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Magical thinking is as American as apple pie - not poor just financially embarrassed millionaires

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An irritable waiter
The majority of Americans pretend that no matter how humble their origins, the possibility exists that they will some day become rich. It’s why real socialism has never caught on here.

Americans believe there is no such thing as a poor person -- there are only temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

It’s a myth of course, but it’s proved to be a powerfully enduring myth. You can see why it endures.

Who wants to think that no matter how hard they work they’ll probably never really progress far beyond the straight jacket circumstances they were born into? How many tickets would Hollywood sell for a movie like that?

In Europe the future isn’t necessarily a thing to be optimistic about at all. Our long and often terrifying history makes us very cautious of our next steps.

We never bound fearlessly into the future like Americans do. Our fluctuating financial histories make us far more cautious too.

If anything Irish people are the most pessimistic of them all. Because of our history most Irish people live their lives bracing for the next impact.

One of the first things I noticed when I came to live in the U.S. was how surly and indifferent American workers in the service economy can be, how unfriendly and often hostile when provoked (which is remarkably easy to do). Visit a subway station window, or a fast food restaurant, or a ticket desk or a reception area with an unusual request and chances are you’re going to be snarled at.

They’re not bad people, usually. They just know that they live in a country where their menial jobs are supposedly speed bumps on the road to riches. And they’ve discovered their road isn’t leading to riches.

The outcome isn’t what they were promised on the label. Can you blame them if they start to get upset about it?

For generations now Americans have been fine with giving larger and larger tax cuts to millionaires, because they were told each time that it would help grow the American economy and grow jobs. And one day, of course, they would be millionaires themselves, so they’d possibly benefit from their own actions at a future date too.

Psychologists call this magical thinking. Magical thinking allows you to expect a result that has no basis in your reality or your history.

Like being born in Co. Leitrim and expecting to marry Price William. It’s when you anticipate it happening because you want it to happen. It’s daydreaming and expecting it to somehow come true. It’s a romantic response to a diet of cold hard reality.

It’s as American an impulse as apple pie.

If you suspect that magical thinking sounds suspiciously close to religion and superstition you would be right, too. Prayer is a form of magical thinking, after all.

You say a prayer to a being you can’t actually see in the hope it will influence the outcome you are hoping for.  But everyone tells you it will work and mathematically, occasionally, it actually does – which is then used as proof by others that it always does.

It doesn’t always work though. In fact, it almost always doesn’t work.

But we want to believe it does because the alternative is unpalatable. That’s why that work of utter nonsense, The Secret, became a New York Times bestseller.

People want to buy the winning lottery ticket, people want to believe they can actually win, and people somehow still believe they can win even when everything around them is telling them the opposite.

You may think I am pouring scorn on American credulity. Far from it.

I actually enjoy their never say die approach to life. But I am starting to suspect that the gap between their rhetoric and their reality has become a problem.

The American Century ended a decade ago, but it’s as if the nation still hasn’t got the memo.  Recession and global competition have long ago diminished the nation’s competitiveness and stripped it of millions of well-paying jobs. Clearly the time for magical thinking is over.

To meet the challenges of the new century, America’s citizens will require education and training to prepare them and their communities for the next generation of good jobs. Instead, though, teachers and teacher unions are being relentlessly targeted and scapegoated by conservative budget cutters who are penny wise and pound foolish. 

We have a party and a presidential candidate whose plan is to further comfort the already comfortable while making the path out of poverty even steeper for the 47 percent of Americans he has consigned to the political and economic trash heap.

That’s a different approach from the European model. In Europe, for better or worse, we have always known we’re all in this together.

And I am convinced that all those disillusioned and angry people who make up our service economy here in the Unites States would do better if our leaders spoke and acted like we were all in it together too.

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