Politicians have made it a habit to invoke American exceptionalism at every opportunity. President Obama has been repeatedly reviled by his detractors for not aggressively asserting that the rest of the world should bow to our obvious superiority. Meanwhile, pundit Sean Hannity is now famous for frequently uttering his catch phrase, “America is the single greatest nation that God ever gave man on this earth.”
That’s not to say that America doesn’t have a reason to be proud, but a little humility might help us to realize that in some ways we are quite a bit less than we imagine.
Compared to a group of our peers, the 20 most affluent countries in the world, we are number 1 in some embarrassing categories:
- The highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
- The greatest inequality of incomes;
- The lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
- The lowest number of paid holiday, annual and maternity leaves;
- 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 lowest social mobility;
- The highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of GDP;
- The highest percentage of our population in jail;
- The highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
- The highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
- The lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
- The highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
- The largest international arms sales;
- The lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far down from the top in both science and reading);
- The highest high school drop out rate (except for Spain);
These are not problems that have just come about in the last few years. We have been building our dysfunction in these areas for decades. Problems like these are at the core of our decline, not deficits. And problems like these will not be solved with budgetary adjustments or minor policy changes. These are fundamental behavioral issues.
As with any person or organization exhibiting self-destructive behavioral problems, the first step is admitting we actually have a problem. This does not require that we declare ourselves worthless and unworthy. On the contrary, a sense of self-worth is required such that we believe ourselves worth saving. But we desperately need to embrace the notion that we could be better, much better, than we are now, and further that this transformation requires dedication and sacrifice. Until we’re ready to own up to that, nothing will change.