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America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last -- How Can We Change That?

The data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom. Where did we go wrong and what can we do about it?
 
 
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Like you and other Americans, I love my country, its wonderful people, its boundless energy, its creativity in so many fields, its natural beauty, its many gifts to the world, and the freedom it has given us to express ourselves. So we should all be angry, profoundly angry, when we consider what has happened to our country and what that neglect could mean for our children and grandchildren.

How can we gauge what has happened to America in the past few decades and where we stand today? One way is to look at how America now compares with other countries in key areas. The group of twenty advanced democracies—the major countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic countries, Canada, and others—can be thought of as our peer nations. Here’s what we see when we look at these countries. To our great shame, America now has

• the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
• the greatest inequality of incomes;
• the lowest social mobility;
• the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
• the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
• the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet all this money accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
• the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
• the highest homicide rate;
• the largest prison population in absolute terms and per capita;
• the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
• the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
• the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
• the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
• the largest international arms sales.

Our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism. True, the data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom.

These deplorable consequences are not just the result of economic and technological forces over which we have no control. They are the results of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society and our environment. Many countries, obviously, took a different path—one that was open to us as well.

I wish that were all the bad news. Unfortunately, international comparisons only give us a glimpse of what we now face. They miss many of the most important challenges, including in the critical areas of social conditions, national security, and politics. I will spare you the litany of environmental bad news; most of you have already heard it.

When it comes to social conditions, it’s important to recognize that nearly 50 million Americans now live in poverty—one in six. If you’re in poverty in America, you’re living on less than $400 per week for a family of four. Poverty is the bleeding edge of a more pervasive American shortcoming—massive economic insecurity. About half of American families now live paycheck to paycheck, are financially fragile, and earn less than needed to cover basic living expenses, let alone save for the future.