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Nobel Laureate Schiller's address to Baltic Boston on the American Dream

European Project, Baltic Dream, Paths Forward Where American Dream Falters

Robert J. Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, 2013 Nobel Laureate, and kin to four Lithuanian grandparents, addressed attendees at the Baltic Boston Conference on November 24, 2018, commemorating the Baltic centennials.

Professor Shiller spoke about the evolution of “The American Dream,” a notion that was coined and lauded in 1931; and compared it to the European Project and the “Baltic Dream”.

Using search tools Ngram and Proquest, Schiller traced the American Dream origins to the nation’s founding thinkers, including Thomas Paine, who challenged the logic of hereditary advantage in Common Sense (1776); and Ben Franklin, who in 1782 France published the pamphlet, “Information for those Who would Remove to America.

“Don’t come to America if you think you will impress people with title and money,” Franklin wrote. “Come if you can do something. Americans say, ‘God Almighty is a mechanic.’” Franklin claimed the humble husbandman (farmer) would be respected in America.

A sister concept to the American Dream was portrayed by Israel Zangwill in his 1908 play, “The Melting Pot,” wherein a Jewish man marries a Christian woman. President Teddy Roosevelt applauded the play, making assimilation, the coming together of different nationalities and cultures, the preferred face of the nation (rather than, for example, the Jim Crow laws of the day*).

In 1930, “The American Dream” was advertising copy for a box spring mattress. (It cost $13.50).

In 1931, “The American Dream” was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his book, Epic of America. (So named because Adams’s publisher said a book entitled The American Dream wouldn’t sell.) With that phrase, Adams was defining a hopefulness that he admired in American culture.

"…that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone (emphasis added), with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman (ahead of his time, Prof. Shiller points out, Adams specified both genders) shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

“Ideas are contagious,” explained Shiller, “like viruses, thoughts change and mutate over time, their popularity goes in and out.” In the depths of the Great Depression, the hopeful idea of the American Dream was born, its roots already established in the nation’s consciousness, and the notion went viral.

Immigrants came to America because of the American Dream, some aspiring to own farms – one version of the Dream. America attracted hardworking people. Every young activist thought of the United States as a bastion of freedom and democracy.

Continuing the etiology, in 1931 and 1961, respectively, playwrights George O’Neill and Edward Albee* used the title with irony, dealing with the disintegration of the American Dream.

The American Dream doesn’t mean today what it meant in 1931.

1950 real estate ads painted the American Dream as home ownership: Man marries and children arrive. Man gives them a place to call their own. The ideal was a suburban home, where couples could entertain using their stylish wedding gifts. The concept had lost its idealistic and intellectual tenor since 1931, even neglecting the original idea of inclusion.

The American Dream further mutated by1980, when homes became thought of as investments. Prof. Shiller pointed to the shift in public attention from land prices to home prices, among other proofs.

Today, suburban home ownership no longer represents the American Dream. Instead, walkable cities offering art, community space, and eateries, make life meaningful to young people.

In 2018, Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine, “That loose civic concept known as the American Dream … has been shattered. No longer is lip service paid to the credo, however sentimental, that a vast country, for all its racial and sectarian divides, might somewhere in its DNA have a shared core of values that could pull it out of any mess.”

The American Dream is history*.

Across the Atlantic, the counterpart to the American Dream is often referred to as the European Project. In contrasting the two mindsets, Jeremy Rifkin explains:

For Americans, freedom is associated with autonomy, which requires amassing wealth. One is free by becoming self-reliant, an island unto oneself — and with exclusivity comes security.

For Europeans, freedom is not found in autonomy, but in access to a myriad of interdependent relationships with others. The more communities one has access to, the more options and choices one has for living a full and meaningful life. With relationships comes inclusivity, and with inclusivity comes security.

The American Dream puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence. The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life and interdependence.

The American Dream pays homage to the work ethic. The European Dream is more attuned to leisure and deep play.

The American Dream is [or was] wedded to love of country and patriotism. The European Dream is more cosmopolitan, less territorial, … and secular to the core.

Neither Americans nor Europeans have lived up to their respective dreams, but Europe has articulated a vision for the future that focuses on quality of life, sustainability, peace and harmony.

(Rifkin, 2004.) (Check out the highlights of a collective vision based on personal transformation rather than individual material accumulation here:

Professor Shiller elucidated a Russian’s view of the Russian Dream. “They don’t talk a whole lot about it, but …we too have a national dream. Not for happiness. We dream about what the majority of Americans already have, a cottage (single family home).”

A common aspect of the American and Russian Dreams: We want to live well, and not be limited by a society that prevents us from doing what we could do.

That this is the sincere desire of a typical Russian is evidenced by the popularity of recent presidential candidate Alexei Navalny, who said, “The idea we are destined to always live in poverty is deeply engrained in people’s minds. The goal of my campaign is to conquer it.” Navalny’s run against Putin was halted by conviction of a tax irregularity.

What is the Baltic Dream? Professor Shiller picked the brains of his Yale Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian students to elucidate its themes. Recurrent were feelings of loyalty, and of love for country and culture – though not in a nationalistic way – and of wanting to go back. It’s a dream of integration into exciting things wordwide; of being part of the family of European countries, small by mighty, yet world citizens, technological leaders and entrepreneurs in the vein of Finland’s Nokia and Estonia’s Skype. “The Baltic Dream is to be free, independent democracies; to own our land, and speak our language.” Power in song and dance is part of the genetic code, still as relevant and victorious as the Singing Revolution.

What comes next in the evolution of national dreams?

A desperate political atmosphere has descended in the United States after the demise of the American Dream. It’s every man for himself. There is loss of commitment to policies that redistribute to the poor, and loss of entrepreneurial optimism. Political attitudes are hostile. Troubled polarization and the rise of nationalist politics beset the quest for our identity and hope for the future. Last year 69 million people were displaced by war and discord, and are pushing at borders. Fear of immigrants, fear of automation stealing jobs, fear of home price inflation, especially for people who haven’t yet bought homes, is rampant.

Professor Shiller’s tone was tactful in answering questions from the Baltic Boston audience, which comprised both Trump supporters and critics. He deftly replied that discussing America First as a national sentiment and public policy requires a psychologist as much as an economist.

Someone asked: What obligation do Baltic countries have to help Muslim refugees? Muslim refugees don’t have that much interest in going somewhere where you have to learn an exotic language. And the national identities of small countries may be threatened by the influx of different perspectives. But certainly the Baltics should take some Muslim refugees, and be nice to them.

Shiller’s documentation of the rise and fall of the American Dream ended on a note of reasonable hope when he compared President Trump to the historical figures of William Jennings Bryan, a populist of the 1890s; Father Coughlin, a fascist radio priest of the Great Depression; and Senator Joe McCarthy, Red-scare smear tactician of 1950.

“These men all were very popular at one point in time,” Shiller pointed out. “Then they went too far and that did it. McCarthy eventually became ridiculous, even saying communists were capable of mind control.” The citizenry eventually withdrew support for these figures. “Trump’s antics may be pushing his luck. Calling a woman ‘horse-face’ doesn’t have to do with politics. You don’t call people that, even an opponent.”

“I just hope he does the right thing in the remaining two years,” Shiller concluded.

* the author’s observation


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