American Exceptionalism: I’m all for it!
It is often argued that the United States is exceptional with regard to its capabilities and responsibilities. With respect to its military prowess, and defense budget, it is certainly exceptional. I am curious however. To what extent is the US exceptional in other important ways? Is the US the envy of the world with regard to its educational system and its healthcare? How safe are Americans? Further, does America prove exceptional with regard to issues such as equality, democracy, and opportunity? I for one, am all for being exceptional. Shouldn’t we strive for superiority in all these areas? Is not a person’s character judged based on variables other than one’s physical strength? Are not issues such as kindness, fairness, and morality given important consideration when we evaluate each other? I suggest that nations too should be judged on these issues. We as a people certainly judge other nations based on these attributes.
So, how does the US compare to other wealthy and developed nations on these important issues? Let us take a closer look. By far, the best accessible and concise analysis of this question is contained in The Measure of a Nation by Howard Steven Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a prominent statistician and health economist at the United Nations and he teaches at Columbia University. Measure of a Nation was named by Jared Diamond (author of Pulitzer Prize winning Guns Germs and Steel) as the best book of 2012 in an interview published in the New York Times. I have to agree with Diamond’s opinion. Friedman’s book is a data driven assessment of 14 nations, each meeting specific criteria for population (at least 10 million) and wealth (mean GDP at least $20,000). Friedman methodically and carefully analyzes data from each nation and creates a relative ranking system whereby each nation is evaluated on diverse issues such as Health, Safety, Education, Democracy, and Equality. The comparison countries include: UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, Korea, and Japan.
Friedman’s book constitutes an ambitious undertaking and he is careful to be clear about the pitfalls associated with the measures and analyses used. In the end however, as a skilled statistician and economist, he was able to pull together a clear and concise comparative ranking system that factually answers the question – “Is America Exceptional?”
He are the rankings:
I don’t know about you, but I was appalled by these findings. The US comes up with a last place ranking on a majority of very important quality of life variables with regard to health, safety, democracy, and equality. It gets worse when you look at all the comparisons drawn in Friedman’s book. I included only those measures that could easily be put in a table without the need for deeper explanation. And with regard to education, we are in the middle and bottom third of the rankings, except when it comes to years of education and percent of the population getting secondary education. Our literacy rankings are unacceptable.
Neither Friedman or I are driven to bash the United States. Instead, he and I both are motivated by a desire for exceptionalism across all these measures. Friedman makes recommendations about how we as a people, and a nation, could improve on all these important variables. The subtitle of his book is How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge And Boost Our Global Standing. The problem is one of over-confidence and unquestioning nationalism. To boldly contend that America is exceptional in every way is both unsubstantiated and untrue. How I wish it was otherwise.
It is time to step back, look deeply at these issues, accept the reality that we can do better, and then devote our efforts to making it so. We are arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world with a vast capability for excellence. It comes down to priorities and hubris. If “we the people” demand excellence in these areas, and stand-up and make our voices heard, politicians will have to respond. If however, we bombastically proclaim “We’re #1” regardless of what the evidence suggests, we will continue to languish. Should not the measure of a nation, with such capabilities, be the best?
Spread the word, get and read Friedman’s book. Let’s start changing the dialogue in this country away from the current divisive and unproductive rancor, and begin focusing on what really matters. It starts with knowledge and it ends with a healthier, safer, smarter, and more fulfilled populace whose politicians truly represent them and actually address important issues.
For other discussions and data points on US rankings relative to other nations see:
A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math.
There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem. Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it. The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.