Monday, October 31, 2011

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

click on chart for larger image

The right wing in this country constantly extols the idea of American exceptionalism. If we stand apart from other developed countries, however, recent data seems to indicate that this may have more to do with our own country's social and economic backwardness than any kind of legitimate exceptionalism about which to feel proud.

I've written in the past about my own experiences living in Europe, where the harsh edges of capitalism are smoothed down just a bit by the communitarian ethos of many European countries. In Belgium, where I had the honor to study, just about everyone has a decent paying job with excellent benefits and ample vacation time, high quality education is provided through the graduate level for those that qualify, and health care, of course, is universal. People in a place like Belgium may not be able to earn quite as much as their American counterparts, but a progressive approach to taxation ensures that every one's basic needs are met, while still allowing for adequate social mobility.

When I was teaching political theory at Rangsit University in Bangkok in 2003, I was always surprised to find the students in my class talking about the U.S. as though it was some kind of paradise. The students I taught came from all over Asia, but the one thing they all had in common was their unshakable belief in the sublime perfection of the American way of life. To put things into perspective, I had them look up data on crime, education levels, access to health care, infant mortality, and overall happiness in the U.S. and other nations. And much to their surprise--though not mine own--the U.S. actually ranked fairly poorly in all these categories.

I made the case then--with these students who would one day become part of the elite in their own countries--that if they really needed a model for development, they should probably look to Scandinavian countries, which outranked the U.S. in every category that matters except one--income inequality. In this category, at least, the United States truly was #1. The tremendous disparities of wealth that existed in this country back then, in fact, made places like Saudi Arabia and Mexico look positively egalitarian by comparison.

The recent data that has come out, if anything, shows that the U.S. has fallen even further behind other developed nations than when I had raised this issue eight years ago with my students in Thailand. A new report entitled "Social Justice in the OECD--How Do Nation Member States Compare" puts our continued decline relative to other developed nations into stark perspective, and should make anyone who cares about the future of the United States wake up and take notice.

Fortunately, for those of us who become mind-numb reading socio-economic reports, Charles Blow of the New York Times, has put the information that came out of the German study into a format that even someone as data-challenged as myself can understand.

As you can see from this chart above, the U.S. now ranks towards the bottom of developed nations in terms of its poverty rate, education rates, and health rates. Once again, however, we continue to lead the pack in terms of income inequality.

Whenever I hear right-wing pundits brag about the U.S. being the greatest country on earth, I always want to ask, "yes, but for whom?" If you're in the top 1% economically in this country, then this is probably a perfectly swell place to live (assuming you have no soul or conscience, that is). For the bottom 99%, however, the United States is increasingly becoming something very much like the banana republics of old, where the majority to survive were forced to serve the needs of the ruling elite, catering to their every whim.

That's not the kind of country that I want to live in, and I don't think it's the kind of country most Americans want to live in either.

So the next time some reactionary jackass starts claiming that the U.S. is #1, you can certainly agree with him. We're fatter, dumber, sicker, and poorer than just about any other developed country in the world...and damn proud of it too!


  1. Are you a Communist? You talk about the fact that we have income inequality like its one of the worst facets to ever exist. You cannot judge the people who make millions and millions of dollars for the simple fact that America, which by the way is your country too, is a place of freedom. People are allowed to do whatever means it takes to earn as much capital as they want; thats the point. I would brag to others that we have a greater inequality because not only can we have a better shot at becoming rich and famous, but we also can value ourselves as achievers. I would rather live in a country that is Dog eat Dog rather than be working my ass off to be making the same amount of money as the schlepp who is taking shots of vodka next to me laughing!

  2. I admire your enthusiasm in this topic, but unfortunately it is also your enthusiasm that I disagree with. Your pessimism seems to over take this article and I think its wrong of you to say that those students did not have the proper view of America. If they have that view of Americans it is for a reason. I believe we have a sense of freedom and progression that most countries admire, and they should!

    However, I understand why it is that you can't see the way these students do of your own country. It's because of exactly that, that it's your country. Most people see the best in something they don't have and I believe that if you took a step back and looked at all the liberties that we have you might agree that they are worthwhile.

  3. The fact that the person who is writing this blog is a very educated person and has many credentials in Philosophy or education does not mean they should be handed a seat at the next G20 summit. This is a great explination of someone who has never had great wealth and likes to live like ALL the other Americans who do not want go be go-getters.