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This Thing Called the American Dream

In 1968, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson mused about “this Death of the American Dream thing.” But what was this thing called the American Dream, and what made it uniquely American?

NEW YORK – In 1968, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson mused about “this Death of the American Dream thing.” But what was this thing called the American Dream? What made it uniquely American?

For some, the Dream was Americans’ belief that their economy was a cornucopia of goods sure to bring a standard of living unimaginable in other economies: the dream of unrivaled plenty and comfort. But, while America had a superior wage level in the 1700s, Britain nearly closed the wage gap with America by the 1880s, and Germany came almost as close by 1913. Germany and France caught up with America by the 1970s.

For some economists, the Dream was the hope of an improving standard of living: the dream of progress. The economist Raj Chetty has been gauging the improvement people have made over what their parents had. He found that in 1940, nearly all young Americans – 90% of them, to be precise – had a household income higher than their parents had when they were young. That high percentage largely reflects America’s rapid productivity growth, which boosted wage rates. Yet from 1890 to 1940, rapid productivity growth was normal in Britain, Germany, and France as well – as it was in the “30 Glorious Years” from 1945 to 1975. So if the Dream was progress, Europeans could have dreamed of progress, too.

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