The United States is rapidly declining on numerous fronts — collapsing infrastructure, a huge gap between haves and have-nots, stagnant wages, high infant mortality rates, the highest incarceration rate in the world — and it continues to be the only country in the advanced world without a universal health care system. Thus, questions about the nature of the US’s economy and its dysfunctional political system are more critical than ever, including questions about the status of the so-called American Dream, which has long served as an inspiration point for Americans and prospective immigrants alike. Indeed, in a recent documentary, Noam Chomsky, long considered one of America’s voices of conscience and one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, spoke of the end of the American Dream. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Chomsky discusses some of the problems facing the United States today, and whether the American Dream is “dead” — if it ever existed in the first place.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, in several of your writings you question the usual view of the United States as an archetypical capitalist economy. Please explain.
Noam Chomsky: Consider this: Every time there is a crisis, the taxpayer is called on to bail out the banks and the major financial institutions. If you had a real capitalist economy in place, that would not be happening. Capitalists who made risky investments and failed would be wiped out. But the rich and powerful do not want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run the nanny state so when they are in trouble the taxpayer will bail them out. The conventional phrase is “too big to fail.”
The IMF did an interesting study a few years ago on profits of the big US banks. It attributed most of them to the many advantages that come from the implicit government insurance policy — not just the featured bailouts, but access to cheap credit and much else — including things the IMF researchers didn’t consider, like the incentive to undertake risky transactions, hence highly profitable in the short term, and if anything goes wrong, there’s always the taxpayer. Bloomberg Businessweek estimated the implicit taxpayer subsidy at over $80 billion per year.
Much has been said and written about economic inequality. Is economic inequality in the contemporary capitalist era very different from what it was in other post-slavery periods of American history?
The inequality in the contemporary period is almost unprecedented. If you look at total inequality, it ranks amongst the worse periods of American history. However, if you look at inequality more closely, you see that it comes from wealth that is in the hands of a tiny sector of the population. There were periods of American history, such as during the Gilded Age in the 1920s and the roaring 1990s, when something similar was going on. But the current period is extreme because inequality comes from super wealth. Literally, the top one-tenth of a percent are just super wealthy. This is not only extremely unjust in itself, but represents a development that has corrosive effects on democracy and on the vision of a decent society.
What does all this mean in terms of the American Dream? Is it dead?
The “American Dream” was all about class mobility. You were born poor, but could get out of poverty through hard work and provide a better future for your children. It was possible for [some workers] to find a decent-paying job, buy a home, a car and pay for a kid’s education. It’s all collapsed — and we shouldn’t have too many illusions about when it was partially real. Today social mobility in the US is below other rich societies.