Walter Russell Mead has some interesting things to say about the death of the American Dream over at The American Interest. As you see in the block quotes below, he explains that the great shift from farm to city and suburb was the death of an earlier American Dream—farming. Of course I'd argue there are some who still harbor dreams for farming (that's how I'll spend my lottery income once I buy a ticket). But Mead is correct in explaining the evolution of rural culture and agriculture as mechanization bloomed into an exodus from fields and small towns to cities and suburbs. When someone laments the decline in the number of farmers, I tend to remind them that their family, if anyone in it has ever given up farming, is partly to blame. It's a straw man, I know. But rural-to-urban migration did happen, and it takes plenty of people to populate an exodus.
But Mead is only using the death of that first American Dream to preface his comments on the death of the current American dream—home ownership.
On to Mead:
This isn’t the first time the American Dream has died. The old dream — your own farm rather than your own home — once dominated American culture, politics and family life as much as the family home ever did. The slow and painful death of that dream was one of the country’s core preoccupations in the first half of the twentieth century. The death of the new dream is likely to be a big deal as well.
The ideal of the family farm was once even more deeply rooted in American life than the ideal of the owner-occupied home. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the average American family owned and farmed a small piece of land. Cheap land on the frontier made the original American dream accessible to just about anybody. New immigrants and young people would work for a few years to save up money for basic tools and equipment, head west and start up a farm.
Of course, the West filled up, and much of it was poor farming until waterworks made prime land (some has reverted to poor thanks to recent environmentally driven water allotments). And working a few years to save up for the basic tools and equipment of the modern Midwest farm won't launch you past that pesky barrier to entery: $4,000-per acre land and the capital cost for a line of equipment.
I worked for a state farm magazine as the 21st Century rolled in. We did plenty of those lists that celebrate the Top Things of the Century. For agriculture, even by the late 1990s, the real doozies—the things that set up modern agriculture—really came in those first years of mechanization: Electricity. Tractors. Rubber tires. Power Take Off. Commercial fertilizer. Chemistry for herbicides and pesticides.
I've written elsewhere that these things were adopted because they made life on the farm better by making it less strenuous and reducing time needed for pure labor, which meant the exodus toward town was inevitable. Mead spells it out like this:
The old dream died from a combination of reasons. The closing of the frontier dried up the supply of free land and the mechanization of agriculture made small farms uneconomic. Federal subsidies lured too many people onto the land; many homesteads in parts of the west were climates unsuited to smaller holdings. A vast expansion in global acreage under the plow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries exposed small family farmers to tough global competition. The terms of trade between farm goods and town goods changed over the years; farmers’ incomes steadily fell in comparison to urban dwellers. The more complex and expensive farm techniques needed to meet the competition required farmers to spend more on equipment and education than their small farms could really support. Young people craved the excitement and the opportunity of urban life.
The changes that came with this demographic shift were immense. And Mead thinks the latest economic turmoil and shifts in family makeup and other social trends are just as big.
Read the whole thing here. It's not exactly a tonic for a happy day, but from demographic and economic variables at hand, Mead might be on the path toward reality.