How To Fix the American Dream?

The Recalibration of Geography

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Berkeley, California

The Economist’s 2020 award for most-improved country went to Malawi, with New Zealand, Taiwan and Bolivia as runners-up. The United States of America, not surprisingly, didn’t rank - although the country was credited last year with developing a COVID vaccine in record time as well with voting out Donald Trump.

So can America become the world’s most-improved country in 2021? How might it reinvent itself to become this year’s Malawi?

Today, to launch my new Keen On Sunday panel show, I invited Kerri Arsenault, Carl Hoffman, Dale Maharidge and Tom Zoellner to discuss how to fix America. Each is the author of a critically acclaimed new book about contemporary America: Arsenault’s Mill Town, Hoffman’s Liar’s Circus, Maharidge’s Fucked At Birth, and Zoellner’s The National Road.

The subtitle of Dale Maharidge’s Fucked At Birth is Recalibrating the American Dream. yes, we all know it’s broken now - but what, exactly, was the “American dream”?


It originally lay in the land. As Tom Zoellner argues in The National Road, America is “the first country to be based on an idea”. And that idea, he explains, was a shared geography (which, of course, never really existed):

“More than a flag, a tribe, an ethnicity, a legal agreement, a cluster of art, or a production of culture, America is a civilization of whereness. Our shared geography between the oceans is the lowest common denominator within this clashing territory of strangers.”

From Kerri Arsenault’s Mexico, Maine to Dale Maharidge’s Youngstown, Ohio to Carl Hoffman’s “dead” small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas, today’s American crisis is primarily a crisis of whereness.


Tom Zoellner’s “shared geography” has been replaced by two Americas: a coastal America that has escaped geography; the other, an internal America, that is imprisoned by it. As Zoellner explains:

“The American concept of geography has undergone a powerful shift. Place is less important that it has ever been to those who can free themselves from it, yet more important to those who aren’t able to leave it.”

Fixing the American dream, then, requires a reinvention of American geography. The challenge is to recalibrate Tom Zoellner’s idea of “place” - so as to make geography something that Americans can once again share. Zoellner suggested that this might begin on the land itself, with the regeneration of American agriculture.

This recalibration of the American dream requires a profound rethinking of the value of land. I’ve started a show called Regenerate which explores both the economics and technology of this new thinking. Nothing is going to change overnight, of course. But it’s a beginning. And it’s beginnings that America most needs right now.