The historian David Potter famously dubbed Americans “people of plenty.” Economic abundance, Potter argued, had permanently shaped the American sense of possibility and opportunity. But when it comes to the way that we deal with that abundance, you could also call Americans people of paradox. We believe firmly in the idea of equality — meaning, in the simplest sense, that your average Joe is as worthy of respect as your average Rockefeller — but we live in a country where income and wealth are distributed more unequally than anywhere in the developed world. And somehow, most Americans don’t see that as a contradiction.
Why not? It’s precisely because Americans think of themselves as equal to everyone else that they’re willing to accept the immense — and widening — gulf not just between rich and poor, but also between the rich and everyone else. In America, your class status isn’t seen as something fixed but as something that, with pluck and luck, you can change.
The essence of the American dream, in this sense, is the possibility of social mobility. As it happens, however, the actual evidence of social mobility is ambiguous at best. Although there are plenty of rags-to-riches stories — and, as the 1990s showed, rags-to-riches-to-rags stories — that get passed around, the reality is, unsurprisingly, that where you start has a major impact on where you finish.
It’s still true that America remains a place where fortunes can be made overnight and that its economy is more meritocratic than most. But what really matters in terms of how Americans think about money is not so much the reality of wealth as the dream. A fascinating new study by Alberto Alesina, Rafael di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch found that inequality had little effect on Americans’ sense of well-being, while it had a dramatic impact on that of Europeans. They explained this as the result of Americans’ faith that material success was earned, and therefore fair.
The political consequences of that are obvious: Americans are far less interested in soak-the-rich taxation schemes than sheer economic self-interest would suggest. The social consequences are even more interesting: The entire American consumer economy has been shaped by the myth that your average nobody is secretly a potential king (and by that myth’s logical corollary, that every king is a potential nobody). Of course, there has always been an important undercurrent of resentment toward the rich — made stronger when wealth seems to come from corruption or insider dealings. But historically, the American attitude toward wealth has been one of fascination. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that he knew of “no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.”
That fascination with wealth isn’t just about watching the rich. It’s also about emulating them. Americans have always been notorious for spending beyond their means in order to acquire the trappings, if not the reality, of prosperity. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” after all, didn’t used to be used as a pejorative term. It was an expectation.
Americans have always been stricken by the disease that some have called “luxury fever” or “affluenza.” Even if we aren’t rich yet, we’d like to look as if we were. Right now is an especially interesting moment when it comes to that quest for emulation. The middle class has probably never found it easier to dress well and have smartly decorated homes, thanks to the omnipresence of good design and the generally high quality of the stuff that you can buy at Banana Republic or Crate and Barrel. At the same time, the competition to keep up with the Joneses is so unrelenting, and the gap between the rich and everyone else has become so wide, that it’s not clear that anyone today is any more content than they used to be — including the rich.
Is there a way for Americans to step off of this spending treadmill while still holding on to a sense of economic opportunity? It seems doubtful. After all, the very thing that propels American entrepreneurialism — the idea that with enough cleverness and effort, anything is possible — also fuels American overspending and overin-dulgence. And while there’s something frustrating about this, there’s also something to be said for the sheer sense of hopefulness that animates it. The Temptations surely had it right years ago when they sang, “Keeping up with the Joneses/You know it makes your life a mess/Bill collectors, tranquilizers/And getting deeper in debt.” But Americans don’t seem to believe it. One fine day, they’ll not just keep up with the Joneses. They’ll pass them by.
James Surowiecki (email@example.com) is a financial columnist for the New Yorker.