancy of any risk, rich country. It’s not even that close anymore. And these are the ways, through healthcare that people can’t afford, through good houses and good schools that people can’t afford, through their dropping out of the labor force, this is the dominant way in which our highly unequal economy, in which the American dream is not dead, and we can reignite it, but it is in decline, is affecting most people’s lives.

  • 00:08:04

    I can’t think of a more damning indictment of our economy than the fact that we now have the lowest life expectancy of any rich country. And that’s why I think the American dream is in decline.

  • 00:08:16

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you so much, David for that opening argument. Uh, Michael, I’m gonna let you make your opening argument right now. Tell us why the American dream is not in decline.

  • 00:08:25

    Michael Strain

    Thank you. I think the American dream means different things to different people. And it has certainly, uh, evolved over the decades. But a central component of the American dream always is economic. Answers to, to simple questions. Are my kids gonna be better off than I am economically speaking? Am I able to better my own situation? Does hard work pay off? Um, and then I think there’s also this kind of rags to riches component to it. So, you know, not only is incremental progress possible, but can a poor kid grow up to become a billionaire? Can a poor kid grow up to, uh, you know, s- reach the, the highest levels of, of American society.

  • 00:09:04

    And, you know, I think, I think the debate we’re having out in, uh, the public square is over whether, whether this dream is dead. President Trump, with his characteristic nuance says, “Sadly, the American dream is dead.” Burney Sanders refers to the American dream as a nightmare. Uh, you have Senators from both parties talking about how the American economy is rigged against ordinary citizens, which is an astonishing statement. You have economists, uh, you have, uh, public figures, you have public intellectuals, you have business leaders, all talking about how terrible everything is.

  • 00:09:40

    I think David is right to want to focus on how the kind of broad sweep of Americans are doing. And I want to have a, a, another dimension over which we go broad, which is a, a, a broad time period. I think if you look back over the last 30 years, you see, uh, substantial progress. You see wage gains, income gains. You see an upwardly mobile society. You see improvements, uh, in quality of life. This is not uninterrupted progress. The period following the financial crisis was difficult. The period following the pandemic was difficult.

  • 00:10:18

    Um, and this is also not to deny that there aren’t groups of Americans who are in really bad shape and who have, uh, very serious problems. David referred to health outcomes for Americans. I think Americans who are addicted to opioids, uh, are clearly suffering. And so to say that things are, are going well, for typical workers in typical households does not deny that there have been periods of time where things have not gone well for typical workers. And it does not deny that there are groups of Americans for whom things are not going well.

  • 00:10:51

    But if you look at the broad sweep of Americans over a broad sweep of time, what you see is a story of, uh, substantial gains. Since 1990, you see average wages for typical workers growing by well over 1/3 even after adjusting for inflation. You see household income for the median household growing by roughly that amount. If you look at people who are in their 40s today, uh, 75% of them have a higher household income than their parents had when their parents were in their 40s. If you look at quality of life, i- including health outcomes, the, the, the Food and Drug Administration just approved the first drug to treat Alzheimer’s. We’re, we’re seeing substantial, substantial improvements.

  • 00:11:43

    And I think, just to close, the reason why we wanna get this right is not just an argument over data. The reason why we wanna get the answer to this question right is precisely because hard work pays off. Because the economy isn’t rigged. Because you can achieve the American dream and do better. If you tell people that isn’t true, then that can create the very problem that I think people are incorrectly arguing currently exists.

  • 00:12:11

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you both for your opening arguments. We now know where you stand and why. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll dive into the discussion on the question: Is the American dream in decline? When we return.

  • 00:12:39

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m your guest moderator Nayeema Raza. And we’re debating the question: Is the American Dream in decline? We just heard opening statements from our debaters, New York Time’s senior writer, David Leonhardt and American Enterprise Institute’s director of economic policy studies, Michael Strain.

  • 00:12:56

    David, you argued yes to the question, is the American dream in decline? You, you pointed to the kind of three pieces of your argument. The first being the economic data that you say shows that people are faring worse and that it’s a slowdown that’s concentrated on the bottom, let’s say, 80, 99% of the American economy. You, you also say that perception matters. That’s the second prong of your argument. But the perception that Americans have that they’re not better off is actually part of an indication that progress or the expectation of it is in decline. And then finally, you point to non economic indicators. Broad social indicators, including most pointedly, the decline in life expectancy where the United States is faring worse than other rich countries.

  • 00:13:37

    Michael, while you concede that the public perception is, is negative, um, not just amongst people, but also amongst politicians who are kind of packaging and selling the death of the American dream as maybe a way to move forward their own campaigns. Um, you say that this is not really true of the last 30 years, the last three decades. You’re saying the, the decline that people are trying to package and sell as the death of the American dream is really an aberration that occurred, um, say post-recession. And that what we’re seeing is not a broad decline, but actually continued mobility in American population. You point to studies of saying that 75% of 40-somethings are doing better than their parents would’ve done at the same age. And you also point to, kind of a counter-factual to David’s concerns about the social indicators. The, the boom in healthcare discovery, new, new drugs. Um, possibility that is happening every day in America as a reason to believe that the American dec- dream is not in decline.

  • 00:14:36

    So, I wanna just start off asking, I think that would be really interesting, uh, maybe David, you could articulate why you think this is happening. And then I’ll let Michael respond.

  • 00:14:45

    David Leonhardt

    To be the ov- evidence overwhelmingly shows that the rate of progress in our society has really declined. I’m not saying that life was better 50 years ago than it is today. I’m saying that, that the rate of progress has declined. And that’s what the American dream is about. It’s about progress. And, and, the, the rate at which we make progress has declined. And by extension, the American dream has declined. For many people, progress has slowed so much that it’s not clear that their lives actually are better than their parents. And that’s not just a narrow group. For huge numbers of working class people who just as a r- as, sort of a benchmark, I define as people who do not have a four year college degree, for huge numbers of working class people, living standards really have declined. Um, life expectancy has barely grown. Income growth and, and wealth growth has been extremely slow.

  • 00:15:32

    And I think a big part of what has happened is that starting around 1980 or so, um, you can put the, the start in the mid 70s if you want, um, our economy really turned toward a different model. Um, uh, a neo-liberal model. A laissez faire model. A model Reaganomics. And it wasn’t just Reagan. It was a, it was, um, a model that large parts of the Democratic Party adopted as well. The idea that we’re gonna have less regulation, we’re gonna really shrink labor unions, we’re gonna cut taxes on rich people a lot. Um, uh, we’re gonna allow companies to grow really large through a different approach to antitrust. They said, “we increase trade with other countries. We have less regulation. We cut taxes on rich people. We shrink labor unions. We allow companies to grow big. And life will get much better for all Americans.”

  • 00:16:24

    And instead what we’ve seen is absolute soaring of inequality. Life has gotten so, so much better for the very wealthy. It’s gotten meaningfully better for professionals like all of us. Um, but for most Americans, life ha- really has, the pace of progress has slowed down really badly. You can see, uh, it in how unhappy people are. You can see it in things like what has happened to family structure in this country, which is an issue that I know conservatives worry a lot about, and I think rightly worry about. And you can see it finally, as you noticed, in the life expectancy data.

  • 00:16:57

    And to me, the central lesson we should take from that is that this economy, these policies that we’ve adopted the laissez-faire policies have not worked. And that, in fact, we need a more inclusive version of capitalism to deliver better living standards to most Americans.

  • 00:17:15

    Michael Strain

    I think it’s important to sub divide the history of, of the last 70 years or so in, in the best way possible. If you look at average wages since World War II, which is really when we began actually keeping good quality data. What you see is a period of very rapid wage growth from the early 1950s until the early 1970s. And then you see a two decade period where wages for typical workers really did stagnate and decline. A lot of it had to do with, uh, the, the stagflationary shocks of the early 1970s. Those kind of peter out by the early 1990s.

  • 00:17:56

    And so, if you’re standing in the early 1990s and Bill Clinton is running for president and his slogan is, “It’s the economy, stupid.” You know, there’s, there’s a reason why that worked. Uh, it worked because the middle class and, and, and, and the working class ha- had just endured two decades of stagnation. But the, in, in the early 90s, you see a period where wage growth just kinda takes off. And if you look from, you know, 1990 until 2022, 2023, what you see is substantial growth in the wages of typical workers. Uh, you see the median wage up by over a third. You see a narrowing of wage inequality. And, uh, you see, you know, wages are important, but of course they’re just one component of income. You see a similar story happening with income as well, particularly if you account for tax and transfer payments.

  • 00:18:50

    And so, I don’t think of this as a story of, you know, “neoliberalism” failing. Bill Clinton was a neoliberal by David’s definition and by conventional, conventional definitions. So, uh, of course, was President George W. Bush. And, uh, I think also so was, so was President Obama. Uh, you know, President Trump I think was, was, was different. He’s much more of a, a populist in some was and kind of a typical neoliberal in other ways. I think if you, if you wanna say that American economic policy went in this neoliberal direction in the 70s and things got worse, uh, from 1980 onward, you’re conflating a couple of eras.

  • 00:19:28

    Nayeema Raza

    I’m gonna let David, David I think is d- is dying to jump in here. So, I’m gonna let him.

  • 00:19:32

    David Leonhardt

    So, Michael, at the beginning you said, look, y- you recognize that the financial crisis of 2007 into 2009 was really bad and, and that it took a long time for us to recover from. So I guess what I would say is if we’re looking at the last 50 years, back to the mid 70s, and we’re saying, “Well, the last 15 years have been pretty bad because of the financial crisis.” And the first 20 years of that period from 1975 to 1995 (laughs) were pretty bad for wages, w- w- we’re leaving ourselves with a really narrow window where things are actually good. It was about a decade from-

  • 00:19:32

    Michael Strain


  • 00:20:02

    David Leonhardt

    … 1995 to 2005 where also there was the .com meltdown and the jobless recovery that followed that.

  • 00:20:04

    Michael Strain

    Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

  • 00:20:09

    David Leonhardt

    So, I think we’re left out of the last 50 years with about five years when things were actually-

  • 00:20:09

    Michael Strain


  • 00:20:14

    David Leonhardt

    … good. And to me, that, if it’s just five out of the last 50 years, those five aren’t the norm. They’re the exception. And let’s focus on the 45 years when things weren’t so good. And, and try to grapple with, why is it that, that the economy’s been so disappointing for 45 of the last 50 years.

  • 00:20:31

    Michael Strain

    I wouldn’t characterize the entire last 15 years as bad. Uh, I think, I think the years kind of immediately following the financial crisis were, were very bad. But I think things, things turned around. And if you look at the economy of 2014, 2015, certainly the economy of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, you know, that’s, that’s kinda the ideal situation. Uh, that’s the economy that we’re all so desperate to return to right now. An economy with unemployment below 4%, an economy with inflation at 2%, an economy with wages growing above 3%. That’s the goal of the Fed is to kind of recreate that economy, but, you know?

  • 00:21:15

    Nayeema Raza

    But, can you address, Michael, the broader point that David’s arguing? ‘Cause he’s arguing, look, like, th- you know, you can count a few good years post-recession recovery and pre-pandemic, but is that enough to t- to a trend make over the course or decades? How would you reply to that.

  • 00:21:29

    Michael Strain

    Yeah. I was, well, I was attempting to reply to that by saying, I think post 2008 has mostly been good. Uh, except for the years kind of right after the 2008 financial crisis. You know, the world didn’t begin in 1970 either. And the American dream, you know, should encompass the 1920s. It should encompass the 1930s. It should encompass the 1940s. It should encompass the 50s and 60s. Um, during this period when, you know, people wanna argue that the American dream was so great, you know, we had, we had the Great Depression, we had World War II, we had the post-war transformation. And then, you know, we had thing that actually were objectively good.

  • 00:22:08

    And so, y- you know, the, the, the idea that for the American dream to be, uh, in good shape, you have to have uninterrupted progress. You can’t have setbacks. For the American dream to be in good shape, there can’t be groups of Americans that are in bad shape, I think is, is a standard that’s, you know, really way too high. Even though so many Americans had such a hard time from 2008 to 2012, 2013. Even though so many Americans had such a hard time during the pandemic, if you kind of, you know, look at the last 15 years, people are, people are much better off today than they were when all that started.

  • 00:22:51

    Nayeema Raza

    They don’t feel they’re better off, though. So what do you… I mean, that’s part of the challenge is the perception and you both have said the perception’s not optimistic, it’s pessimistic. And that, and you’ve also said, Michael, perception matters. So why is perception so bad and how do you square that with the idea that people can expect a better future when, in fact, they don’t?

  • 00:23:12

    Michael Strain

    Yeah, this is, this is probably the question that I get asked the most often these days. (laughs) Um, and I’m sure David does as well. And, you know, typically I’m getting asked this question in the context of President Biden’s, uh, reelection where, you know, the, the President and, and his surrogates are, are trying to make the case that, you know, we have this really great labor market and, and wages have recovered from the pandemic, and, you know, why, you know, why aren’t, why are people feeling so glum? My answer to that question is pretty straight forward, which is that people really, really, really don’t like inflation.

  • 00:23:47

    In, uh, your intro, you mentioned that during the Obama presidency, the majority of Americans believed in the American dream. Uh, and today, it’s down to around a third. You know, I think a lot of that, I mean, look, we’ve had, we’ve had the turmoil of President Trump’s time in office and, and right after that we had this horrible once in a century pandemic. And right after that we had, uh, the return of inflation, uh, which is a problem we haven’t seen in four decades, but that, but that we experienced with tremendous force. You know, that’s a lot of trauma in a short period of time, point one.

  • 00:24:25

    Point two: You know, right now, uh, people don’t, people don’t like high prices. Uh, food is 20% more expensive than it was in January of 2021. That’s really a big increase. And I think that is affecting consumer sentiment. That’s affecting, I think people’s kind of r- just broader perceptions about how the economy is doing.

  • 00:24:44

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you for that, Michael. Uh, David, I wanna as you, because par- uh, part of the argument that Michael was making, particularly in the opening argument was that it’s, you know, broader than perception, broader than the economic indicators that there are glimmers of hope. There are indicators of shining future, let’s say. A lot of the data has shown that there’s been movement forward in terms of progress. Social justice movements, uh, you know, racial equity movements that are happening now, um, in this country, as well as a big year for unions. Increase in union participation, something that you talk a lot about in your book is e- the downfall of unions being linked to the demise of the American dream, while unions have had one of the best years yet. Um, Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, uh, you know, workers all voting towards unionization. Big examples of strikes making a dent in Hollywood and, and, um, in auto workers in Detroit.

  • 00:25:35

    So, why doesn’t any of this, to you, signify a brightening of the American dream rather than a dimming of it?

  • 00:25:43

    David Leonhardt

    Well, it could signify a brightening (laughs) of the American dream. I mean, the, the way I would think about it is this way: So, I agree with Michael that the biggest thing that is hovering over the national mood right now is probably inflation. To me, it’s not, it’s, it’s also a second set of things that are still sort of COVID hangover. Life just isn’t normal. Many people haven’t gone back to the office. If you spend any time on a subway, uh, in a major city, you’re likely to see more fair hopping than you used to. There’s less volunteerism than there used to be. Um, uh, there are just all kinds of signs of social disorder in addition to inflation.

  • 00:26:18

    So, I think that’s the best explanation for the short term feeling. But it, it, the, the problem with that explanation as that being the whole thing is, it’s not like people were happy and then came COVID and they became unhappy. Americans have been dissatisfied with our economy and our country’s direction for the vast majority of the 21st Century. So, if you look at, uh, polls on the economy, people were re- have really been unhappy with the economy for most of the last 26 years. So it can’t just be that it’s the last few years.

  • 00:26:47

    And I actually think, Nayeema, the, the, the things that you mentioned, this increased interest in unions, this increased activism is a sign that people recognize that this economy that we’ve had over the last several decades has not worked for most people. And one of the reasons you see new interest in labor unions is people have said, “Wait a second.” The, the idea that we’re gonna get rid of regulation and shrink unions and reduce taxes on rich people and allow companies to grow really big, and trade a lot more with the rest of the world. We were told that was gonna deliver really wonderful r- economic results for all of us, even for lower and middle income people. And it hasn’t worked.

  • 00:27:28

    And I think that’s part of the reason why you see people now more interested in labor unions. Why you see people in both parties saying, “Hey, wait a second. This old approach we took to trade with China and with other countries has not worked.” And frankly, as, as alarming as Donald Trump’s rise has been in so many ways, starting with the way he talks about many groups of Americans, starting with his, his invitations to commit violence, starting with the rejection of basic democracy. Donald Trump said, “Hey, my party, the Republican Party’s old…” Talking about him. I, I don’t have a political party. “My party’s old approach to trade didn’t work.” And huge numbers of working class Republicans said, “We agree with you.”

    And so, to me, the increased, interest in labor unions, the increased interest in populism, it, is one more sign that Americans are saying, “Hey, the American dream is in decline. This isn’t working for us. We need to try something different.”

  • 00:28:28

    Nayeema Raza

    Michael, I want you to respond because you think these trends are, are indicators of something that could, in fact, kill, murder the American dream.

  • 00:28:35

    Michael Strain


  • 00:28:35

    Nayeema Raza

    Um, so, what, what, how do you respond to David’s points there?

  • 00:28:41

    Michael Strain

    I think that it is dangerous, uh, territory to point to a set of things that, you know, a politician like, like President Trump as said as evidence that those things are, are true because the American people agreed with them. Um, yes, President Trump was very hard on China, uh, and was very hard on international trade, and on globalism. And that resonated with the American people. President Trump was also misogynistic and xenophobic and, uh, racist, and that also, in some sense, resonated with the American people. He got, he got himself elected, elected President.

  • 00:29:18

    If you look at advanced economies over the last hundred years or so, and you look at what happens to democracy following financial crises, what you always see is, uh, or what you typically see is a surge in populism. Uh, you don’t see that pattern after typical recessions, even after severe recessions. But recessions that began in the financial sector tend to produce a populist backlash. And, you know, why is that? There are lots of reasons why. You know, I think the big one is that, is that, uh, financial, uh, crises really reach into the balance sheets of millions of households in a way that, you know, a, a recession caused by the central bank, uh, doesn’t.

  • 00:30:05

    And when you see populism on the rise as we saw following the 2008 financial crisis, that is characterized by, uh, a turn inward. It’s characterized by suspicion of foreigners. It’s characterized by the, uh, embrace of protectionism. And, uh, restrictions on immigration and all, and, you know, all, all those sorts of things. I think the fact that both political parties are, uh, retreating from, uh, American leadership abroad, retreating from globalization, retreating from international trade, has much more to do with the response of the American people to the financial crisis, than it has to do with an empirically correct assessment of whether those policies actually enriched Americans broadly speaking.

  • 00:31:05

    Nayeema Raza

    We’re gonna wrap our discussion right now, here. When we come back, we’ll bring in some more voices to further the conversation around this question: Is the American dream in decline? We’ll be right back after this break.

  • 00:31:31

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m your guest moderator Nayeema Raza. And I’m joined by our debaters David Leonhardt and Michael Strain who have been heatedly disagreeing over the question: Is the American dream in decline?

  • 00:31:42

    Michael Strain

    I hope not too heated (laughs).

  • 00:31:42

    Nayeema Raza

    (laughs) Not too heated.

  • 00:31:43

    David Leonhardt

    Me too (laughs).

  • 00:31:45

    Nayeema Raza

    Just heated enough, guys. Uh, we’re gonna bring in some other voices now. Members of our audience. Up first, I’d like to invite in Helaine Olen to our stage. Helena is a columnist at the Washington Post. What question do you have for our debaters?

  • 00:31:57

    Helaine Olen

    About a year ago, there was a guy on the cover of Business Week who was spending $2 million a year to try to push back the clock on aging. That same week, out here in California, there was a mass shooting up the coast. And one of the victims in the hospital told our Governor Gavin Newsom, “You need to get me out of the hospital as quick as possible. I can’t afford the bills for this.” This story always symbolized something to me about where we are as a country. Where, on one hand, we are seeing some greater progress in healthcare, as Michael pointed out. And yet, on the other hand, a lot of people, as David points out, are falling behind. Our lifespans are falling. Four in 10 Americans say they can’t afford their medical bills.

  • 00:32:45

    For Michael, how do you reconcile something like this with the continued health of the American dream?

  • 00:32:51

    Michael Strain

    People certainly are concerned about their ability to pay their medical bills, but of course, 40% of bills don’t go delinquent. 40% of Americans don’t, you know, enter into significant amounts of debt because they aren’t able to pay their medical bills. But I think the general point as it relates to the American dream, you know, we, we have had an opioid crisis in the United States. And that’s a big part of the reason why you’re seeing, uh, more and more people die. If you talk about, you know, life expectancy, I don’t know of any serious demographer who doesn’t think that people who were born in the year 2023 are gonna have a longer life than the people participating in this debate. So, I think life expectancy, I think of as kind of an argument in favor of the health of the American dream not apposed to it.

  • 00:33:45

    America keeps getting hit with serious obstacles. And, you know, this was true long before 1970. Again, we had a Great Depression, a Cold War. We had oil shocks in the 70s. The .com bust, we had the Great Recession. We had the COVID pandemic. And I think the test of the American system, and I love David’s emphasis on democratic capitalism. I think that’s exactly the right way to think about it. Is, do we meet those challenges? And I think if you look at the sweep of those decades, the answer is yes.

  • 00:34:21

    Despite the opioid epidemic, despite the great recession, despite the pandemic, we’ve had a, you know, 35, 40% increase in wages for, for typical workers over the last three and a half decades. That is a remarkable achievement. Could it be higher? Sure. Should we wish for faster wage growth? Absolutely. But, you know, when you, when you look at all the things that American workers in American households have had to contend with, the resilience is astonishing.

  • 00:34:49

    David Leonhardt

    I think I have higher standards for America. To me, the fact that we’ve had some wage growth over the last few decades is not good enough to say that, that our economy and our society are healthy. I think we can, we can and should expect better th- than that. And, um, Helaine, you asked about the idea of medical progress. Our medical system has the capability of doing incredible things. And sometimes, often, it does do those things. But far too often it denies access to basic preventative health as well as cutting edge treatments to people on the basis of money and on resources. And I think that is why, to come back to the statistic that I just find so jarring: In 1980, the United States had a typical life expectancy for a rich country. For the last 15 years, we’ve had the lowest life expectancy of any rich country in the world.

  • 00:35:39

    We started to depart from the trends of other countries in the early 1980s on the same timeline as inequality was increasing. That’s not a coincidence. And when you dig into the data a little bit more, what you see is, for college graduates, for professionals, the life expectancy trends of the last few decades actually look a lot like other countries. Countries that are less unequal than we are.

  • 00:36:02

    It’s for working class people that the life expectancy trends have been so dark for four decades. And so, I’m not willing to say, “Well, yes.” But I- if only it weren’t for opioids. And if only if weren’t for the financial crisis. And if only it weren’t for our unique addiction to guns. And if only for the fact that we have more people dying in car crashes than any other country. And if only it weren’t the fact that we’re the only country that has millions of people who can’t get basic medical care. Things would be better here.” I agree.

  • 00:36:31

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you David. And thank you, Helaine for your question. Next up, I’d like to invite on the Wall Street Journal’s Oyin Adedoyin. Uh, welcome.

  • 00:36:39

    Oyin Adedoyin

    Thank you. What would it take for the American dream to be resuscitated, to kind of be reinvigorated, do you think?

  • 00:36:46

    David Leonhardt

    So, I actually end my book on an optimistic note because I really do think that we have the capability to, to do this. And, uh, a figure who plays a big role in my book is the, is the labor organizer A. Philip Randolph. He began organizing a labor union of porters, uh, and maids working on, uh, a railroad cart company, the Pullman Company. And what he understood is that the way to change American society is through political organization. He did it first by organizing a labor union and he did it later by organizing the original march on Washington, uh, that forced FDR to integrate wartime factories during World War II, and was a major reason that the white/Black wage gap and white/Black life expectancy gap shrunk really markedly in the 40s and 50s.

  • 00:37:33

    And it’s not just A. Philip Randolph who understood this. It’s the Women’s Movement of the 1960s. It’s the environmental movement. It’s the, it’s the movement for marriage equality in recent decades. Um, frankly, if you’re conservative, it’s the anti-abortion movement that has launched a 50 year grassroots movement to try to chance policy on abortion in this country.

  • 00:37:52

    And so, I think the lesson of American history is that when people organize around a specific goal, and they shape public opinion, and they are respectful of most Americans, and they elect politicians who wanna do what the movement tries to do, I think the society really can change. To me, the problem has been that the political right in our country still remains enamored of this Raeganist neoliberal vision that I think just hasn’t worked very well. And I think the political left has become increasingly upscale; has become a movement, and in the case of the Democratic Party, a party of relatively well-off professionals. And has been less concerned with things like workers’ rights, um, and lifting people’s incomes.

  • 00:38:34

    And so, I think if we had a movement that was devoted to lifting ordinary peoples’ living standards, making it easier for them to get affordable healthcare. Making it easier for their kids to go to good schools. Making it easier for workers to join unions. Which really do have an unmatched record of reducing inequality and lifting people’s wages, labor unions do, for all their flaws. And they do have flaws.

  • 00:38:54

    Um, if we had a movement like this, I actually think it’s could succeed. The problem is we haven’t had one of those movements. In a weird way, I find that to be reason for optimism. It’s not that we’ve tried these policies and that they’ve failed. It’s that we haven’t really tried them in recent decades.

  • 00:39:11

    Nayeema Raza

    Related to that, I wanna ask each of you, Michael and David, I’m curious what role you think immigration plays in preserving the American dream, either by opening up the doors for more people to access it, or by slowing down entry to allow people inside the country to access the dream more. So, maybe I’ll ask, uh, Michael to go first and then David.

  • 00:39:30

    Michael Strain

    I mean, I think it’s a huge part of the American dream, the fact that so many of the world’s hardest working, most ambitious, most risk tolerant people want to come to America, is a sign that things in America are, are relatively good compared to other countries. Uh, and if you look at mobility statistics, um, what you see is that immigrants are much more upwardly mobile than native born Americans are. And I think there are many other reasons to be in favor of, of greater immigration levels.

  • 00:40:01

    It matters how you do it. And of course, you know, we need to secure the southern border and, and you know, illegal immigration is different than legal immigration. But broadly speaking, yes, more legal immigrants for sure.

  • 00:40:12

    Nayeema Raza

    David, what do you think?

  • 00:40:13

    David Leonhardt

    So, immigrants are the glorious exception to the decline of the American dream over the last several decades. If you look at the empirical data on how immigrants in the last several decades have done, they are doing extremely well. Uh, they continue to climb the economic ladder at a similar pace to immigrants of many decades ago, despite suggestions to the contrary from nativists. I think, though, that a lot of the debate on immigration is a pretty good example of how our political system has moved away from the values and interests of a lot of working class people in this country.

  • 00:40:48

    Large numbers of both the Democratic Party and many congressional republicans who basically have tired to sell the American people on the idea that more immigration is always better and that it has no costs. I think the Democratic Party has particularly done this. And, um, that’s really quite unusual. The idea that we should accept enormous l- levels of immigration and that they, that should continue in perpetuity, basically no society has ever done that.

  • 00:41:17

    Uh, Barbara Jordan, a former congresswoman from Texas who chaired an immigration commission in the 90s said, “Immigration is a very good thing, but most good things in life are not free. Immigrants who come do compete for jobs with Americans.” And I know there’s been this whole attempt to tell people, “No, no, no. Immigration is a free lunch.” Um, but I don’t think that’s actually true. And certainly most Americans don’t think it’s true. The great era of rising incomes in this country, income, rising incomes for white people and non-white people, the great era of progressive economic policy, was the 1940s and 50s and 60s when immigration to this country was extremely low. The two periods of very high immigration over the last 150 years, the early 20th Century, and the late 20th and early 21st Century, have both been times of very high and rising inequality.

  • 00:42:14

    Which is to put it another way, we have not had, maybe ever, and certainly not in a long, long, long time, a period in which we had high and rising immigration and falling inequality. I think a system in which we had clearer easier pathways for legal immigration, particularly to provide more competition for high wage people, um, and a system where we secured the border as Michael said, and we didn’t imagine that immigration would be a free lunch is a much better system.

  • 00:42:42

    Nayeema Raza

    We started this debate with David saying he had changed his position on the American dream before this debate. And I’m curious if at any point in this debate, Michael, you’ve had a change of heart.

  • 00:42:52

    Michael Strain

    I think that David’s right that both political parties, you know, really aren’t serving the interests of the, of the working class, and that that’s a development that’s, that’s exacerbated, uh, over time, I think. Uh, separately, or I should say, secondly, y- you know, I think David is just much more concerned about inequality than I am. Uh, it is not surprising to me that when you let in a large number of immigrants who are relatively low wage workers, that you see the gap between, uh, high wage workers and low wage workers increase. You know, I interpret that as kind of the mechanical side effect of a good thing. I think David interprets that as, you know, a cost. Maybe a cost worth bearing in some instances, but, but a real cost.

  • 00:43:35

    Nayeema Raza

    David, what one point from Michael did you find most convincing.

  • 00:43:39

    David Leonhardt

    Michael really focuses on two periods in the last 50 years when our economy was quite healthy. What I would call the late 90s, um, and the late 2000 and teens. And I think one thing that’s important for people like me who care so much about having an economy that is producing more bounty for more people is to ask, okay, what actually was it about those years that was good? I appreciate that Michael doesn’t just treat the last 50 years as one big broad brush and, and, and, insists that we unpack it somewhat.

  • 00:44:11

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you both for being so open minded. Um, now is the time to bring it home with closing remarks. David Leonhardt, you have the first opportunity. Leave us with a reason to believe that, yes is still the answer to the question: Is the American dream in decline?

  • 00:44:26

    David Leonhardt

    I’ve focused a lot on the, on the last 50 years or so. And the turn that the American economy took around 1980, eh, maybe in the mid 70s, early 80s, toward neoliberalism, toward an economy that has lower taxes, especially for rich people. Less regulation, fewer labor unions, larger companies, more trade with other countries. And I have argued that that has left us with an economy that has, is not delivering progress for most Americans. I very much believe that to be the case. I think the economic data makes the case. I think the public opinion data makes the case. I think the non economic data like life expectancy makes the case.

  • 00:45:02

    But I am not at all suggesting that we should go back to the economy of the 1950s and 60s and 70s. And we certainly should not go back to the terribly discriminatory economy of those years. We need a different economy a ma- more modern economy. Some of the lessons of the neoliberal revolution of the last 50 years have actually been good. Financial markets and economic markets are pretty good at delivering many things. The problem is what they’re not good at delivering.

  • 00:45:30

    And to me, when I look at this country, and I see the level of frustration, and I see the slow growth in incomes, and I see the fact that we have a lower life expectancy than any other rich country in the world, I am left saying, “The United States can do better than this. We really are, in many way, a distinct and unique nation. We are the place that so many people wanna come.

  • 00:45:52

    And so, I look at these trends and I say, it does not have to be this way. The United States can be a more prosperous country. It can be a country that Im- delivers better living standards to most of its people. And I want us to do that first, for the sake of most Americans. But I also want t- us to do it in a patriotic sense. I believe the world is a better place when the United States is a strong and confident country where living standards are rising for most people and Americans feel good about their communities and their families and their future.

  • 00:46:28

    I think we can get there. I don’t think we have to accept the very mediocre results that we have now had for most of the last 50 years.

  • 00:46:38

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you, David. And now, Michael. You’ll have the final word here. Your rebuttal please. Tell us why you’re sticking with no when it comes to the question, is the American dream in decline?

  • 00:46:47

    Michael Strain

    Well, I think the American dream is not in decline because in the American economy, hard work still pays off. The evidence shows that the most important determinant of compensation is productivity because the benefits of a hot economy reach all workers. We’ve seen faster wage growth at the bottom of the labor market than at th top, both following the pandemic and in the years before the pandemic. Because individuals see their economic outcomes improve over time. Because children typically go on to earn more than their parents earn. Because we’ve seen substantial increases in wages for typical workers over the last three and a half decades, and because we have seen the dynamism that characterizes the American economy both create opportunities for workers and eliminate opportunities for workers.

  • 00:47:45

    It’s not just eliminate. Creative destruction creates as well as destroys. This does not mean that we live in a country of uninterrupted progress. It does not mean that we should be satisfied. We absolutely should want faster wage growth, faster income growth. We should want to strengthen the American dream. On those points, I’m in complete agreement with David.

    I think we know how to do that. You need two sets of policies. You need policies to increase the rate of economic growth, and then you need policies to take some of the fruits of that growth and to advance economic opportunity to those who really need it. People who are excessively concerned about inequality often care about tearing the rich down. We should be concerned about offering a hand up to those who need it. And we know how to do that.

  • 00:48:38

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you very much, Michael. And that concludes our debate. I’d like to thank our debaters, David Leonardt of the New York Times, and author of “Ours was the Shining Future. The story of the American Dream.” And thank you Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, and the author of “The American Dream is not Dead, but Populism Could Kill It.” We so appreciate you both showing up. you approaching this debate with an open mind, and your bringing your thoughtful disagreement to the table. In short, your being open to debate. Thanks both.

  • 00:49:10

    David Leonhardt

    Thank you.

  • 00:49:10

    Michael Strain

    Thank you.

  • 00:49:11

    Nayeema Raza

    Thanks also to our guests, Helaine Olen and Oyin Adedoyin for bringing your probing questions here today. And finally, a big thank you to you, the audience, for tuning in to this episode of Open to Debate. As a non-profit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, the Rosenkranz Foundation, and supporters of Open to Debate.

  • 00:49:32

    Open to Debate is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman. Clea Conner is CEO. Lia Matthow is our chief content officer. Alexis Pancrazi and Marlette Sandoval are our editorial producers, and Gabriella Mayer is our editorial and research manager. Andrew Lipson is head of production. Max Fulton is our production coordinator. And Damon Whittemore is our engineer. Gabrielle Iannucelli is our social media and digital platforms coordinator, Linda Lee is our accounting manager. Mili Shah is our director of audience development. Devin Shermer is our operations and events coordinator. And Rachel Kemp is our chief of staff.

  • 00:50:12

    Our theme music is by Alex Clement. And I’m your host, Nayeema Raza. We’ll see you next time on Open to Debate.



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