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We're #1 -- Ten Depressing Ways America Is Exceptional

America is exceptional in the advantages we’ve had over other nations, not what we’ve done with those advantages.

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In the last decade, while the top 1 percent of Americans saw their incomes rise, on average, by more than a quarter of a million dollars each, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined.

To Republicans, inequality is unimportant because of another aspect of American exceptionalism, the unparalleled opportunity in the United States for those with ambition and grit to move up the economic ladder. They insist, and most of us firmly believe, that America is still the land of opportunity, that the probability of a rags to riches saga is much higher here than abroad.

But recent data contradicts that fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism. A Brookings Institution report comparing economic mobility in the United States and other countries concludes, "…"Starting at the bottom of the earnings ladder is more of a handicap in the United States than it is in other countries." And more broadly notes, "there is growing evidence of less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries.”

Another hobbling fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism is that we have nothing to learn from other countries. Why mess with God’s perfection? Back in the late 1980s I went to producers at Minneota’s public television station, TPT and proposed a show tentatively entitled, “What We Can Learn From Others”. They wondered what in the world I was smoking.

This sense of uniqueness has most clearly been reflected in our debates on national health care reform. In 1994 both the United States and Taiwan engaged in national debates about how their health care systems might be improved. To come up with the answers, Taiwan’s leaders visited about a dozen other countries to gain insights about the wide variety of existing national health system structures and used these insights to tailor a system adapted to their own needs. US leaders visited no other countries. The debate rarely even mentioned other countries except dismissively and usually inaccurately (e.g. Canadians cannot choose their own doctors). This occurred despite the overwhelming evidence that the US medical system is the most expensive, the least accessible and by many measures, one of the least well-performing of any in the industrialized world.

The 2009 debate over health reform took place as the United States economy collapsed, unemployment soared and foreclosures mushroomed. Yet there was virtually no discussion about the relationship of health care and personal financial adversity. A study by Steffie Woolhandler and colleagues at the Harvard Medical School done in 2007 revealed a remarkable statistic: 62 percent of US bankruptcies were a result of medical expenses. Equally damning, 75 percent of the people with a medically related bankruptcy had health insurance.

How does this woeful statistic compare to other countries? It is impossible to say because in other countries such a statistic would be a sign of gross irresponsibility and perhaps a societal breakdown. On Frontline, Washington Post veteran reporter T.R. Reid examined health systems around the world. In the process he interviewed the President of the Swiss Federation. Switzerland had dramatically changed its own health system in 1994 through a national referendum.

Reid: How many people in Switzerland go bankrupt because of medical bills?

Swiss President Pascal Couchepin: Nobody. It doesn't happen. It would be a huge scandal if it happens.

Conservatives proudly point to the Declaration of Independence as the foundational source of their guiding principles. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 
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