LEE: Restoring the American Dream amidst social unrest
With the election coming to a close, voters must demand that politicians across the aisle collaborate to restore faith in the American Dream. One place to start: pursue basic healthcare reform. With the American Dream at risk, the country is still at risk of continued societal unrest, and anti-establishment sentiments may grow.
Cina! Cina! A gaggle of young men with bamboo sticks circled me and started chanting “China.” It was an otherwise ordinary weekday after school for me in Jakarta in 1998: high school running team practice. I, running alone in between two groups, wearing a pair of Nike Pegasus shoes and a Casio watch, was the street kids’ prey.
I walked back to school, barefoot and watchless. My teammate started yelling at me because he assumed I voluntarily gave my shoes away to those in need instead of taking practice seriously. He and I still laugh about the incident.
I think about that moment a lot these days, as I near my 20th year living in the U.S., a country I love.
I think about that moment a lot, because history has demonstrated a clear pattern that the U.S. risks falling into. When growing economic disparity, often with an overlay of ethnic divide, meets massive uncertainties about the future, societal unrest tends to erupt. Without efforts to provide basic healthcare and without employment-stimulative initiatives, such as a bold infrastructure bill, I fret that civil unrest may continue and worsen in the U.S.
In “World on Fire,” Yale Law School professor Amy Chua presents consistent examples of the economic elite becoming targets of violence. Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, whites in Latin America, Croatians in the former Yugoslavia, Jews in post-Soviet Russia.
Chua, in 2003, posits that America largely had been spared from large-scale violence against the economic elite, possibly because low- and middle-income Americans believe that they, too, have a shot at gaining economic independence and prosperity. In a 2001 Harvard study, researchers found that Americans perceived inequality — rightly or wrongly — as a sign of potential upward social mobility. The researchers “argue that these findings are consistent with the perception … that Americans have been living in a mobile society … while Europeans believe that they live in less mobile societies.” (Disclosure: I worked as Professor Chua’s research assistant for a summer.)
However, in 2020, the “social contract” of the American Dream — the idea that any American can achieve the highest aspirations due to the country’s access to opportunities — has never been more in danger.
The largest economy in the world has seen unemployment seesaw from 3.5 percent to 15 percent to 7 percent in a matter of months. In response, our central bank has committed to anchoring interest rates near zero while financially supporting failing companies, arguing that lower interest rates and financial support will encourage employers to invest in the economy and hire more people.
Sadly, low interest rates are not a substitute for real reform. Low rates don’t change the fact that basic healthcare is obscenely unaffordable in the US. Healthcare expenditure per capita in the U.S. rose from $4,863 in 2003 to $8,613 when last measured in 2017 — a 77 percent increase. During the same 14-year period, median household income only increased by 41 percent.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the majority of Americans were one hospital visit away from depleting their cash. The combination of an insecure job market and a pandemic that could land one in the hospital is cause for much economic anxiety.
Improving access to direct primary care with a focus on providing universal health care, but limiting it to preventative care as an initial stage effort will give Americans a sense of security in this health crisis while keeping costs low. Politicians across the spectrum agree that the government needs to “[improve] care for the American people, especially the most vulnerable.” The quote is from the incumbent White House’s Sept. 24, 2020, press release, but could easily have been from the Democratic Party.
This past weekend, President-elect Joe Biden “[pledged] to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify. To rebuild the backbone of the nation — the middle class.”
Finding a way to deliver basic, preventative healthcare may be the first of many steps to restoring faith in the American Dream. Politicians, regardless of party affiliation, need to find common ground to produce results for taxpayers. Not doing so will only cement the idea that the American social contract is broken, giving rise to extremist forces. We would be well served to demand that our politicians, in Biden’s words, put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, listen to each other again and make progress.
YOON LEE ’05 is Managing Partner and Chief Investment Officer at RoomUnity, a vertically integrated real estate firm specializing in sustainable and multiunit housing.