Thursday, July 5, 2012
Thursday, April 26, 2012
In order to do this, we must first understand what those freedoms are.
It is our strong contention that civic illiteracy is a threat to the American Dream because it is a threat to the freedom we treasure. Civic illiteracy makes us less likely to exercise freedom by understanding and engaging in our public life. Failure to achieve and maintain this understanding inevitably makes us more susceptible to manipulation and abuses of power. If we do participate with limited knowledge of what makes America, America, we mock the history we revere.
Concurrent to our national civic literacy survey, the Center for the Study of the American Dream asked native-born US citizens: “Immigrants are expected to pass a civic literacy test. Do you think all Americans should be able to pass that test?” A strong majority, 77%, said, yes. Furthermore, 60% agreed that high school students should have to pass the naturalization test as a requirement for graduation.
However, our national survey revealed that one in three native-born citizens failed the civic literacy test, based on the INS passing score of 6 out of 10 correct answers. This pass rate is 32% less than the average immigrant passing rate. In and of itself, these numbers don't appear alarming because we have heard them before. However, our persistence in civic unawareness is no comfort simply because it is consistent. There is no honorable connection between civic illiteracy and resistance to and distrust of government authority. Quite the contrary.
If the passing score for native-born Americans was raised to 70% from 60% --- seven correct answers out of ten --- the failure rate would climb to 50% --- one in two.
Understanding the true nature of our national civic literacy requires more than averaging scores alone. For example, if we were trying to gauge the average US household net worth and we asked 1,000 Americans and one of them happened to be Bill Gates, the consequent skew would be grossly misleading. Similarly, in the civic literacy test, college graduates performed best with an 82% average pass rate --- still 15% less than the immigrant pass rate. However, high school grads or less performed poorly with a 44% pass rate --- 53% less than the immigrant pass rate. Less than 1/3rd of Americans graduate from college but their impact on the civic literacy test skews the picture.
However, the central issue at hand is not sensationalizing who passed and who failed, but more a demonstration of what vote-eligible Americans specifically know and do not know in the midst of an important presidential election, after 12-18 years of school and 24/7 exposure to unfiltered multi-media information sources.
Americans do well with elementary school level questions such as: "What is the name of the President of the United States?", "What is the capital of the United States?", "Where is the Statue of Liberty?", “Who was the first President?", "When do we celebrate Independence Day?", and "What are the two major political parties in the United States?". No doubt, these answers might easily be offered by people around the world.
However, of greater material importance are questions about the US Constitution, legal and political structures of the American constitutional republic, and basic facts related to current political life and key political decision-makers. For example:
* 85% did not know the meaning of the "the rule of law."
* 82% could not name "two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence."
* 77% could not identify "one power of the states under the Constitution."
* 75% were not able to correctly answer "What does the judiciary branch do?"
* 71% were unable to identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land."
* 63% could not name one of their two US Senators.
* 62% could not identify "What happened at the Constitutional Convention?"
* 62% did not know who the Governor of their state is.
* 62% could not answer "the name of the Speaker of the US House."
The effects of civic illiteracy take their toll over time, and while Americans are almost defiantly indifferent about their lack of civic understanding, the consequences to our basic rights and freedoms and the general health of our republic could be dire. The American Dream, which requires the rule of law and civic understanding to protect the freedoms and opportunities we value, could be deeply damaged.
When Ben Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitution was finally produced after much deliberation and amidst much contention (in 1787 --- a question answered incorrectly by 91% of native-born Americans), he was asked by a woman waiting outside to learn what the fate of her new country would be.
"What do we have, Mr. Franklin?"
It is tempting to blame the schools for our low civic literacy scores but schools can only lead us to water. They cannot make us drink nor remember where the water is. It is an individual responsibility.
After all, Mr. Franklin did not say: "A Republic Madam, if the school system can keep it."
Monday, January 30, 2012
1. The American dream is about getting rich.
In a national survey of more than 1,300 adults that we completed in March, only 6 percent of Americans ranked “wealth” as their first or second definition of the American dream. Forty-five percent named “a good life for my family,” while 34 percent put “financial security” — material comfort that is not necessarily synonymous with Bill Gates-like riches — on top.
While money may certainly be part of a good life, the American dream isn’t just about dollars and cents. Thirty-two percent of our respondents pointed to “freedom” as their dream; 29 percent to “opportunity”; and 21 percent to the “pursuit of happiness.” A fat bank account can be a means to these ends, but only a small minority believe that money is a worthy end in itself.
2. Homeownership is the American dream.
In June, a New York Times-CBS News poll found that almost 90 percent of Americans think that homeownership is an important part of the American dream. But only 7 percent of Americans we surveyed ranked homeownership as their first or second definition of the American dream.Why the discrepancy? Owning real estate is important to some Americans, but not as important — or as financially rewarding — as we’re led to believe.
Federal support of homeownership greatly overvalues its meaning in American life. Through tax breaks and guarantees, the government boosted homeownership to its peak in 2004, when 69 percent of American households owned homes. Subsidies for homeownership, including the mortgage interest deduction, reached $230 billion in 2009, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Meanwhile, only $60 billion in tax breaks and spending programs aided renters.
The result of this real estate spending spree? According to the Federal Reserve, American real estate lost more than $6 trillion in value, or almost 30 percent, between 2006 and 2010. One in five American homeowners is underwater, owing more on a mortgage than what the home is worth.
Those who profit most from homeownership are far and away the largest source of political campaign contributions. Insurance companies, securities and investment firms, real estate interests, and commercial banks gave more than $100 million to federal candidates and parties in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Association of Realtors alone gave more than $950,000 — more than Morgan Stanley, Citigroup or Ernst & Young.
Homeownership is more important to special interests than it is to most Americans, who, according to our research, care more about “a good job,” “the pursuit of happiness” and “freedom.”
3. The American dream is American.
The term “American dream” was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his history “The Epic of America.” In the midst of the Great Depression, Adams discovered the same counterintuitive optimism that we observe in today’s Great Recession, and he dubbed it “the American dream” — “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”
However, the American dream pre-dated 1931. Starting in the 16th century, Western European settlers came to this land at great risk to build a better life. Today, this dream is sustained by immigrants from different parts of the world who still come here seeking to do the same thing.
Perceptions of the dream today are often more positive among those who are new to America. When asked to rate the condition of the American dream on a scale of one to 10, where 10 means the best possible condition and one means the worst, 42 percent of immigrants responded between six and 10. Only 31 percent of the general population answered in that range.
4. China threatens the American dream.
Our surveys revealed that 57 percent of Americans believe that “the world now looks to many different countries,” not just ours, to “represent the future.” When we asked participants which region or country is charting that future, more than half chose China. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed mistakenly believe that the Chinese economy is already larger than the U.S. economy — it is actually one-third the size, with a population four times larger. China does own more than $1.1 trillion of U.S. debt, however; it is our largest creditor.
But the problem isn’t just one nation. Japan holds almost $1 trillion of U.S. debt. Britain owns more than $400 billion. In 1970, less than 5 percent of U.S. debt was held by non-citizens. Today, almost half is. Neither China nor these other countries can be blamed for U.S. choices that have placed our financial future increasingly out of our hands.
Still, no matter how much we owe, the United States remains the world’s land of opportunity. In fact, the largest international group coming to America to study is from China — 157,000 students in the 2010-2011 academic year. As recently reported in The Washington Post, the number of Chinese undergraduates at U.S. colleges increased 43 percent over the previous year.
5. Economic decline and political gridlock are killing the American dream.
Our research showed a stunning lack of confidence in U.S. institutions. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed believe that America is in decline; 83 percent said they have less trust in “politics in general” than they did 10 or 15 years ago; 79 percent said they have less trust in big business and major corporations; 78 percent said they have less trust in government; 72 percent reported declining trust in the media. These recent figures are more startling when contrasted against Gallup polling from the 1970s, when as many as 70 percent of Americans had “trust and confidence” that the government could handle domestic problems.
Even so, 63 percent of Americans said they are confident that they will attain their American dream, regardless of what the nation’s institutions do or don’t do. While they may be worried about future generations, their dream today stands defiantly against the odds.
Monday, October 17, 2011
The Tea Party did a magnificent job and now the Occupy Wall Street protests are percolating equally important activity. Both are non-violent and fueled by social media. Both make their targets uncomfortable. Both animate each other with their polar enthusiasms.
The protests raise the specter of the demise of the American Dream. But in spite of dire predictions it turns out that the Dream lives. However, efforts by candidates (and causes and corporate advertisers) to "co-brand" themselves with the Dream are doomed to fail.
The American Dream is an ingrained idea, not a partisan ideology nor a corporate objective. The important thing about the Dream, based on our national survey work at the Center for the Study of the American Dream, is that a strong majority of American adults still believe in the Dream (72%), but to an astonishing degree they have lost confidence in the institutions traditionally seen as Dream guardians. 82% are disgusted with "all politics". 79% have lost trust in "big business"; 78% distrust "government" and 72% distrust the traditional media.
The idea that a political or corporate initiative can be launched in the context of the Dream is doomed from the start because of the intense distrust of the launching institutions.
Americans feel they are on their own but they haven't lost the Dream. They have confidence in themselves, their families and their personal networks. Institutional appeals based on the Dream are transparently ineffective "me too-isms." The implicit message to traditional authority is that "we don't believe you... we don't trust you..." but most damaging, "WE DON'T NEED YOU."
These protests are NOT political proxies for political parties. The political cognoscenti, as a matter of arrogant habit, require anything like these protests to be fitted into the molds their own experience has verified. They need to force the square pegs of public resistance into the round holes of their personal worldview.
Lately everything is squeezed through a political colander forcing comfortably defined political pasta while throwing out the boiling water that made the pasta palatable in the first place. But any good cook knows that you don't throw away the boiled and flavorful pasta water but keep it to blend into the sauce. So it is with the protests. The trick for institutions is to figure out how to fit into the protests rather than the other way around.
While the Tea Party is heavily Republican, it's also true that they are not willing tools of the Republican Party. They maintain a difficult-to-control distance. They exhaust the Party establishment even as they nervously inspire it.
The Wall Street protest confuses the Democrats too. Both offer to their remotely connected political associations an uneasy and undependable alliance. Leverage for the Parties is non-existent. These protesters owe nothing to the Parties which failed or betrayed them. The parties have nothing to offer them. You can't scare them. You can't buy them off.
The Dream belongs to Americans, not to the institutions, candidates or corporate advertisers who try to co-opt it.
The breathless rush to belittle the protests is typical of those being protested against. A unified criticism of the Wall Street Occupiers is that "they have no leader and no agenda." It is a protest that emerged, sui generis, from the earthen public, leaderless and fertilized by anger, not by a specific agenda. That's the way truly bottom up efforts begin.
The anti-Vietnam war protest movement had leaders and a very specific goal. This protest was also not welcomed, despite conforming to the requirements of today's protest bashers. These complaints are a rouse.
There is no Wall Street protest or Tea Party leader. The protests are against institutional authority. Leaders are institutional. There was no leader in the Egyptian protests which led to the ouster of Mubarak. There was no leader in Libya in the movement leading to the ousting of Kaddafi.
Swarm intelligence is on the rise through unprecedented use of social media and the beehive of public opinion knows exactly what it doesn't want -- exactly what it does want will be determined. Unity among protesters is fueled by broad dismissals by the "powers of that be" and protesters are texting and tweeting their brains out, driving a stake through the heart of our ennui. Its instantaneousness and its reach is vast.
Think of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Luther didn't really post the 93 Theses on the Wittenberg cathedral door. He respectfully submitted the work to the Archbishop who forwarded the toxic package to Rome. There was no response -- for three years! Nonetheless, because of the new social media of the 16th century -- the printing press -- the 93 Theses were translated, printed and circulated throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in two months. The Pope downplayed it and tried the leverage of excommunication failing to understand the heart of the matter and the powerlessness of his institutional influence. Luther's Reformation still abides nearly 500 years later.
What was the initial agenda of the U.S civil rights protests? Justice and equality initially lacked specificity but not power. The agenda took time to percolate through an ascending movement. What initially was the specific agenda of the feminist movement? What is the agenda of those calling to "take our country back" uttered from both the left and from the right. "Take our country back?" What does that mean?
The Wall Street Occupiers' agenda will evolve or die. In the meantime, protest or not, Americans still believe America promises a fair chance. A shot, not in the dark of a destiny over which they have no control, but in world where opportunity for betterment tomorrow is in their own hands, no matter what the institutions and their mouthpieces say today.
Follow Michael Ford on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/XUAmericanDream
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
83% say of American adults say they have less trust in "politics in general" than they did 10 or 15 years ago;
79% say they have less trust in big business and major corporations;
78% say they have less trust in government;
72% report declining trust in the media.
Distrust of government and Big Business is not new and has been trending negatively for decades. However, the distrust numbers have grown to such startling negative levels that the confidence of the nation in itself and in the capacity to create the future leaves the Dream wondering about itself.
Disgust and public separation from politics is clear. Big Business now seems to be an important and recklessly self-interested arm of the political process. So how does the media get into the distrust formulation?
As late as May of 1972, 70% of Americans "had trust and confidence that the government could handle its domestic problems." But the Watergate break-in happened one month later and the decline of trust in government has never abated.
In 1980 CNN was created by Ted Turner. This led to the creation of a 24/7 news cycle. Cable has proliferated and the Internet has transformed communication to an extent unimaginable in 1980.
In spite these changes, legacy media still authenticates news while cable and alternative media elaborates it and serves as a GPS for like-mindedness as these fertilize segregated communities of interest . When trying to analyze the distrust of the media there are many theories. Here are four.
1. Roughly half the US the population, (Gen X,Y,Z) doesn't know the media is supposed to be trusted as a public watchdog. They have their own personalized media and know no other world and their most trusted news person today is John Stewart, host of a pretend news program. Among these younger Americans traditional media is simply irrelevant.
2. Proportionality - is the appropriate ratio of one quantity to another, especially the ratio of a part compared to a whole. The media persistently displays for ratings, a loss of proportionality by over-coverage of the unimportant events such as Charlie Sheen's crack-up, the impending royal wedding and Donald Trump's Birther campaign.
3. Factoids; a term coined by Norman Mailer is not about little facts. It's about unmelodious fabrication lazily repeated so often in the media, that it becomes "true". In terms of the American Dream, factoids are rampant and begin with the idea, still peddled desperately by the real estate, home building and mortgage industries, that "homeownership" is the American Dream. In fact, only 3% in the Survey indicated this was their American Dream. Among many other examples is the China story told to Americans in such a way that 62% of us believe China has the largest and most powerful economy in the world even though it is one-third the size of the U.S. 52% of us believe "the future will be created by China."
4. Information Theory - A central principle of Information Theory is that information is received in inverse proportion to its predictability. Predictability leads to the incubation and multiplication of factoids. One reason we are losing confidence in the nation is because we are now accustomed to bad news about ourselves. Our sails are trimmed every day and the nation's self-worth is bruised.
Here's an example of how the three problems of proportionality, factoids and information theory play out in practice.
47% of the US debt held by the public is held by foreigners and the greatest holder of that debt is China ($1.1 trillion). Is China the most important part of that story? Probably not. Japan is 9.7% of the Chinese population but itself owns 80% of the amount of US debt owned by China ($885 billion). The story isn't China. The story is that nearly half of the US publically owned debt is non-American hands whereas in 1970 it was less than 5%. China is not the point. The point is that our financial future is increasingly not in our own hands.
The American public is in the dark and increasingly afraid of China based on disproportionate factoid driven stories.
Monday, June 13, 2011
Xavier University's Recent State of the American Dream Survey Reveals Irrational U.S. Fears About China
A growing majority of Americans believe "the future will be created somewhere other than America." (57% in 2011- 52% in 2010.)
- 52% believe the future will be created by China.
- 16% by the European Union.
- 10% by Japan
- 3% by India
In addition, 63% of Americans believe that the Chinese economy is larger than the US economy although it is actually one-third the size.
It's not unusual for Americans to misunderstand foreign affairs but these numbers reveal a chink in the armor of the American Dream which is ultimately fueled by self confidence. The famous "can do" spirit doesn' wilt from challenges.
Complicating matters are new counter-intuitive economic wrinkles. Advanced economies grow primarily through innovation and technology breakthroughs. Developing economies offer investor advantages that developed nations do not; low wages, higher returns on capital, the freedom to adopt or reverse engineer technology rather than invent it. The incessant pressure to innovate, create new technologies, products, and processes is the curse of success. Thus, it is the natural economic order that investor capital flows from wealthy countries to developing countries.
But according to World Bank numbers it appears counter intuitively that money is flowing more from rich countries to rich countries. In 2007 as the US was entering its economic slide and facing the loss of 8 million jobs, direct foreign investment in the US was $240 billion. In China it was $138 billion. Despite all the hype, that's about the same as the direct foreign investment into the Netherlands with a population 1% of China's.
There has been phenomenal growth in China and other successfully developing economies. But before we turn over the future to China there are some important considerations.
- China is still not fully a free market economy and the irony is that Americans distrust both their government and big business but we are evidently willing to trust that the communist Chinese government and businesses have competence we do not.
- The "cheap labor" in China is becoming more expensive. Wages doubled between 2002 and 2008 and cheap labor has declined as a priority for US companies. According to a survey of by KPMG, labor costs are now less important to buisinesses than "product quality, fluctuations in shipping rates and currencies."
- Quality issues - A survey by MFG.com indicated that 19% of companies surveyed brought all or part of their manufacturing operations back to North America in 2010, (up from 7% from 2009.) This action is largely credited for the increase of 136,000 jobs last year --- the most since 1997.
The idea that countries like China and India are successfully creating a "middle class", a legendary signal of economic health, are exaggerated. Based on the calculations of the World Bank, in 1980, the per capita GDP in China was $525 per person, while in the US it was $25,000 per person. This means there was a differential between China and the US of about $25,000 per person.
China has had spectacular growth and the per capita GDP there is now about $7,000. However, per capita GDP in the US has also grown in the same period to $46,000. This means, counter intuitively, that despite China's remarkable growth, the per cap GDP differential has actually widened from $25,000 per person to $39,000 per person.
According to Branko Milanovic, head of research at the World Bank, "if the US per cap GDP grows by 1%, India will need to grow at 17% and China by 8.6% a year, just to keep absolute income differentials from rising."
A relevant question is whether the odds are greater that China can persistently grow at nearly 9% a year or whether the US will only grow at 1% or less per year? The average growth rate for the US has been 3.1% for 65 years and in the recent very tough years (2003 - 2011) the US has still averaged 3.2% with only one year of negative growth.
The point is that our fate is in our own hands not in China's or anyone else's. If we feed the beast of innovation by keeping up with the educational and financial commitments necessary to do so, it's America's game to lose.