I am delighted to present a guest post from Tushar Kundu. I work with Tushar very closely in his role as a full-time Research Assistant for the Dan Benjamin, Kristen Cooper, Ori Heffetz and my Well-Being Measurement Initiative. Tushar is one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met. What follows are Tushar's words:
In my junior year of high school, I was asked to write an essay about whether I believed the American Dream exists. I passionately argued, and believed, that it did. I placed my faith in the American meritocracy, claiming that with enough hard work and grit, enough had been provided so that anyone should be able to achieve success. However, if I were to respond to the prompt today, I would come to the almost exact opposite conclusion, likely bashing my original stance as a naïve take that ignores centuries of history and evidence to the contrary. Despite the apparent flip-flop, there exists common ground between the two views. In particular, it is a belief about what America could be that has continued to mold the lens through which I view this country. I believe that placing the realization of the American Dream back in our sights is essential for the health of this nation, particularly as leaders across the political spectrum have continued to let it to fall by the wayside.
Growing up in 21st century America, I’ve always felt a tension between two competing stories about what this country stands for. I am child of two immigrants who came to the U.S. for college, my father with $20 in his pocket. My parents successfully built up enough capital to purchase a home in the Bay Area, and provided me an exceedingly comfortable, nurturing childhood in one of the most diverse, dynamic areas in the world. There is no doubt that this upbringing represents the causal link to the words I penned five years ago. Of course I believed the American Dream to be alive and well, here it was right in front of my eyes!
My shift in perspective was precipitated by a shift in location, as I travelled across the country for college. Contrary to what some may believe, my evolution in thought is not captured by the simplistic narrative of indoctrination within the liberal bubble of a college campus. Instead, what proved to be most transformative was that rather than being taught what to think, in a basic way, we were taught how to think. I was exposed to an overwhelming amount of new information, alternative viewpoints, and multiple ways to interpret the same set of facts. This meant distilling information and curating signal from the noise became an invaluable, necessary skill. I began to demand rigor and empirical justification from my information sources. On top of this, I benefited most from being thrown into an environment filled with brilliant professors, mentors, and peers who inspired and challenged me. Altogether, this experience pushed hard on my beliefs, so that I was forced to question their origins rather than rationalizing them as objective truth. This led me to the realization that often what I believed to be a truism about the human condition was only a projection of my own experience onto the lives of others.
I always knew that for me, working hard would lead to success. And I knew that I was privileged relative to most people. What I had not considered is the extent to which this privilege had permeated and defined my life. It’s not simply that I’ve been provided a mountain of financial and emotional support, but also opportunities for personal investment, safety nets in case I fail, a lack of serious responsibility, social and professional networks, and flexibility to decide my pursuits. The future of this country depends not only on our ability to address the implications of growing inequality in an economic sense, but also the chasms that have emerged within each of these domains of life.
To understand how these inequalities are manifested, it is vitally important to listen to other’s descriptions of how they operate on a day-to-day basis. Even then, we should learn to accept that as individuals, there are some aspects of the human experience that are simply inaccessible, no matter how attentively one listens. For example, I can sympathize with and believe you when you tell me the difficulties of being a woman, being looked down on by the “elite” class, being an African-American, or being laid off from the factory-line job you held for twenty years. But that doesn’t mean I can truly understand every problem held by every person. It would be the epitome of arrogance to assume otherwise. Internalizing this is part of developing deference towards others. To be clear, I don’t mean to advocate for blind belief or a moral equivalence of all ills, but rather for adopting a default position of respect towards people’s stated concerns, and the treatment of each individual as the foremost expert on harms he or she endures.
Developing deference is not easy; even the sheer amount of concern within your immediate circle can be overwhelming. Scroll through Twitter, turn on cable news, or chat with your neighbors and it will seem like every day brings a new outrage. Cries of populist uprisings, growing polarization, and widespread discontent have led to no end of theorizing on the cause of the chaos, in addition to wild speculation about future disasters sure to descend upon us. Yet before we throw up our hands, we need to take a step back; why do things feel so bad? Independent of the problems that we face, it remains the case that we each have an enormous present-bias. Things may feel bad, but consider the state of affairs merely fifty years ago. The country was embroiled in civil riots, it experienced multiple high-profile political assassinations, communist hysteria ran high, and broad segments of society were locked out of accessing entire spheres of American life. In this context, today does not seem so uniquely terrible. I want to emphasize this point: Things can and do get better. Acknowledging this does not invalidate our very real problems; rather it refocuses our attention to the light at the end of what can be a dismally dark tunnel. Maintaining the belief that the long-term trend remains positive helps us avoid resigning ourselves to an inevitable fate, succumbing to the false notion that we are powerless.
Thus far I have stressed that we recognize the legitimacy of people’s grievances, and the fact that we have to power to address them. Naturally, the question that follows pertains to how we go about addressing them. Fixing what ails America will require no end of energy, dedication, and ingenuity that must be drawn from all corners of the country. But I know it can be done. It can be done because I have faith in American exceptionalism. Not in the sense that America has a God-given ability to lead the world in every which way. In fact, we lag behind on many metrics, from our aging infrastructure, to our cash-strapped education system, to our increasingly expensive patchwork of a health care system. Rather, we are exceptional in what we aspire to be. Never in the course of human existence has a pluralistic, multi-cultural state been successfully established, let alone be the model of peak economic dynamism, enlightened cultural and ethical values, and strength in global leadership. Yet this is exactly what the self-assigned label of the shining city on a hill demands. Despite our shortcomings, Americans should be unashamedly prideful in this vision. It is only natural that we undergo growing pains during this grand experiment, particularly now, when stability engendered from the multi-generational consolidation of power within a single social group is finally being upended. New voices are being introduced every day, and they continue to begin new, necessary conversations.
It is in this context that a sense of collective identity is key. Think of identities as quilts, formed through a careful stitching together of experiences, producing a mosaic totally unique to each individual. A troubling trend involves the growing uniformity of patterns within these mosaics, as our natural divisions become deeply entrenched along an increasing number of lines. Today, knowing a person’s stance on transgender bathrooms provides a strong signal for all sorts of other information from their race, religion, and education to how they take their coffee. Many today would never entertain the thought of marrying someone of the opposite political party. How can any form of resolution be on the table when sacrificing a single inch is tantamount to a rejection of who you are as a person? We have erected a wall, and if we are to tear it down, we must combat our instincts and acknowledge a shared obligation to each other as human beings before our obligation to our political tribe.
But this is far easier said that done. We can attempt to look to history for times in which racial, political, and ideological polarizations were superseded by an appeal to a common identity. The most frequent answer is quite depressing: wartime. By pointing the finger at an easily identifiable enemy, war brings about a binding force that pushes us to put aside previously factious differences in pursuit of the greater good. To be sure, in no way should we consider war for the purpose of producing societal cohesiveness. However, we can learn from our history in order to identify other ways in which we may create a similar reprioritization of our individual allegiances. Fundamentally, such consideration highlights the utility of the nation-state as one of the most powerful units of social interaction. At times I am tempted to dismiss this fact of human behavior, but reclaiming the mantle of patriotism need not be shameful. If we are careful to avoid whitewashing history, and to distinguish our idealistic aspirations from the uncomfortable truths of reality, fostering pride in our country represents the most promising path forward.
One way to concretely incorporate patriotism into the sphere of public policy would be to establish mandatory public service. At first blush, this is directly at odds with our dearly held value of individual freedom. But it is truly the strength of the state that guarantees any freedoms at all. The overwhelming majority of Americans are educated by public teachers in public schools. This provides the knowledge, skills, and freedom of independent thought required to pursue our various callings. Environmental protections secure our right to live healthy lives by keeping our air, water, and communities free of pollutants. Our ability to move freely within the country is built on the continued maintenance of our roads, bridges, and airports. Servicemen and women, police officers, and firefighters ensure our physical safety on a daily basis. In some respect, we already acknowledge this shared obligation to the state through our payment of taxes. If we can agree that we each owe some debt to society, public service would merely represent the repayment of this debt with our time instead of our income.
Furthermore, there are several significant advantages to public service relative to standard taxation. A key distinction involves the accommodation of individual preference in how one chooses to serve one’s country. When thinking about mandatory public service, what immediately comes to mind is serving in the military. However, any realistic implementation of the policy would need to feature much more. It would build upon already existing organizations such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps, all which model the types of work that invoke a sense of societal contribution without requiring combat training.
In addition to building upon existing programs, the implementation of mandatory public service would create an opportunity to examine other ways to best utilize our public institutions. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it has become clear that lack of access to reliable credit has led to catastrophic harm. It’s a national tragedy that despite being richest country in the world, nearly half of all Americans would struggle to come up with 400 dollars in the case of an emergency. As with many issues, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Consider an old idea that has recently reentered mainstream thought: establishing banking services at every U.S. postal office. Ideas in this vein pair perfectly with mandatory public service, as asking more from our public institutions increases the number of available jobs, while mandatory public service drives up the supply of Americans ready to fill them.
Not only would public service represent an expansion of our individual choice set relative to taxation, but it would also feature greatly improved outcomes with respect to national sentiment. It is the rare individual for which the payment of taxes causes no resentment. To varying extents, we each feel a sense of fundamental unfairness; I’ve earned my income, why do I have to give it up? To add further insult, we are likely to watch our money disappear behind an opaque screen of red tape, leaving us firmly in the dark about where it ultimately ends up. In sharp contrast, public service affords citizens the ability to see the fruit of their labor with their own eyes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a national public service program would push people of radically different backgrounds together, bringing us one step closer towards realizing the goal of a cohesive national identity. Shared experiences, both good and bad, form the soil in which we may cultivate a sense of gratitude towards our fellow citizens, and pride in our role within the narrative of Americans striving to create a society like no other that has come before.
There is no doubt that this proposal would face fierce opposition, but it is not the only approach we have at our disposal. Less radical would be to build on existing programs that move us towards providing adequate opportunity to all regardless of background. Consider the Affordable Care Act. While deeply polarizing, the most popular part of the law, protection against discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, sheds light on the types of policy that can garner popular support. Specifically, I refer to the class of actions that protects fundamental human rights, and guarantees everyone a chance to fulfill their potential. This is vague by intention; I recognize there exists a huge range in thinking about what it could mean. While I may dream of Medicare for all, expanding broadband to rural areas, a universal basic income, a carbon tax, a far more progressive tax system, addressing homelessness through public housing (and adding a ton of market-rate housing while we are at it), and a doubling or tripling of immigration quotas, this sounds like a dystopian nightmare to some. But if I tallied up the opinions of every American, I maintain the popular consensus would be far closer to the vision I outlined than it would be to the other end of the spectrum. Examine the status quo and ask yourself if you are satisfied. If we want to revive, or perhaps birth for the first time the reality of the American Dream, complacency is all that stands in our way.