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"The Transformation of the American Dream" at Boston Athenaeum

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"The Transformation of the American Dream" at Boston Athenaeum

The Transformation of the American Dream

Robert Schiller

In his 1931 book The Epic of America James Truslow Adams first popularized the concept of the “American Dream" as "being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations." But the meaning of the term changes through time as culture changes, and as opportunists try to redefine to their own advantage. It is this dream which he thought "lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores." But he also thought that, even in 1931, many were losing sight of this dream. The situation has worsened since he wrote.

Now the American Dream is most often equated with the dream of owning a spacious home. In the United States, the new values affect major government decisions on housing, regulation, and mortgage guarantees. Conflating the American Dream with expensive housing has had dangerous consequences—it may have even contributed to the housing bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008.

Robert J. Shiller is Sterling Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University, and Professor of Finance and Fellow at the International Center for Finance, Yale School of Management. He received his BA from the University of Michigan and his PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972. Shiller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences jointly with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen in 2013. He has been writing a regular column for Project Syndicate and Economic View and for the New York Times. He served as Vice President of the American Economic Association, 2005 and President of the Eastern Economic Association, 2006-07, and President of the American Economic Association for 2016. Shiller was co-founder of the firms Case Shiller Weiss, Inc. in 1991 and MacroMarkets LLC in 2002.

This event is the second program in “The American Dream” series, which explores how our conceptions of the American Dream are shaped or negated.

Take a look at what political philosopher T.R. Malthus had to say about early nineteenth-century political philosophy in regards to the economy in his book Principles of Political Economy Considered With A View to Their Practical Application (1820). Make an appointment in the Vershbow Rare Books Reading Room to see what information Malthus theorized that still is practiced today.

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