While every American wants to believe that America is the greatest country, the reality is that in order to be the greatest, a country has to work hard at it. That means having the best systems, and constantly working to improve the country in all aspects. There are some things that America does better than any other country, to be sure. But using many objective measures, it is clear that there are ways in which America stands to improve its performance. Indeed, looking at this issues is a critical component of keeping America on top. A country that buys into the rhetoric that it is the greatest will start to believe its own hype. That country will start to think that it will always be the greatest, just by showing up. But nations all over the world are working hard to make themselves better, and as a result many have surpassed America in a lot of different areas. While nobody expects America to inherently be the greatest at absolutely everything, there are areas where the country falls quite a bit short of the world leaders. This paper will look at some of those ways.
Probably the most important aspect of America's historic greatness was the system of governance that was put into place in the early years of the country. One of the greatest assets of the U.S. is that it is a very large country, with a tremendous diversity of resources, and economically it benefits from having a large market. If America's economy is that much more dynamic than that of, say, Canada or Great Britain, it is because America's vast spaces are filled with people. That gives it both a wealth of resources and a large market for its products. But building a country over such a large area is an enormous challenge, requiring both infrastructure investment and a system of governance that allows for strong centralized power but also sufficiently strong regional power that allows the different regions to reflect their own interests. More left-leaning areas can benefit from having the left-wing governments that they want, while right wing areas can benefit from having the governments that they want. After the Civil War, keeping America together has proven to be one of the best things for the economic and technological development of the country.
To run a country this big with this many interests demands exceptional governance. Historically, America has had that. The system as designed worked very well for many decades, allowing peace, stability and a high quality of government needed to build a strong nation. Today, it is fairly easy to make the case that America's governance is nowhere near the best in the world. Congress is fractured, polarized in a way seldom seen before, with fewer bipartisan measures passed (Orszag, 2014).
While partisanship in politics is nothing new or surprising, it is not the only problem within the political system. Worse is the influence that big money plays today. Lobbyists pour tens of millions of dollars into each election cycle, and politicians depend on this money to help get elected, as it costs a lot of money to run a high profile election campaign (Berlow & Witkin, 2013). Lobbyists have access to politicians in a way that citizens do not have, and of course they sway low information voters with scare tactics, misinformation and other techniques. In other countries, this is known as corruption, but in the U.S. It is how government works. Lobbyists write laws, and the politicians whose jobs depend on lobbyist money enact those laws. The problem with all of this is that citizens seldom have any real sense of what they are voting for, and their interests are simply not reflected in the laws. The pathways to law enactment are entirely controlled by corporate interests, through their money, and yet just because there are no manila envelopes or Swiss bank accounts this is somehow not considered to be corruption. Even there, America only ranks 17th in Transparency International's Corruptions Perceptions Index, behind most other major industrialized nations (Transparency International, 2014). The greatest nation in the world is falling behind in terms of the integrity of its political system, and the outcome of this is only going to be laws that further degrade our freedoms...
The problem is that most Americans cannot access these schools, even if they are smart enough. Moreover, the U.S. has a lot of problems at other levels, especially in K-12, and the overall outcome ranks quite a bit lower than many other industrialized nations. The Center on International Education Benchmarking (2015) lists its top ten countries in terms of overall education quality and student performance: Canada, Estonia, Finland, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Taiwan, Singapore are nine, and the other is China, which only sends students from its top school for the testing so you cannot take that too seriously. The overall quality of the U.S. education system is mediocre. Nobody likes the common core and standardized testing has not resulted in any particular improvement in performance. Too many students never learn critical thinking, even at the college level. School funding formulas that rely on local taxation condemn schools in poor areas to chronic underfunding, and universities are expensive to access for most students (many top performing countries have free college tuition). The problem is that education is the nation's strength. For decades, the U.S. has cruised on the basis of its top schools and ability to attract foreign academic talent, but there are a lot of Americans who lack the education to have a shot at a better life, which hurts the competitiveness of the entire country.
The U.S. is the only major industrialized nation to not offer health care for its citizens. There remain tens of millions of uninsured Americans, who essentially have no meaningful access to health care. Health care costs as a share of economic output have been rising steadily. The U.S. has the highest health care costs per capita in the world, yet the outcomes are not markedly better, and in some cases they are worse. The quality of care varies considerably -- while the U.S. has some of the best hospitals in the world, it also has some that are dramatically underperforming (Goldman & McGlynn, 2005). The U.S. also has high rates of illness like diabetes and a lower life expectancy than in other industrialized nations. The Affordable Care Act has sought to remedy some of these issues, and while it is an imperfect law, it has been challenged by corporate interests via the Republican Party repeatedly, with no alternative proposed. In other words, even when someone tries to fix the system, people want to prevent that fix from happening -- usually people with money and good health care plans who would be unaffected by their own policies. So health care is an area where the U.S. can improve, with respect to both cost and access, where the country underperforms, and that may help to bridge the performance gap with other major nations.
As the world's most technologically advanced nation, with the best thinkers, the U.S. seems uniquely positioned to take the lead on climate change. Yet, it is pretty much the opposite. Maybe the politicians do not care because they will be dead before things get really bad, but young people care about this issue a lot. Fossil fuel and automobile companies are 13 out of the top 20 largest companies in the world (Mehta, 2014). Yet despite their massive profitability, fossil fuels receive trillions of dollars in subsidies each year, with the U.S. being the biggest subsidizer of fossil fuels (Morales, 2014). This is far more than what renewables receive. Even in the U.S., there are only limited incentives to utilize renewable energy, and we lag countries like Germany in renewables usage, while China is the world leader in developing solar technology. This lack of forward thinking is exactly what happens when you have poor governance by the wealthiest in society, in a country run by people who are too old to have a serious long-term stake in the strength and health of our nation.
Lastly, the U.S. performs poorly on issue of equity. Our society has a lot of racial disparity and disharmony. The protests in Ferguson and Baltimore are just one example of this, but the reality is that African-Americans have a much higher rate of incarceration than other ethnic groups, and at six times the rate of whites. One in six black men has been incarcerated since 2001, and this is not all for criminal activity. Five times as many whites report using an illegal drug, yet blacks are incarcerated at…
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