Sun Jan 29 2012
Brandie Barbiere walks past her household possessions after they were removed to her front yard during a home foreclosure on Oct. 5, 2011 in Milliken, Colorado. Barbiere said she had stopped making the mortgage payments 11 months before, after she lost more than half her home child care business due to the continued weak economy.John Moore/GETTY IMAGES
By Bill Schiller Foreign Affairs Reporter
It was a chill January day last year when Lucy Berrington and 400 other immigrants from around the world gathered in Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall — the nation’s “cradle of liberty” on the historic “Freedom Trail” — to take an oath and become citizens of the United States.
For many immigrants who come to America to seek a better life, it’s an almost sacred ceremony, “something like being born again,” says Berrington, 42, who came to the U.S. from Britain in 1997.
Despite a wintry New England day, she found “warmth” in the words of the presiding judge, she says.
“It was unexpectedly moving,” observes Berrington, a graduate student at Tufts University, “a lovely thing, really.”
But, she adds candidly, “something seemed off.”
Standing beneath a painting of founding father Samuel Adams and other greats, Berrington was seized by the feeling that she and her new fellow Americans had come to the land of opportunity late.
“I felt I was arriving at the party as it was winding down.”
One year on, an avalanche of statistics and darkening attitudes support her anxiety.
So it was no surprise this week when President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address called keeping the American dream alive, “the defining issue of our time.”
Never before in the modern era has America seemed so broken, its beacon-like “American dream” which has drawn so many to its shores, so elusive.
Today some 24 million Americans are out of work.
Nearly 50 per cent of all citizens live in households that depend on some form of government benefit.
And the country’s housing market remains a train wreck in agonizing slow motion. One in every four American homeowners are “underwater” to use the parlance of our times, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are actually worth.
Some experts predict the plague of foreclosures will worsen.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. For nearly 250 years, long before the phrase “the American dream” was coined in 1931 by author John Truslow Adams, the concept of a land of transformative opportunity was a magnet for America, drawing the talented, the determined and the ambitious.
Yet, grateful though she is for the opportunity to become a citizen, Berrington worries that America’s ability to offer immigrants a chance to transform their lives has passed.
“I couldn’t help but question the premise,” she says, recalling the day she became an American, “namely, the enduring appeal of the American dream at a time when its achievement seemed ever less likely.”
“There is an increasing gap between the rhetoric and the reality,” she says. “America still wants to perceive itself in a certain way, and yet it is not willing or not able to be what it says it is and what it represents.”
It is also increasingly unwelcoming.
Nearly 400,000 people were deported from the United States in 2011, the highest number in the history of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“In desperate times we are less welcoming,” laments Michael F. Ford, founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream, at Ohio’s Xavier University. “That has been true since the founding of the republic.”
These are desperate times indeed. A recent survey by the centre found that nearly two of every three Americans believes America is a country in decline.
A clear majority, 57 per cent, say they have “lost confidence in the country’s standing in the world” — up from 52 per cent in 2010.
Perhaps more shocking, the Pew Charitable Trust found that in today’s America — proud home to capitalist culture for more than two centuries — just 50 per cent of Americans now have a “positive” reaction to the word “capitalism.”
A key reason for that is America’s unending housing debacle, which has overrun millions of American homeowners leaving them broke, broken and angry.
From 2006 to 2010 American real estate prices plummeted 30 per cent, losing a stunning $6 trillion off their value.
That’s what pushed former realtor Charles Koppa to the edge, inspiring him to launch his grassroots “Mad as Hell” seminars in Ramona, Calif., near San Diego.
His aim, he says, is to arm people with sufficient knowledge to take on the “banksters,” who force-fed investors, then forced foreclosures nationwide, stripping homeowners of whatever equity they had.
Koppa, 71, wants an end to what he calls “foreclosure tyranny,” and hopes to harness the Internet to inspire an “Occupy Our Homes” movement much like Occupy Wall Street.
“I’m tailoring seminars so that people can start to gather forces in their own homes.”
Their theme song, Koppa reveals, is Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” (“Everybody knows the fight was fixed/the poor stay poor, the rich get rich.”)
On Tuesday, in response to growing national concern, President Obama vowed to launch an investigation into the handling of mortgages during the crisis.
The tsunami of statistics that attach to the crisis stagger: 2.2 million homes are now in foreclosure with more on the way; $800 billion in existing mortgages are more than 90-days delinquent; new home sales that once stood at 1.28 million in 2005 plummeted to just 305,000 in 2011; and 2 million construction jobs have been lost.
America’s housing sector is a wasteland with some cities featuring not one, but several boulevards of broken dreams.
Given all this, perhaps it was more than idle rhetoric this month when Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, in a speech following his victory in the New Hampshire primary, claimed “the middle class has been crushed” and that his campaign was all about “saving the soul of America.”
But it will take more than rhetoric, idle or otherwise, to steer America back to prosperity.
The capacity of the American economy to both build and attract facilities that produce jobs is also in sharp decline.
A new survey and study from the Harvard Business School this month shows America’s competitiveness is faltering and the immediate future isn’t bright.
More than 70 per cent of respondents — a cohort of 10,000 HBS graduates in senior executive positions in America and all over the world — say they expect the decline in American competitiveness to continue for at least three more years, dragging American living standards down with it.
More troubling, respondents report from first-hand experience, the U.S. is losing two-thirds of all bids to land new job-producing facilities.
The multi-year study shows that more facilities have moved out of the U.S, than have moved in.
“The threat to U.S. competitiveness we face today is far more complex than the one America confronted in the 1980s,” lead author Michael E. Porter cautions.
This time, it’s not just about Japan, and re-educating an American auto industry to learn about “fit and finish,” “just-in-time” supply deliveries and better fuel efficiency.
It’s more than that. America is now competing in a world with not one but more than 100 competitors, and must make deep structural changes to become more productive, creating more value per unit of resources deployed, if it wants to compete.
But there’s another problem.
“The U.S. government is more fiscally constrained and politically gridlocked than it was three decades ago,” Porter writes. The implicit message: gridlock must go if America is to move ahead.
But some aren’t so sure that America is positioned to make that turnaround.
“I think America’s pre-eminence in the world, which resulted from the 20th century and two world wars and the Cold War, that period of economic and political dominance is clearly ending,” says Canadian writer Ronald Wright, author of the 2009 bestseller, What is America?
American prosperity was built on what many thought was never-ending expansion, he says. While the expansion is over, attitudes of the period still linger.
“Americans got used to the idea that things were always going to get bigger and better and that standards of living would always rise,” says Wright. But so it was, too, with the imperial powers of Britain and France and Spain before them: they all had to learn accept limits eventually.
“I don’t think this spells doom for the American republic,” he says, provided “the republic realizes it has to play by the same rules as other nations do, take part in international agreements and deal with common problems.”
If America can adapt to these changing circumstances, perhaps the “party” Lucy Berrington felt she came to late can be revived.
“A friend of mine said, ‘The party isn’t winding down. You just arrived at an awkward pause,’” she says. “I can’t agree. If it is an awkward pause, it’s going to be a very long awkward pause and I think there’s going to be a lot of trouble before it gets going again.
“I hope it does,” she says