Are we the best nation on Earth?
Americans take pride in American dominance the way Yankee fans take pride in the number of World Series trophies they’ve won over the years. We have a certain arrogant swagger that is born from winning. Nothing breeds confidence like success.
But the Yankees are a sports team, not a nation. Sports have winners and losers and the outcome is cut and dry. Life on the other hand isn’t so clear-cut. What do we use to define this “number 1” status?
Is it because we are the land of opportunity? We are told from the time we are a child that anyone can grow up to be President. That anyone can go from the poorhouse to the penthouse. We are sold on images of rags to riches stories. But are they real? Not necessarily.
Recent studies have shown that upward mobility is on the decline in the U.S.
A classic social survey in 1978 found that 23% of adult men who had been born in the bottom fifth of the population (as ranked by social and economic status) had made it into the top fifth. Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues recently decided to update the study. They compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979. The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10% of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter.
The Economic Policy Institute also argues that social mobility has declined since the 1970s. In the 1990s 36% of those who started in the second-poorest 20% stayed put, compared with 28% in the 1970s and 32% in the 1980s. In the 1970s 12% of the population moved from the bottom fifth to either the fourth or the top fifth. In the 1980s and 1990s the figures shrank to below 11% for both decades. The figure for those who stayed in the top fifth increased slightly but steadily over the three decades, reinforcing the sense of diminished social mobility.
from The Economist 12/29/04
Income disparity is also growing at the fastest rate since “The Gilded Age.” Income for the bottom 1/5 of American workers rose 6.4% between 1979 and 2000. For the top 1/5 the income level rose 70%. For the top 1%? The income grew at a mind boggling 184%.
That’s the kind of number that you expect to see in the Third World, not the United States. This type of stratification leads to two very different America’s – one for the haves and one for the have-nots. Hurricane Katrina has shown us without prejudice just how different those two worlds can be.
Are we number 1 because of our education system? The answer to that is a solid yes and no. Our university system is unrivaled in the world. Developing countries such as India and China are actively copying (with a no small amount of success) our academic structures. Still, we attract the best and brightest students in the world to our doors.
Which is good, because our own students are increasingly ill-equipped to compete. Our public school system is a joke. Not because the teachers are not hard-working and bright – but because there is something fundamentally flawed with the system. In pure spending, we rank towards the top of the developed world in funding per student, but as a percentage of GDP, we rank at or near the bottom. If you want to know why our kids are having their “lunch” handed to them in math and science by the rest of the world, think about that.
We also have the issue of haves and have-nots come again. in some areas the schools flourish and the children are able to move upwards with relative ease. In other areas the schools are almost without hope, given the current system. Would you want your child to go to a Cleveland public school? Detroit? Me neither, so I moved.
OK, if we are not exactly rocking the world with upward mobility and education, maybe it is our health care system that helps make us the best nation on the planet.
OK, quit laughing.
Really, stop it. Sure we have 40 million uninsured or under-insured. Sure we spend more money per person on health care and get less bang for the buck. Sure our infant mortality rate wouldn’t put us in the top 20 countries of the world and our total life expectancy only ranks us 44th in the world, but hey, it could be worse.
One could make the argument that it is our civil liberties that make us a unique and special place. I won’t argue that our democratic history is unparalleled in the world. I would even claim that the First Amendment to the Constitution may be the most important words recorded in the annals of history.
What I don’t think is that that in and of itself bestows some special status on us. We are not the only representative democracy in the world. Most of the developed world follows a model near enough to ours that freedom of speech or religion is a given, not an exception. We should take pride in our historical role, but history doesn’t mean much in the rankings. Hell the Green Bay Packers used to be good too, but that didn’t help them yesterday.
Our military is one area that does truly set us apart. There is no doubt we are the most advanced military power in the history of the world. There is no one who can match our might when we need to or, sadly, choose to, use it. If the size and efficiency of your army were still the primary measuring stick of world power, then we would be without question #1. Lucky for the world, it isn’t. In a day and age of increased globalization and a flattening world, the biggest gun theory of power isn’t as important as it once was.
That we are a powerful nation is not the question. The question is “are we the best country?”
Honestly, I don’t know. We are a country that does not live up to its own hype and falls far short of our own publicity. We’re more Madison Avenue than James Madison these days. Somehow, some way, we do not match up to our own ideal of who we are as a people.
There is one thing that gives me hope though. Few other countries in the world, in the history of the world, have the capacity to reinvent themselves in ways that can reinvigorate and re-energize the entire nation. We have the capacity to make the changes necessary. Whether we have the will to do it is another matter.
We need to invest heavily, heavily in education, especially science and math. The only way our country can compete in a global world is to out-think and out-innovate the competition. It’s not liberalism at work here, it’s pragmatism. We are competing with the entire world, and the playing field is becoming increasingly even. Since we were the top dog, “even” isn’t exactly in our favor.
Along with that investment in education we need to rethink how education works. What do we expect for our money? We can’t just blame teachers, single parents, busing, immigrants or whatever excuse someone has why our schools don’t work. Other countries figure it out, we need to as well.
We need to do away with this mainstreaming idea. It is a concept rooted in misplaced egalitarianism. We need to do a better job identifying kids with talent, no matter what income bracket they are from and begin training them to be our elite. Yes I said elite. We are not a country that desires to be mediocre, but often, to often, we achieve that result out of political correctness. We need to do better at giving the best and brightest every opportunity to excel.
We need to do a better job creating educational opportunities for the kids who are not so academically inclined. We want all of our kids to be in some sort of watered-down college prep track, but there are lots of kids that just have no interest, or frankly, aptitude for college. Most school systems have some sort of limited vocational program, but to often it is seen as the dummy school. How idiotic can we be!.
Can you fix a car?
Can you install electrical systems or plumbing?
Ever had to pay one of those guys?
Giving a kid at a career is more important than satisfying your own ego about how smart little Johnny is or isn’t.
We need to fix health care. Period. Our health care system is about as cost effective as trying to air-condition downtown Miami in August. Outside. At noon. We need to understand that not every industry is a prime target for “free markets” because the market is not “free.” Every week I pay a “health care tax” in the form of my “employee contribution. Every year it goes up and up and up, and the benefits go down down down. There has to be a better way. Medicare for everyone is my answer.
You don’t like that?
OK, then here is my challenge to anyone out there who hates the idea of universal coverage because it’s “socialism” – give me a market solution that fixes the problem! Show me a way to provide basic coverage to everyone that does it cheaper than what the government can do. I’d love to see it. I don’t like “Big Government” but “Big Medical” and “Big Insurance” sure as hell ain’t getting it done. As a matter of fact, the rising cost of health care is driving business to other countries. Toyota just decided to build in Canada instead of the U.S. because medical was covered by the state.
Once again, it’s not liberalism – it’s strategic pragmatism.
I think we need to quit wasting time fighting enormous battles over minuscule issues. I’m not religious, but it chaps my ass every time I see someone fight to take the word God out of a school, or a pledge, or a building. I cringe just as much when someone drops a 2 ton slab of religious intolerance on a courthouse lawn. We have got to remember that the First Amendment guarantees you the right to free speech as well as religion and you have the right to say “God” as much as I have the right to not to.
We need to balance the budget. Runaway spending is going to cripple this economy. I do not want to be Beijing’s bitch any longer. Society requires money, but it needs to quit begging from the rest of the world.
We have problems, big problems in this country. The good news is, the problems often stem for not living up to our own hopes and dreams. With some effort, will and intestinal fortitude maybe we can solve them.
Then maybe we can say without reservation we ARE #1.