Michael Strain: The American dream is not dead (but populism could kill it)
Templeton Press, 2020
In this book, Michael Strain attempts to make the case that the "Dream" is still "alive" and well, given the economic circumstances of the typical American, and suggests that populism--by leading Americans to blame each other for their remaining economic hardships--is undermining it. Strain tackles this challenge as any well-respected, well-trained economist would. But I think the trouble is that the economics discipline views social and even economic circumstances through lenses of our own design, and the issue of economic opportunity, outcomes, and "well-being" reaches far beyond that which can be studied and measured using only our traditional theoretical constructs and research methods.
This review may suffer from my own personal biases as an Asian, first-generation-American, female economist, but I hope it will provide a useful, different perspective from those quoted in the "advance praise" or "dissenting points of view"--who are all men (and nearly all white men). I also have the advantage of writing this review post-pandemic, while Strain wrote his book pre-pandemic. The world has certainly dramatically changed--not just in circumstances, but in attitudes toward this very issue of economic opportunity and the closely related one of racism and other forms of discrimination. Consider the vivid reckoning about racism we experienced in the spring and summer of 2020 with George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter movement, which coincided with the earliest peak of the pandemic crisis, and the racist verbal and physical attacks against Asians that surged at the start of the pandemic that persists to this day (President Biden condemned it at the beginning of his March 2021 address to the nation about the American Rescue Plan).
Strain acknowledges from the start that he is not trying to define or evaluate the entirety of what people might mean by "The American Dream" but is focused on the economic component--which he introduces in Chapter 1 ("Defining the Dream") as indicated by two criteria:
(1) Having a "successful career" and
(2) Having a "better quality of life than their parents".
Strain attempts to define these aspirations and evaluate how well they have been achieved based on some objective economic statistics, peering through his (white male) economist lens from a good distance (more than 6 feet!) away. The problem is that both these components of the "Dream" are rather subjective; "success" and "quality of life" are in the eye of the beholder and are likely impossible to quantify in any objectively standardized way. And these are even within just the economic components of "the American Dream!" Which is another way of asking if economists are well qualified to answer any part of the much larger question about what is "the American Dream" and whether it is indeed alive and well.
After a brief set-up of "Today's Message: The Dream Is Dead" (the pessimism of populism) in Chapter 2, Strain acknowledges some "real challenges" facing the American economy in Chapter 3:
* Not enough labor...