How The American Dream Resulted In An Economic Crisis

How The American Dream Resulted In An Economic Crisis

Over the last few decades, homeownership and consumerism have become more and more important for Americans. Especially encouraged by advertisements, many Americans have lived beyond their means and have indebted themselves through the purchase of products and real estate they could not afford. Today, however, even after the immense 2008 Financial Crisis, many polls suggest that for a majority of Americans, consumerism and homeownership continue to define the “real American Dream.” In particular, homeownership is something that many Americans desire. For example, in a recent survey conducted by the real estate search site,, some 70 percent of American respondents revealed that homeownership was the cornerstone of their “personal American dream.” [i]

A principal reason for America’s development into a mass consumption society is that many companies utilized marketing strategies to promote a new version of the so-called American Dream which is extremely focused on consumerism and homeownership. The 2009 movie, The Joneses, directed by Derrick Borte is capable of giving its viewers an idea of how the advertisement industry sells the lifestyle typically connoted with “living the American Dream of materialistic success.” In this movie, the Jones family portrays a quintessentially perfect American family that moves into a new neighborhood attempting to make their neighbors envious of their large and luxurious home as well as of other products they own or consume. What the neighbors do not know, however, is that the Joneses are merely living in the neighborhood because they were hired by a product placement company to work as selling professionals promoting new products. The picture-perfect Joneses’ hence serve as undercover marketers who try to impress the neighbors with their newest possessions. As a consequence of this, the neighbors consume more as well, just to literally “keep up with the Joneses.” [ii] Although the movie is entirely fictional, it undoubtedly contains realistic parts. Many people are extremely susceptible to commercials and an all-to-aware advertisement industry effectively targets Americans ad-nauseum. A major theme of these ads rests with an attempt to “sell the American Dream by promoting a consumption ethic.” [iii] This development started in the late 1920s when more and more companies gently began to associate the consumption of certain products with “living the American Dream.” [iv] According to Roland Marchand, formerly a professor of history and marketing at UC Davis, the “personal and intimate tone” of these ads led to “older values such as discipline, character-building, self-restraint, and production-oriented achievement [being] subordinated to the newer values of pleasure, external appearance, and achievement through consumption.” [v] Hence, these ads “brought a modern cast to the American Dream by subtly redefining the terms of its fulfillment.” [vi] Since then, however, the influences of advertisements have come to a new extreme: For example, Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today. [vii]

All this has wrought tremendous consequences. Whereas in the past, Americans associated the American Dream with cornerstone values such as freedom and liberty, today’s American Dream seems to have become the mere consumption of things. The strong desire to be a homeowner is part of that development. The American Dream has therefore become less about spiritual happiness but primarily focused on consumer spending in the last few years. As almost everybody consumes more and more, others want to keep living the lifestyle their neighbors live as well – even if they cannot afford to. This explains why many people desiring the lifestyle demonstrated by ads and neighbors took out debt to pay for it. This had the consequence that by 2008, the average American household owned 13 credit cards. [viii] Accumulated household debt rose from 680 billion US dollars in 1974 to 13 trillion US dollars in 2008. [ix] A friend of mine who is also an economist recently told me that many Americans had become so obsessed with consuming new products that he knew it would become a major threat to the US economy causing foreseeable problems.

Before the crisis I often went to the Fashion Island Mall, which is one of the largest shopping centers in California. Being there I was shocked over and over again to see the way people were consuming products. They were like zombies trying to seek what was advertised as  “living the American Dream” just by consumption. Frankly, I knew this was never going to work out. Americans had always hated saving money but in the years before the crisis broke out it became extreme. People spent dollar after dollar not thinking about how they would ever be able to pay back the debt they accumulated on their credit cards. Making consumption part of the American Dream has become an economic disaster because it excludes people who cannot afford it. And those who do not wish to be excluded from the “American Dream” take out more credit. This dangerous system couldn’t work for long and it didn’t. It’s the same thing with people wanting to own their own home. If you look at America’s income statistics, it’s just not realistic. I knew that this bad behavior would loom large.[x]

Particularly in the housing industry, people’s willingness to buy one’s own home went up enormously in the years before the crisis and in order to own a home, people were even more willing to take out loans because they bought into the image of homeownership being a “character-building quality.” [xi] For many Americans “to own a home was to be American,” [xii] “to rent was to be something less.” [xiii] The media and advertisement industry further reinforced this way of thinking by shows such as Bill Owen’s “Suburbia”. [xiv] Simultaneously, i.e. primarily beginning in the 1990s, banks such as the Bank of America developed ads which suggested that it is just fine to take out huge loans to buy a relatively expensive home. [xv] By emotionally connecting with prospective customers, corporate marketers followed aggressive and very direct marketing strategies trying to push people specifically into homeownership making them not think about future implications. [xvi] Barbara Kiviat, a writer for Time Magazine, wrote in a September 2010 article that Americans turned buying “one’s own castle” into a “fetish.” [xvii] According to David Indiviglio of The Atlantic, homeownership has been “billed by the media as a part of the American Dream,” [xviii] just like “apple pie and baseball.” [xix] Thus, many people were just trying to live up to the “ethos” that comes with owning a home in the US not wanting to feel like “second-class citizens” [xx] and believing in “gauzy platitudes” [xxi] about owning a home. As for those who already owned a home, everybody wanted to live in a larger, more comfortable house that was like the ones that people owned on TV or in the ads. This had the affect that the average size of a home in the US grew enormously in the last couple of years and decades so that by 2005 the average home was 2,349 square feet, i.e. approximately 218 square meters. [xxii] This aspiration of homeownership does still exist as was proven by a 2008 Pew survey suggesting that 90 percent of Americans still covet home ownership and believe this to be their “ultimate comfort.” [xxiii]

The willingness of many Americans to increase their credit card limits and to take out loans for homes they were never able to repay made them susceptible to unrealistic advertisements of the American Dream. This development was the basis for what turned out to become what some call the “Second Great Depression.” To a large extent, the American advertisement industry can therefore be blamed for the severe economic problems that would evolve later.

THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF POLITICS LEADING TO OUR CURRENT PROBLEMS  Just like the media and advertisement industry, public policy makers also made the crucial mistake of fueling and amplifying the unrealistic aspiration of many Americans to own their own home. The story begins in 1995 when President Bill Clinton and his administration started an initiative called “The National Homeownership Challenge” whose goal was to push for increasing homeownership. In a speech held on June 5, 1995, Clinton made the following remarks:

We have to remember that there are millions of people (…) who believe that home ownership is out of reach. (…) [We] address the practical needs of people who are trying to build their own personal version of the American dream, to help moderate income families who pay high rents but haven’t been able to save enough for a downpayment, to help lower income working families who are ready to assume the responsibilities of home ownership but held back by mortgage costs that are just out of reach, to help families who have historically been excluded from home ownership. Today, all across the country, I say to millions of young working couples who are just starting out: By the time your children are ready to start the first grade, we want you to be able to own your own home. [xxiv]

He went on to say:

What we are doing today will allow more homes to be blessed by more families. I hope it will start all these young people on a path that will take them to great joys in their personal lives, and perhaps to other homes, but something they will always know that their country wanted them to have because they were entitled to it as part of the American Dream. [xxv]

At first sight, the National Homeownership Challenge (NHS) seemed to work out and only five years after its implementation, homeownership rose by about five percent. [xxvi] So, without doubt, the initiative achieved the set goal of increasing homeownership entirely on schedule, but the forces this program unleashed have proven to cause major economic problems. By stating that increasing homeownership was a national goal, this program made many American citizens, not fortunate to be homeowners, feel inferior. In an interview with a Los Angeles real estate investor, I was told that there were “many families across California and the entire US buying homes just to keep up with the Joneses.” [xxvii] According to him, these families did not make the decision to buy a home “economically- but rather emotionally – just to keep up the appearance of looking at least decently successful.” [xxviii] So, “with government backing and even encouraging their decision to buy a home, they felt more secure and vindicated in their final decision to take out loans.” [xxix] Barbara Kiviat of Time Magazine echoed those sentiments when stating that “pumped up on credit-card debt and home-equity loans, we [i.e. the American people] kept spending away and felt richer than we actually were.” [xxx] According to Kiviat, the US government was the “linchpin” [xxxi] for the current economic calamity.

As if that was not enough, President George W. Bush, in 2001, sought to increase homeownership with a similar program to Clinton’s, when he declared the US to be on a track toward an “ownership society.” [xxxii] Through that program, he stated that he wished that more Americans will be able to say “welcome to my house, welcome to my piece of property.” [xxxiii]

From today’s standpoint, Bill Clinton’s and George Bush’s ambitions to increase homeownership went way too far and are therefore, at least to some degree, accountable for America’s latest economic contractions. At least some politicians are already admitting to have made mistakes. For example, Barney Frank, a US congressman from Massachusetts and the former chairman of the influential “House Financial Services Committee,” said in a February 2008 speech at Boston University that “we [i.e. US public policy makers] have made a great mistake in this society [and] (…) that there are people in this society who should not be allowed to borrow money to buy a home.” [xxxiv] Frank concluded in this speech that American politicians “have pushed people into homeownership who shouldn’t be there.” [xxxv]

THE BANKS’ ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE HOUSING CRISIS  Following the public policy makers’ fallacy that every American should be capable of buying a home, banks and investors also made various and critical mistakes that have resulted in America’s current economic predicament. The major mistake banks made was to give loans to Americans who – based on their personal income – would under normal circumstances have never qualified for a loan. [xxxvi]

These loans were called subprime mortgages and, as pointed out before, they were backed by the US government. At first, subprime mortgages seemed like a lucrative deal for banks because in case the people borrowing the money became unable to pay back their loans, the banks still owned a home. Striving for profit, banks and investors consequently began “selling the American Dream”: For instance, a 2003 brochure by Countrywide Home Loans, a large mortgage company that later filed for bankruptcy, was titled “The American Dream of Homeownership: From Cliché to Mission.” [xxxvii] In this ad, Countrywide proclaimed the “A Loan For Every Customer” program following the mantra to “realize your [i.e. the American people’s] dreams.” [xxxviii]

But the optimism of banks and investors did not last long and in many cases homeowners were unable to pay off their mortgages and, thus, banks involuntarily became homeowners. [xxxix] So, instead of receiving monthly payments the banks now received houses which they were forced to foreclose. This was not a huge problem in the beginning as houses could just be put up for sale and house values merely seemed to continue to rise. But as more and more houses were put up for sale, supply began to swell while demand remained constant and even decreased. This led to falling real estate prices and also created a huge problem for people, even for those who in the past used to be able to pay their mortgage payments on time. As the housing market deteriorated and the bubble burst, people’s mortgages became worth more than their house was worth, so that even if they sold their house, they would not have been able to pay off their debt. As a result, foreclosure rates rose by 75 percent from 2006 to 2007. [xl] Therefore the banks just owned an abundance of worthless homes and received less and less money from responsible homeowners paying off their mortgages. Consequently, many banking institutions went bankrupt; Lehman Brothers, for example, the then-forth largest US investment bank, had to file for bankruptcy in 2008 – largely because of defaulted loans once granted to prospective homeowners. [xli]

THE AFTERMATH OF THE HOUSING CRISIS AND THE FOLLOWING CREDIT CRUNCH  A frequent saying of US economists has been that “As housing goes down, so does the economy.” Indeed, the housing crisis and subsequent credit crunch have affected America’s economy extensively. A recent article in the New York Times with the above saying as its title still constituted that “the housing market is still in trouble” [xlii] and that “until the housing market recovers, the entire economy is imperiled.” [xliii] These statements make clear that the housing market plays a vital part as an engine of the US economy and thus, predicatably, the problems in the housing industry affected the overall US economy negatively. The burst of the housing bubble had five major harmful impacts:

First, due to the plunge of the housing bubble, real estate prices fell enormously and, consequently, an oversupply of available building structures evolved. In addition, people interested in buying real estate could just wait until prices fell even more and defer their decision to buy a home as a home does not constitute a durable consumption that would be considered a “daily necessity.” All this had negative impacts on the construction industry, one of America’s largest industries with more than 7.2 million salary jobs and 1.8 million self employed workers. [xliv] Many layoffs occurred so that in 2009 the construction industry still lost about 72.000 jobs – every single month. [xlv]

Second, the housing crisis dented- and continues to dent- the spending of Americans, especially in regards to their everyday consumption. The reasons for this are apparent: First of all, a lot of people lost their jobs and thereby their purchasing power due to the many layoffs in the construction industry and other industries. But also, other people not directly affected by layoffs, suffered as many of them lost their homes or savings due to the collapse of some banks. More importantly though, almost every homeowner in the US was psychologically affected. Due to the decrease in the demand for homes and the high number of foreclosures, real estate values decreased drastically. While US home foreclosure rates rose 81 percent from 2007 to 2008, [xlvi] the average value of a home in the same time period decreased by 17.5 percent. [xlvii] This made a lot of people extremely worried which resulted in problems for many businesses. For instance, a San Francisco optometrist who owned her own practice, explained in a personal interview how the economic crisis had affected her business in the years 2008 and 2009.

It was terrible. People saved money wherever they could. The consumption of durable goods always goes down when the economy approaches the trough, but this was extreme. My practice, for example, lost total annual revenue of about 35 percent between 2006 and 2008. This year it has gotten better for the first time almost reaching the revenue level of the years before the crisis in the first quarter.

The example above illustrates how almost every business in the US was affected. And, again, the impact of households cutting down their expenditures should not be underestimated as it is important to realize that 70 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is represented by household spending. [xlviii] So, even just a marginal shrinking of this economic activity has considerable consequences. An immediate effect of this can be seen in the demand of office space: US office vacancy rates hit a 17 percent low in 2009 – constituting a 15-high – with rents falling by almost 9 percent. [xlix] In addition, it is crucial to take into account that since the start of the economic crisis in 2007, America’s overall economy had shed over 7.2 million jobs [l] which further decreased the disposable income of more than 7.2 million people and households.

A third negative impact of the housing crisis is perhaps the most significant one, namely the fact that the housing crisis led to a severe credit crunch. While it was incredibly easy and unproblematic to obtain a loan a few years before the housing bubble burst, it now became exceedingly difficult even for extremely solvent businesses to get loans even if they had a very thoughtful business plan. [li] The reason for this was that banks did not trust each other anymore after millions of mortgages had defaulted. Banks were too afraid to lend money fearing that other banks might go bankrupt and that they would hence lose their loaned money. [lii] It is important to note though that loans are a necessity for economic growth which businesses of almost all kinds need for new innovations as it is central to generate employment and increasing income. If companies do not get any loans, however, they cannot make any new investments to stay competitive or to create any new jobs. The so-called “multiplier effect” was in motion and so considerably large that in the immediate years after the crisis America’s economy shrinked in the third quarter of 2008 by 0.3 percent. [liii] This negative growth officially constituted that America was in a recession. [liv]

Fourth, the problems in the world of finance also led to many other problems because the Federal Reserve had to print more money to keep at least some degree of liquidity in the banking sector. The government itself had to provide huge sums of money for bailouts and other economic incentives. This will be a source for future problems as the US needs to recover from enormous debt: In May 2011, the US had national debt in excess of more than 13.5 trillion US dollars as opposed to 5.6 trillion US dollars in 2000. [lv]

Fifth, it is important to mention that the credit crunch impacted almost all of our world’s extremely synchronized economies negatively. There were output drops, stock market falls, great losses in reserves, currency weaknesses and partly even need for IMF funds in many countries across the globe making it apparent that the world economies are extremely entwined. [lvi] Hence, the American Dream of homeownership has not only turned out to become a nightmare for Americans, but a nightmare for people around the world: The old saying “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold” has proven to be true once again.

WHY THE AMERICAN DREAM NEEDS TO CHANGE  Undeniably, an American Dream primarily focused on homeownership and consumption is no longer a viable concept the US can afford to live by. The “real American Dream” has many more dimensions to it than owning a home or consuming products and it is the public policy makers’ job to do their part by communicating this and encouraging more reasonable spending among American households. The American Dream should be a common bond holding together all American people. Recent history has proven, however, that homeownership is not a practical goal for many Americans – which is essentially why it should not be considered the most important component of the American Dream. It would be great if every American was able to own a home, but unfortunately at the moment this is just not realistic.

Renting instead of buying a home could therefore possibly be one model to prevent a similar economic crisis like the one in the late 2000s from happening again. This crisis has made more than apparent that the American Dream of homeownership needs to change as it has been way too inter-connected with people’s sole life purposes of becoming a homeowner for a period of time that has been going on for much too long. Not every American should be able to obtain a loan just to “live in his own castle” and this fundamental message needs to be understood by all, i.e. the people, the banking institutions and the government. In my home country of Germany as well as in many other European nations, for example, renting is much more common than owning a home (and Germany is neither significantly richer or poorer than the US for that matter!). Many economists have begun to acknowledge this common sense-approach to economics as well and some are even convinced that if more people chose to rent rather than to buy, this would actually boost the economy. Joseph Gyorko, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, exhorted Americans in a recent op-ed article in the Washington Post to stop being “staunchly home-proud people” [lvii] saying that “the most cherished beliefs about the value of a home don’t hold true.” [lviii] He also made the point that there are many different parts of renting that would even be beneficial to the economy. [lix] In his 1758 work, The Way to Wealth, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers and most remarkable thinkers, said “He that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing.” [lx] And he was right! Looking forward, the “idyllic utopia of suburbia” [lxi] really needs to end. While “homeownership for everyone” is a most noble goal, it is at the same time utterly unrealistic and above all, an extremely dangerous plan. Unless people begin to take out less loans or try to truly adhere to the common saying “If you can’t pay, don’t buy,” the US economy will remain dangerously susceptible to large economic shocks over and over again.

Mr. Backhaus is a student of economics and guest contributor to Catholic Journal. He writes from Germany.


[i] “Trulia Survey, 70 percent of Americans View Homeownership as Part of Personal American Dream, Trulia Press Releases, February 9, 2011, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[ii] The Joneses – Verraten und verkauft, DVD, Directed by Derrick Borte (Munich, Germany, Universum Film GmbH, 2010).

[iii] Roland Marchand, Advertizing the American Dream (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1985), 117.

[iv] Ibid., 119.

[v] Ibid., 234.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Linda Story, Anywhere the Eye Can See, it’s Likely to See an Ad, New York Times, January 15, 2007, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[viii] Fareed Zakaria, Restoring the American Dream, Time Magazine, November 3, 2010 Issue, 18.

[ix] Ibid.

[xi] Thomas J. Surgrue, The New American Dream: Renting, Wall Street Journal. August 14, 2009, 677038184.html (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] See Adam Michaelson, The Foreclosure of America (New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group, 2010), 96.

[xvi] Michaelson, The Foreclosure of America, 94.

[xvii] Barbara Kiviat, The Case Against Homeownership, Time Magazine, September 11, 2010,,8599,2013684-1,00.html (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xviii] David Inviviglio, Should Homeownership Be Part of the American Dream?, The Atlantic. September 6, 2010, 2010/09/should-homeownership-be-part-of-the-american-dream/62511/ (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xix] Ibid.

[xxi] Surgrue. The New American Dream: Renting, Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2009.677038184.html (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxii] Margot Adler, Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream House, National Public Radio. July 4, 2006. (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxiii] D’Vera Cohn, No Place Like Home – Even if the Value is in the Tank, Pew Research Center Publications, February 19, 2009, pubs/1126/home-buy-sell-comfort-burden-polling (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxiv] William J. Clinton, Remarks on National Homeownership Challenge, June 5, 1995, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Marc A. Weiss, The Millenium Housing Commission, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxvii] Rocky K., interview by author, Brussels, Belgium, April 18, 2011.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Kiviat, The Case Against Homeownership, Time Magazine. September 11, 2010.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] George Bush, President’s Remarks to the National Association of Homeowners, October 2, 2004, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Frank Barney, What Caused the Subprime-Crisis?, Boston University Productions. February 13, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Michaelson, The Foreclosure of America, 98.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 96.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 158.

[xxxix] Ibid., 97-99.

[xl] Les Christie, Foreclosures up 75 %, CNN Money, January 29, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xli] Philip Inman, Q&A: The collapse of Lehman Brothers, The Guardian, September 15, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xlii] Editor, As Housing Goes, So Does the Economy, New York Times, May 24, 2011, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job losses and gains in the fourth quarter of 2006, August, 17, 2006, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xlv] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Career Guides to Industry 2010-11 edition, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xlvi] Stephanie Armour, 2008 foreclosure filings set record, USA Today, February 2, 2009, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xlvii] Zillow Press Releases, Americans Lose 1.4 Trillion US Dollars in Home Values in Q4; More than Was Lost In All 2007, February 3, 2009, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[xlviii] William Boyes and Michael Melvin, Economics (Boston: South-Western College Publications, 2007), 148.

[xlix] Ilana Jonas, At 17 percent, US vacancy rates hit 15-year high, Reuters, January 8, 2010, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[l] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Losses and Gains in the fourth quarter of 2006, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[li] John G. Edwards, Post-bankruptcy financing harder to secure in crisis, Las Vegas Review Journal, April 3, 2009, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[lii] Sarah Van Gelder, The Banks Don’t Trust Each Other; So Why Should We? Huffington Post, December 8, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[liii] Chris Isidore, GDP shows economy shrinking, CNN Money, October 30, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Treasury Direct Chart. (accessed June 3, 2011)

[lvi] Jeff Frankel and George Saravelos. Are Leading Indicators of Financial Crises Useful For Assesing Country Vulnerability? Evidence from the 2008-09 Global Crisis, working paper (Harvard Kennedy School, 2010), (accessed June 3, 2011).

[lvii] Joseph Gyourko, 5 myths about home sweet home ownership, Washington Post, November 15, 2009, (accessed June 3, 2011).

[lviii] Ibid.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Ibid.

[lxi] Michaelson, The Foreclosure of America, 58.

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Felix Backhaus