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We’re Number One!

Americans are number one in quite a few areas—but they’re not all accomplishments to be proud of.

Tattered Flag by Beverly & Pack

Photo by Beverly & Pack.

From President Obama to Sarah Palin, our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism or exhorting us to be Number 1. Yet from health care to education to environmental performance, we’re more often found at the bottom of the list of developed countries. It’s a good idea to set aside the rhetoric of national greatness and ask ourselves how we dropped to the basement on so many important issues—and what we should do to climb out.

To see where America stands not so proud, consider the advanced, well-to-do democracies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rich countries’ club. To focus on America’s peers, I am excluding the former Soviet bloc countries as well as Mexico, Turkey, Korea, Iceland, Luxembourg, and Greece. In the remaining group of 20 affluent countries, America is, indeed, Number 1 or close to it in a number of categories: the 26 indicators of poor performance listed below.

It’s a good idea to set aside the rhetoric of national greatness and ask ourselves how we dropped to the basement on so many important issues—and what we should do to climb out.

To our great shame, America now has:

  • 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, 
yet accompanied by the highest:
    • Infant mortality rate
    • Prevalence of mental health problems
    • Obesity rate
    • Portion of people going without health care due to cost
    • Low birth weight children per capita (except for Japan)
    • Consumption of anti-depressants per capita
  • The shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
  • The highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
  • The lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s Environmental Performance 
Index (except for Belgium), and the largest Ecological Footprint per capita 
(except for Belgium and Denmark);
  • 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 most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain and 
Portugal);
  • 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);

This is exceptionalism we don’t need. Thankfully, America is also Number 1 or near the top in a number of positive indicators, including in the overall Human Development Index. But we are also far down the rankings, though not (yet) at the bottom, on others also not listed here. For example, the U.S. ranks only 13th on The Economist’s Democracy Index, right below the Czech Republic.

Since we’re Number 1 in both low taxes and military spending, it is clear where we can find the money we need to invest in our future.

Many observers find these results troubling for what they portend for U.S. competitiveness in the world economy and our national influence abroad—our so-called “soft power.” But the results are even more telling for what they say about our care for each other and for future generations of Americans and, even more, for what they say about our political leaders.

These deplorable consequences did not just happen as 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, notably in Europe, took a different path, one that was open to us also. America may have invented the middle class, but while others improved on our grand idea, we let it slip away.

It’s not too late to begin climbing out of the basement on these issues, but sweeping them under the rug in celebration of American exceptionalism won’t allow that. And since we’re Number 1 in both low taxes and military spending, it is clear where we can find the money we need to invest in our future.


James Gustave Speth author picJames Gustave Speth wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical solutions for a just and sustainable world. Gus is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and Professor of Law at the Vermont Law School.

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