By Hannah Flaum
Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square) and editor-at-large of Time, filled the Yale Law School Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon for his talk: “Is the American Dream Dead?” Alan Gerber, Director for the Center of American Politics, introduced Zakaria and after detailing his career and his current positions on CNN and with Time, commended his show as an “extraordinary and invaluable addition to the tradition of political television.” Zakaria addressed Yale undergraduate and graduate students, Yale faculty, and members of the non-Yale affiliated public to reflect on the 21st century economy and society of the United States. He recalled pivotal political and economic events and trends of the past decades to contextualize the current state of affairs and to discuss the challenges we face and the possibilities for successfully addressing them.
Zakaria began by noting the pervasive mood of anxiety in American society that is present across all regions. The anxiety stems from the fear of the future and that the American Dream may be dead. Zakaria continued to recount his own conceptions of the American Dream during his youth living in India in the 1970s. After smuggling old VHS tapes from school with classmates, he and his friends watched Dallas and fantasized about the big cars, extravagant clothes, and beautiful women he saw on the show. While this personal anecdote about Dallas was endearing and lighthearted, he explained that his conception of the United States is one that was shared by many other non-Americans at the time.
Zakaria then transitioned into focusing on how the United States has changed since he enrolled at Yale on a full scholarship in 1982. Although he judged the American economic situation to be vastly superior to that in India, he was forewarned against coming to the United States and was told that America was undergoing the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. In his earliest years in the United States, Zakaria saw the mood of anxiety that stemmed from the fear that imbalances in society would lead to a severe depression. The depression that began in 1990, which was once again referred to as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, confirmed American fears. He continued and expressed his belief that Ross Perot’s 1992 election results, garnering a larger percentage of votes than any third candidate since 1912, indicated the high level of economic anxiety at the time. After the US overcame a brief recession from 1990 to 1991, the Russian economy tanked and defaulted in 1998 to which the United States responded with the Federal Reserve of New York’s bailout. Once again, this crisis was referred to as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. As if the pattern was not already clear, Zakaria noted that the start of the Great Recession in 2007, once again, was referred to as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.
Although the aforementioned economic crises were all characterized similarly, Zakaria explained a critical trend that differentiates them: with each economic crisis, the lag time between the economy bouncing back to pre-recession levels and the unemployment rate bouncing back has increased exponentially from weeks to months to years. Zakaria defined this statistic as that which is “most worrisome” among all other statistics related to these recessions. He then continued to explain that this trend is an effect of the new global system that is driven by two forces: economic convergence and the technological revolution. Political stability and peace is at levels not previously seen (especially between the great powers) which is further promoting economic convergence in addition to easily convertible currencies and the desire of most nations to be involved in international trade. The technological revolution (which includes within it the satellite, internet, and mobile revolutions) has very recently and with incredible speed transformed communication, business, and began processes of change in many nations that are complicated, dangerous, and lengthy. From 1997 to 2007, the number of nations successfully engaged in the new global system tripled – Zakaria attributed this statistic to economic convergence and the technology revolution.
Zakaria, noting the irony in the new global system and the negative impact on the American economy and its ability to recover from recession, questioned why the United States has not been atop the new global trends and thriving. It is this new global system that is driving the current American anxiety. As a result of economic convergence and the technological revolution, more and more major companies (especially those in the tech industry) have 20 employees whereas once booming and now failing companies like Ford Motor Company had thousands of employees. Zakaria noted that computers improve much faster than traditional machines and that the exponential growth in computer capabilities is the most major factor in making smaller, computerized companies the most successful. Zakaria also observed that the there is an extraordinary boon for American capital and those who can manipulate it, for people with advanced computer skills, and for all the people associated with the new global system. However, he also explained that pushing these trends forward and into the future, they are surely going to become more extreme and thus their effects will be even more pervasive.
Zakaria concluded his talk expressing his own nervousness that globalization and technological change are having profound consequences in our society and that they may be extending farther than we expected or wanted. Income inequality and stagnant middle class wages that are concerns today may become concerns of tomorrow and persist for decades. He asked, “for the average person without – or even with – a college degree, what are they to do?”
Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org