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Special Edition: American Dream, American Reality
Aired May 29, 2010 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST, YOUR MONEY: From your home to your job, to educating your child, our world looks very different today than it used to. Hello, everyone. I'm Christine Romans.
ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST, YOUR MONEY: I'm Ali Velshi. Welcome to this special edition of YOUR MONEY, American dream, American reality. We're going to look at how the American dream has evolved over the years and the new reality that we're facing.
ROMANS: But to look ahead we must first look at the beginnings of the American dream.
ROMANS (voice over): At the birth of America's great depression, the phrase "an American dream" was born. In 1931 author James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in his novel "An American Epic." It was, he wrote, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. Just what is that dream today? And what is the reality?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It always has seemed to be that it was have your own home, be -- be able to have a better life for your kids than you did for yourself.
ROMANS: The numbers are less dream and more nightmare, almost 10 percent unemployment, a staggering 46 percent of the jobless for 27 weeks or more, unheard of in a modern economy. One in ten people with mortgages are behind in their house payment. A widening gap between rich and poor and a sinking feeling that we did it to ourselves.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think everyone wants to have a good life, have enough money. I think now the difference is that we spend too much. When I was a kid there were no credit cards at all. You had to live on what you made, and people didn't get into so much debt.
ROMANS: That debt, ironically, brought on by the quest for the ultimate American dream, owning a home, with the enthusiastic approval of Congress, president, bankers and borrowers, a record number of people became homeowners. Homeownership grew with the help of evermore exotic loans and so did the home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The dog in the front yard and the nice green lawn, and, you know, a house at the end of a cul-de-sac, I think is a vision of place. I'm not sure it actually represents the totality of what it means for the American dream.
ROMANS: It sure seems like the totality of the American dream.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The living room is right in here.
ROMANS: In 1973 the typical American house was 1660 square feet. By 2008, home sweet home was 2500 square feet on average, with more bedrooms than people to sleep in, more cars in the driveway than people to drive them, and more money going out every month than coming in. Measured by money there is no question, the American dream is under assault.
But historian Jim Cullen says, the American dream is more than just economic.
JIM CULLEN, HISTORIAN: It's about a piece of land. It's about a farm. It's about a business. It's about a house. Sometimes the American dream is about religious fulfillment, a sense of prestige and status in society. You know, some forms of the American dream really plays a lot of emphasis on freedom, you know, the ability to go out there and make a million bucks.
ROMANS: There are other measures of the dream, a record percentage of America is college educated, albeit with record loans to go with it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The American dream is going after your dreams and your visions, regardless of what they are, whether it be going to college or working a 9:00 to 5:00 or starting a business.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks. Yes, you, too.
ROMANS: Try to start a business in this economy and some will say the American dream is dead. But Cullen, the historian, takes a longer view.
CULLEN: People have been lamenting the death of the American dream for about 350 years.
ROMANS: And that is truly American, a country built on hope and freedom always worried about losing it. But for more than three centuries the dream has always survived.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, Danny, it's going to be just perfect.
ROMANS: It's going to be just perfect, Ali. Duke University professor Gerald Wilson teaches a course on this topic. Professor Wilson joins us from Durham, home of Duke University. Welcome to the program. I think what we've found is that over the course of American history that what is the American dream has changed; it was home ownership for the last 50 or 60 years. But do we need to downsize that dream, what we think the American dream is right now, professor?
GERALD WILSON, SENIOR ASSOCIATE DEAN, DUKE UNIVERSITY: I think two things. Number one, certainly the dream is not dead. It may be deferred in some cases. But more often than not, it is redefined.
Now, you speak of home ownership as part of the dream and certainly that is part of the dream, but we are redefining that. I was passing by an apartment complex in Durham the other day and there was a big banner out there advertising available, apartment homes. I think that is very symbolic of how we redefine the dream, apartment homes.
VELSHI: Tell me a little more about that, when you say how does that redefine the dream?
WILSON: Well, all right. To begin with, I think the dream is, yes, we talk about home. And as mentioned before, we are talking about a yard, a dog, et cetera. Well, we still have the concept of home but we simply redefine it into an apartment as opposed to 24-casquare-foot home or 1660 square foot. The dream is still there but we simply redefine it in a different way.
ROMANS: Professor, something that I think is real interesting is that Jim Cullen in our piece there, he said for 350 years we've been lamenting the decline of the American dream as purely American to say we're on the cusp of losing it. In a way it show what's the American identity that you fought for something, created it yourself, it's a very hopeful kind of country. Do you agree with that statement?
WILSON: No, I think that one of the characteristics, if you will, of the American dream throughout has been optimism. I'm not quite sure I agree with the professor. I think its optimism and that we keep looking to the future for, if you will, further realization of the American dream.
VELSHI: Professor, what a great way of looking at it. Thank you very much for being with us. Gerald Wilson is a senior associate dean at Duke University.
ROMANS: And he teaches a course on this. Imagine being a college student learning about the American dream. This is just as you are getting ...
VELSHI: Maybe one day Christine, when we're not on TV seven days a week together we could take a course like that. I would love to actually study this stuff.
ROMANS: Yes, I know interesting, right? In the meantime we're all trying to live the American dream. We brought in CNN contributor, Max Kellerman and satirist, Joe Queenan and comedian Hal Sparks to talk about the American dream. OK, gentleman we keep hearing the American dream is dead, the American dream is dead. Do you buy it? Max is the American dream dead?
MAX KELLERMAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think first of all even putting aside what's happened to the economy recently, people experience their own fortunes in a relative not in an absolute sense, right, so you have the rest of the world coming out of poverty. For instance, China, that economy growing and people coming out of desperate poverty, and so our relative fortunes of course are not what they used to be. We're not lapping the world as many times as we used to.
So people experience that as a decline in American fortunes even without the economy having been hit so hard since the end of 2007. But in an absolute sense, in fact, the standard of living over any significant length of time in this country gets better.
Usually as a result of technological achievement. And technological achievement is not an entitlement of passage of time. It's the result of creativity and entrepreneurship and so I think in an absolute sense, things continue to get better over time.
VELSHI: Interesting point, Max. Joe, let's talk about this for a second. Ultimately we have better medication, we live longer. It may be a creature of the media that things are worse than they were before given that we have safer communities and things like that. What is the American dream supposed to be? How should it be redefined in this post recession period? Should we be rethinking our values and appreciating what we have a little bit more?
JOE QUEENAN, SATIRIST: I think the American dream is to still own your house and have a good job and see that your children do better than you do. I would like to point out having a dog was never part of the American dream for me. I have a colonial house with a white picket fence and a huge yard and I have a fair amount of money. I have two kids and I have no dog. I want to keep it that way.
VELSHI: That house thing is interesting. It keeps coming up. You know, Christine, this is the thing. I get the having a job because you need an income and I get the fact that you want your kids to do better than you do, although at some point maybe you don't. But this house thing keeps coming back to us, Hal.
HAL SPARKS, COMEDIAN: Well first of all, I think it's kind of interesting that you can take a course at Duke University on the American dream that will actually run up your student loan. That's fascinating to me.
Secondly, the idea that home is part of it is more an abstract sense. House is really what we're talking about. You can have a home that's an apartment that's kind of what he was, you know, I think alluding to. I think the shift is happening to some degree because most of the European countries now, you can achieve what is so-called the American dream.
This is one of the things we have to address. This idea that America is a special place simply because you can be an entrepreneur, own a home, you know, all these elements that we use are now the status everywhere else as well. At least in the industrialized nations.
Tell me what part of the American dream you can't achieve technically in England or in France or in Belgium or Finland or Germany. KELLERMAN: You're talking about western Europeans socialist democracies. The birth of the American dream as we perceived it at least until recently was really out of the new deal, reaction to the depression and this idea that when the FHA, the Federal Housing Authority, starting essentially basically insuring mortgage lenders as a result of public policy that wanted people to own their own homes, that thought of it as a good idea.
ROMANS: Guys, this is -- we got you for the whole hour. Don't go away. Sit on that thought for just a second because we're going to keep probing into this. Obviously a big discussion here about the American dream, Ali.
VELSHI: Obviously so much of it has to do with housing. That housing bubble that we were all enjoying had burst. So is owning the house in the post-crash world a reality? Or is it just a dream? We will talk about that when we come back.
ROMANS: In the wake of the housing crisis Warren Buffett summed up his view on home ownership in a 2009 letter to his share holders. Quote, "Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal shouldn't be our country's primary objective. Keeping them in their homes should be that ambition."
VELSHI: Yes, this is an interesting topic. This keeps coming up, people including the idea of home ownership as part of the American dream. Not sure where we got there. I get the idea of having an affordable shelter over your head as being a good goal. Christine, is it because we thought that home ownership means financial success later? Did we move from home as a shelter to home as investment as a society? I'd wonder whether that's what the issue is.
ROMANS: Well absolutely we did. When you talk to people now and they say, wait, this is the middle class' biggest investment, this is more than just moving out of a home you can't afford, this is the loss of their investment and so much of their savings. Very, very important people, some of whom who Nobel Prizes have said you didn't have to have saving if you had money in your house or in the stock market.
VELSHI: And now look what happened. Richard Florida is a good friend of our show, he is also the author a book called "The Great Reset." How new ways of living and working and drive post-crash prosperity. He has a view on this and he is joining us from Toronto. Richard about the idea that we really have as a society, as a government in the United States, as banks push the idea of owning your own home. Here's the surprise.
Christine and I often talk about this. We don't have home ownership rates that are substantially higher than major industrialized countries that don't force home ownership on people.
RICHARD FLORIDA, AUTHOR, "THE GREAT RESET:" No, we don't. Our home ownership rate is actually less than the home ownership rate in Canada and many European countries. What happened as you guys were just talking about, we increased the rate of home ownership after the depression and during the new deal and during the post-war era. Because it was good for our economy.
People who bought those single family homes that created a demand for the cars and the refrigerators, the television sets, the washers and dryers coming off the assembly line. But it's no longer a powerful stimulant for the economy in an idea and knowledge driven time.
ROMANS: For the first time in my life, time you hear people saying you know maybe its better and maybe it's better for your family to rent and increase your cash flow. Is that how more families should be thinking and is that good for the economy?
FLORIDA: Well, I think in a time where loss of economies are hurting and folks are out of a job, if you need to move to where economic opportunity is and you're stuck with a mortgage that you're under water on and you can't move, what do you do? So I think in an economy that requires flexibility where the key to our economy has been a flexible labor market we need a lot more residential mobility to achieve that.
And for many people, not all people, some people should continue to own, but for many people, particularly those starting their careers or uncertain labor markets or uncertain jobs, it's a better idea for them to rent.
VELSHI: In other words the house, owning the house keeps you somewhere when in fact maybe where your prosperity and your career and your family you should be somewhere else. You bring up something interesting Richard. You actually feel that maybe we should do away with this credit that you get on mortgage interest, so as not to have a government that encourages ...
ROMANS: That's not popular.
FLORIDA: No. Not on this planet. What are you doing?
VELSHI: This is a peanut gallery here. But Richard the fact is.
FLORIDA: I think lots of economists agree that we've overly subsidized housing and in doing so, distorted our economy. Our economy, according to virtually every economist who studies, this has over invested in housing and that capital that went to housing and speculation and inflating the price of land could have been used, should have been used and has to be used now to build a new industries and new technologies that will power our future.
So the hundreds of billions of dollars that we subsidize home ownership may be good for someone who wants to get into a house but it's bad for our economy now as a whole.
ROMANS: All right. Richard Florida, the author of "The Great Reset, How new ways of living and working drive post crash prosperity." Richard thanks for joining us.
You know Ali; I have to tell you that's the most loved tax break in American history. It is like $580 billion dollars or something.
VELSHI: And it strikes me that our peanut gallery didn't like that idea.
ROMANS: I mean it is an economic stimulus every year just for being a homeowner. I mean, it's -- I don't think they could ever get rid of it.
VELSHI: I heard Hal carrying on about this. Was that you heckling?
QUEENAN: It was both of us. He's got a house and I've got a house. You're blowing it.
There's also the thing, Thomas Jefferson said life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. House's make people happy. My family lost our house in 1958. We had to move to a housing project. My dad was finished. That was it. The symbolism of losing your house, of being tossed out on to the street it was so powerful it basically destroyed his life. So I know from personal experience how important it is to have a house.
But houses are also important because they stabilize societies. People take care of their houses. People feel better when they own a house. One other thing, I don't care what any economist says; buying a house is probably the only good investment the average person will ever make.
SPARKS: I would say that there's been a generational shift though that we do have to pay attention to. In that if we over-focus on a home with a plot of land with a yard and a large dog -- no dog. Leave the dog out. I know.
ROMANS: It is established Joe does not want a dog.
SPARKS: It's important to my analogy though. We have an entire generation of people, my age, maybe Max's age that really were brought up on the friend's loft that -- and the dogs have gotten a lot smaller. They actually fit in the apartment, that there's a shift, also, not so much away from ownership but ownership of a house that -- with a white picket fence. That idea has shifted.
QUEENAN: You haven't been to Dixie and you haven't been to places like Philadelphia and South Jersey where people live in houses.
SPARKS: I've been everywhere in this country. Seriously, I've been everywhere in this country. I'm a touring stand-up comedian. I'm literally in every market. And I'm telling you when you go to Toledo and they're building lofts downtown, when they don't have the money for the sprawl outside, that's a shift.
KELLERMAN: Home ownership, guys, whether it's an apartment or a house, the idea is, I think the upside is, it's an aggressive savings plan. Especially for a consumer-based culture that we live in where people aren't saving enough money. I know we're going to be talking about that a little bit later. You're forcing yourself to save money that would otherwise be spent on housing anyway.
ROMANS: If, if the house doesn't fall 57 or 60 percent in value and you need to unload it in five or six or seven or eight years to retire. Guys don't go away. Because this is just getting hot. We want to continue all of these angles. After this year American schools are going to have a completely different look. Your school, the major changes ahead in schools and what it means for your child's education.
ROMANS: So education is the stepping stone to build a better life. It's an intrinsic part of the American dream, always has been. But as cash strapped states cut education funding and college tuition costs soars, are we at risk here of falling behind?
Steve Perry, CNN education contributor and founder of Capital Prep Magnet School is here. Steve, Ali, gosh, weigh in on this for me, guys. This is something when I talk about what the schools are going to look like next fall because of all the budget cuts, the school that your kid is going to today could look different next year. Fewer teachers, bigger classes, fewer services, less sports.
Steve, this is really crunch time here for budgets and schools.
STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: This is one of the best things to happen to public education. Meaning that the economic downturn has shown us that we have to rip the top off of public education and look at what's actually happening within it.
What we're finding is that there's tremendous over spending and that, in fact, many of the services that we are saying that we needed we didn't necessarily need. If you have an English teacher why do you need a reading teacher in the classroom as well, the math teacher, why do you need a math specialist there as well? What you need is a good math teacher who can teach a child how to do math.
What we're finding now is that teachers and schools have to do what it is that they came to do. What we're also finding is that the design of our schools is not meant for the modern economy. We have our children in schools that were physically built in the 1920s and, in fact, running at much the same way they were back then.
VELSHI: Steve, let me ask you this. When you look at all the problems that people say public education has, some of them are class size, some of them are the type of teachers we have, some of them are the instructional time that students get, and others are the environment at home. What -- rank those for me? What are the most important things to fix public education?
PERRY: The most important thing to fix public education is to allow children to select the schools that best fit their needs. That's really important because if you have a child that is keenly interested in arts and she picks an art school, she's likely to do well there. That's the first part. The second part is we need to make sure the schools are designed to meet the needs of the modern economy. What we have now are schools that are not designed for that. We focus too much on class size. We really do, because the research is very clear, unless you drop below 15 students in a class it's really not as meaningful once you get into the 20, 22, 23 because you have a powerful educator up front, he or she can make a positive impact on that child's ability to learn.
ROMANS: Steve, we're going to see classrooms with 40 kids next fall and we're going to see kindergartens with 40, 45 kids. You are going to have public school where ...
PERRY: That is highly unlikely.
ROMANS: Are you sure?
PERRY: Highly unlikely. I am absolutely sure because for nothing else the rooms themselves don't hold 40 kids. So where are you going to put them? They're not physically built to hold 40 children. And if you take it one step further most of us went to college. Those of us who went to college will be the first to tell you we went to school with classes between 40, 50, 100, and 200.
ROMANS: We've got principals who are lying then basically are what you are saying. When you've got principals who are very, very concerned about what it's going to look like.
ROMANS: So you are saying the principals are lying? That it is not a problem these budget cuts.
PERRY: Some are. Some absolutely are. Some are not telling the truth. What they need to begin to do is look realistically at what it is that we're doing. We're spending a lot of money on public education.
One of the reasons why our public education dollars are not going as far from year to year is because we keep giving salary increases when we do not have tax revenue increases. And so what we have is a gap. If you have a decrease in tax revenue, then what you have to do is either steady what you pay people or you have to start laying people off.
So the reason why we're in this situation we're in is not because we have less money, it's because we have the same number of services but we're paying more for them. If we can get our unions to come on board and say, look enough is enough, we're going to stop asking the community for raises when you can't afford to pay for them so that we can keep all the services in place, then we'll begin to solve the problem.
We keep asking for more money. We public educators keep saying we need more money, we need more money. In fact I was in Delaware this weekend speaking at a college's graduation. I asked the superintendent, with whom I spoke. I said what's the most important issue that you're facing today? He said we need more money. I said for what? VELSHI: All right. So let's hold it there Steve. Steve Perry is our CNN education contributor. I can see our peanut gallery getting a little restless here wanting to get in on this thing. Hal, what's your issue with this?
SPARKS: First of all, this ties actually to what we were talking about. In essence, one of our biggest problems of education in this country across the board, and granted this is different from district to district, but because it's tied to your property taxes. You're literally guaranteeing that nice neighborhoods have nicer schools and more money to work with and lower education -- populous have lower value in their real estate so they're going to get fewer dollars.
And when you paint with this broad brush and say we're throwing money at education that is absurd. I grew up in Kentucky and then I moved to Chicago. There is night and day the resources that are available to these schools. And the idea that somehow we are chucking money at education in this country is moronic beyond measure.
KELLERMAN: In terms of classroom, by the way I went to PS-41 here in New York City. Nice neighborhood so the tax dollars were not an issue. But there was 30 kids in a class. I don't think I was in a class between kindergarten and fifth grade where there were fewer than 30 kids and the education I got was fine.
I know this flies in the face of the research because all the research says it's not just the parents. They're not even the primary indicator in terms of success. It's more about the school. But my own personal experience tells me that that's not true. That is most important thing is if you have at least one parent at home who truly cares about the education ...
SPARKS: Yes, but again, you can't legislate that. I appreciate the idea that somehow parents have to be more involved. But as human beings who are involved in sort of like moving towards governmental policy, and talking about what we can solve, I can't make a parent care about their kid.
QUEENAN: I went to a parochial school in Philadelphia and the classes were 40, 50 in high school. I went to the largest Catholic high school in the world, 6,500 kids, got a very good education. Wasn't that crazy about it while I was there but in retrospect you realize that the one thing that was great about parochial schools and these weren't private schools. You paid like $100 a year to go there. These weren't elite catholic schools.
The one thing that was very important there was you know, you're not taking weapons to school. There's an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn. And if people interfere with that, well, then -- so it was -- in some ways an ideal situation.
But the thing is, if you live in a small town like I do, the conversation about education never ends and it never will end and it's always comes down to somebody says we have a solution to this, we need to cut teachers, we need to get rid of some of the older teachers and have the younger teachers. The unions don't like that. First in, first fired.
QUEENAN: It's not -- it's the biggest problem that the country faces, except for race. It's the biggest problem. And it's not a problem that you can just sort of say, we'll do this, this is the program and it will be fixed.
VELSHI: Sorry, guys. Let me get in here. The issue here of course is it is the biggest problem that the country faces because we actually have to -- we have to educate students in a way that is going the allow them to support themselves and their families for the rest of their lives. It used to be ...
QUEENAN: Issue that's tied to education.
VELSHI: Hold on.
KELLERMAN: It's still not trade school.
VELSHI: Hold on. It used to be that this would get you a job in your 20s and then you would work your whole career at one company. The world of that kind of expectation has come a long way. We want to discuss next what to expect for the rest of this year and what the definition of the American job could be in the future.
ROMANS: Once upon a time Americans worked for a company for 20 or 30 years until retirement. These days the average American worker would have seven to ten different employers over the course of one career. So what is the future of the American job?
VELSHI: Well this ties in to the whole discussion we were having with Richard Florida about housing. If you were going to work somewhere for 20 or 30 years, it made sense to have a house that you were going to live in and pay the mortgage off over 20 or 30 years. But if you're going to work for five or seven or ten years, you may have to move and maybe you have to think about how you think of your entire existence.
Let's bring in a good friend of our shows, Ted Gilliam, he is the CEO of Adeco and he's always got great ways to look at these trends that sometimes we look at too closely. Ted, you see it from afar. Do you think that the American dream vis-a-vis jobs and career and length of career is changing?
TED GILLIAM, CEO, ADECO: Well, certainly the length of career is changing and it's interesting that you bring up the number of jobs because baby boomers will have about 10 or 11 jobs over the coast of their career. Interestingly, the demographics are also changing. Over the course of the next ten years we see the 55 and older age group increase from 18 percent of the workforce to 24 percent of the workforce. So people are definitely staying and pursuing careers longer.
ROMANS: Is this going to be a culture shock for people on the higher end of the age spectrum who saw their own parents have the same job for a long time? Are we ready to do this?
(SHOW INTERRUPTED BY LIVE EVENT - BP PRESS CONFERENCE)