The Future of the "American Dream"

Question: What forces have shaped America most?

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Robert Hormats: There are a number of forces in history that have brought us to where we are today. One is that people in this country talked about the American dream. And it is a very powerful dream.

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The dream is to improve your society in large measure because you want to pass on to your children and your grandchildren a better world. You want to improve your living standards and make sure that you improve their living standards.

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And we’ve been very successful at doing that as a country. Whether we’re going to continue to be successful is still in doubt.

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It depends on the educational system. It depends on how well we fund medical institutions, medical research, insurance, health insurance. It depends on how well we look after the elderly in our society. It depends on how well we train minorities and immigrant communities. Do we give them the same chances that we had? Those, I think, are very important parts of continuing this process. They are the kinds of things I think are important as we look ahead.

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The other changes, the Civil Rights Movement, I think, was extremely important. I think we now look back on it and say, “Well it was inevitable.” It wasn’t inevitable at the time. It was very controversial at the time.

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I was fortunate because I had been in Africa the summer just before the rally Dr. Martin Luther King had in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. And got off the plane coming back from Africa where I had spent the summer with a group called Operation Crossroads, and we got on the bus and went down to Washington. So I felt that first hand in a way.

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And I think, also, the movement in many emerging economies has been remarkable, almost breathtaking when you think [about it].

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For instance, the green revolution. And I’m not talking about the environment revolution. This is even before that. This was an attempt to develop better qualities of seeds that were drought resistant; better rice that was able to withstand disease. These changes in the 1950s and the 1960s avoided massive starvation in a number of emerging economies.

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So science has come up with a number of very powerful driving forces to improve living standards. The polio vaccine, for instance. Remarkable. Polio was a scourge in the 1950s. Now it’s been almost eliminated in the United States and many other parts of the world. Cures for these horrible diseases have been, in some cases, produced by American medicine or medicine abroad.

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Pasteurization, Louis Pasteur. People died regularly of drinking bad milk. He was able to pasteurize it and enable people, children to drink milk and thrive.

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So there have been a whole range of very, very innovative changes in medicine and in the way we produce food that have led to enormous benefits. The ability of mankind to come up with new, innovative ideas I think is a very powerful force.

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And if you have the right education; you have the sufficient sums put into research and development; if you give people a chance, an opportunity, that will enable our society and all other societies to thrive in the future. Again not everyone will, but in general. 

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There’s a wonderful story by the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the book The Petit Prince, The Little Prince.

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But he wrote another book called Airman's Odyssey. And he wrote in a railway station this family of refugees in World War II. And he saw this little boy. He said, “That little boy will never get an education. He’ll never get good health care. He’s going to be poor his whole life.” That little boy could have been a Mozart, but instead he’s an assassinated Mozart; which meant he would never get a chance to do what he could do.

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And I think it’s a very powerful story because how many people are there around who could cure AIDS, who could cure cancer, who could cure many other diseases who will never get a chance to even go to school to develop their potential unless we’re able to have a society which ensures that they have proper health care; ensures that they have good education; and ensures that they have an opportunity to be the best they can be. If we don’t do that, it’s those kids who suffer; but it’s also our society that suffers.

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Recorded on July 25, 2007

The idea of improving your living standards and passing on a better society to future generations is very powerful. Will Americans continue to be successful at doing that?

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