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The New American Dream

In response to:

How to Put Humpty Together Again from the June 11, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I cannot understand the personal—or is it anthropological?—nature of David Vogel’s critical comment on my “having spent most of the last decade living in southern California.” Along with his remark that my political outlook is limited to “such places as Santa Barbara,” where he apparently thinks I live, I detect a subjective scorn that undermines an otherwise serious review.

You don’t have to live in southern California to notice that the American frontier has come to an end. The political lesson has been drawn by even the president of Atlantic Richfield, Thornton Bradshaw: “The pie will not expand quickly enough to continue to ameliorate the pressures for changes in the distribution of wealth. Underlying this slower economic growth, we believe, will be a vastly increased real cost of basic energy and many raw materials…”

Mr. Vogel should be familiar with this observation since he is co-editor with Mr. Bradshaw of Corporations and Their Critics, the book in which the quote appears.

And you don’t have to live in Santa Barbara to observe the futile pursuit of a continued frontier in the form of offshore oil drilling, nuclear power production, expensive synfuels plants, etc.

My argument is straightforward. Americans need new frontiers in an age of limits; otherwise, we will destroy ourselves through. energy-driven inflation, distributional conflicts, pollution, perhaps even Persian Gulf war over fossil fuels. The positive possibilities include:

1) Turning to conservation and renewable resources. The possibility of solar energy is far greater than Vogel states. Solar panels in California, windmills on the Atlantic coast, gasahol from Iowa, greenhouses in New England, and solar electric plants could provide 20-30 percent of our energy needs by 2000—given a serious national commitment equivalent to the space program. It is a matter of will.

2) Investing heavily in the electronics industries which underlie the “information revolution” symbolized by computers and cable TV. With the physical frontiers closing, it is imperative that we expand our universe of communications globally, and develop the most efficient transportation systems, appliances, and architectural design.

3) Searching for qualitative rather than quantitative growth by focusing on the “inner frontier” of education, race relations, environmentalism, the enrichment of work, the lessons of feminism. The Gross National Product should be replaced as a measure of “progress” by a broader Quality of Life Index.

4) Public, and particularly employee, participation in corporate management to help increase productivity, craft, and the human dimension of narrowly-drawn “economic man.” The keys to greater productivity are “trust, subtlety, and intimacy” in the work-place, according to William Ouchi, author of Theory Z, the widely-read book on Japanese management techniques.

Vogel may heartily disagree with this thesis, but he should not dismiss it as a non-American fantasy typical of sunstroked southern Californians. Maybe we’re just for a new American Dream.

Tom Hayden

Santa Monica, California

David Vogel replies:

Hayden misunderstood my reference to southern California. My point was simply that a political vision that de-emphasizes the increased production of material goods seems particularly likely to appeal to those who already live in one of the most affluent regions of the world.

I fail to see the relevance of Bradshaw’s observation to Hayden’s argument. It is certainly probable—though by no means inevitable—that growth rates will remain relatively low into the foreseeable future. The critical question is whether this will encourage people to abandon traditional American aspirations in favor of pursuits that are less materialistic. Hayden’s evidence for predicting this will happen does not seem to me persuasive.

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