By: Gabriela Yareliz
“I arrived with $20 I borrowed. I was clutching it in my hand. I didn’t even put it in my pocket because I didn’t want anyone to steal it,” he told me. I leaned against the elevator door frame while listening to his story about how he arrived to the United States in the 1980s as a refugee with pretty much nothing but the clothes on his back. Now, he is a successful contractor, owns more properties than I can count on one hand and has cultivated a beautiful family. What were we talking about? In a way, one could say American Exceptionalism.
You may roll your eyes or hate that the United States is referred to as America (but as this is from an American point of view (my point of view), we will refer to it as the locals do. For our intents and purposes, this is America. Affectionately known as, ‘Merica.) I have had thoughts about this spinning in my mind for a while. The decline of America is on everyone’s lips. Maybe that always happens in moments of crisis? Or maybe our new-found idiocy has caught up with us– I don’t know.
Between conversations from everyone to my friends, my super, colleagues and judges and everyone in between– I don’t think I am the only one thinking about what American Exceptionalism really means. Does it exist? (Unsurprisingly, I think so.) If it did, have we lost it? And if we lost it, how can we get it back?
I have a lot of thoughts about aspects of my growing up and education here that differ greatly from foreign-born and foreign-raised friends. Stuff I want to look at more closely. But the title of these thoughts (that may turn into a mini series here) is not American Exceptionalism, it is American Wealth.
There are a lot of things that people say that make America exceptional: the opportunity and economic system that encourages entrepreneurial culture, education, the labor market, what was once a growing population, work ethic, what was once energy independence, the environment, a smaller government than most nations (in other words, a government that stays out of your business), and a republican government style where parties compete. (Source) Some of these things remain true today and some do not, given the current political climate.
I do want to focus on American Wealth, specifically. We have a funny relationship with money, most of us. Most of us treat it like it is scarce. We try to act like we are so poor as our online orders arrive at our doorstep.
Lately, it feels like a lot of politicians are trying to cause division by always reminding us of the differences between the classes (and don’t get me wrong, I know the differences exist)– class strife has always been a thing and definitely had its moment in different periods in history. Class strife has led to the overthrowing of entire government systems. *cue the guillotine chop*
Definitely, as we grew up in schools, especially if you don’t have as much as others, you are taught to see money with a certain mindset, and we learn to see people who have money with a certain mindset or judgment. (Greedy people!) I feel this is a conversation that has come up a lot for me recently, especially with an impending recession and a lot of people struggling. I have this conversation 20 times a day, even with clients.
Oftentimes, it is the people with money who get blamed or are seen negatively, because it is not hurting them as much or they are seen as exploitative. Meanwhile, these same people are often creating jobs and keeping the economy going. I truly think that sometimes people just look at the fact that they don’t have what others have, and they think that is exploitative. And yet, if given the opportunity to have what others have, they would take it in an instant. I know people who hate landlords and want to abolish private property, but if they could have their own penthouse, they sure as hell would.
This mindset toward the wealthy is not about exploitation. The truth is that sometimes people had opportunities that they took or family members who took those risks and broke their backs building something (and yes, probably not alone, but still, management and expansion is a skill). (And this isn’t to say that poor people don’t break their backs working. Many do for a time). In some instances, if we had the same opportunities of those we criticize, we would have taken them. Sometimes, we or our families didn’t because of disparities and such, but also, I can say we can sometimes look at the past and see that people made their choices. Maybe they chose pleasure over work, or they squandered opportunities out of instability. (People often choose in the best way they know how, but it doesn’t mean it was or is beneficial). Decisions have consequences, and while we aren’t all born rich, I do think that there is enough to go around for everyone. There are opportunities we can grab to make our futures a lot better, so that the people who follow us will look back and think, Hey this person made the smart choices.
These divisive mindsets people like to inculcate into people are often a lot of attitudes that keep people down, and if not down, it at least keeps people in the same places. Even if something is true, that doesn’t make it constructive. And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that life is fair. But listen, even when it is unfair– we have the God-given right to do something about it.
Despite all of the class strife that exists in this country, what I think is hilarious (and so true, by the way) is that here in the States, we really are the one percent of the world’s wealth (1%). The poorest person in the United States is so much richer than someone else in another country. (That is a fact). And so, in this series, what I will strive to do is (and it’s a little bit nostalgic), but we are going to go through American Wealth (sort of through the lens of my experience and the interesting people I have met). We will look at things that, if you lived in this country and experienced these sorts of things, that is a kind of wealth (and that doesn’t mean these things are limited to this country, but it’s the combination of them that makes it exceptional).
I hope it is something that makes us reflect and something that makes us grateful. I think that gratitude is really important to move forward into something better. Maybe it will remind us to love this place instead of destroy it. I don’t know. I still believe in the American Dream. Judge me if you want. But I know that upward mobility is possible. I have seen it. I have lived it.
Yeah, you have to seriously “bust your ass” as we say in NYC, and rely on God, but I really do believe that so many of us in this country, we have truly experienced wealth. We may not realize it because it’s not the old money wealth we always picture in our minds, but we have experienced wealth. Every single one of us. Not old money wealth, perhaps, but American Wealth for sure.