Is America (Really) the Greatest Country in the World?

A Hard Look at a Simple Question

Here’s a tiny question. Is America still great? Here’s why I ask: I think whether or not people believe so is going to more or less decide the election.

Put your emotions to one side. Let’s just look at facts, like semi-intelligent cave-dwellers used to be able to, not hair-trigger modern-day internet denizens.

Here’s what the authoritative source on real human prosperity, the Social Progress Index, says.

America ranks 19th, near the bottom of the set of advanced economies. But even that is putting it kindly.

Where are the deficits?

In what the SPI calls “foundations of well being”, or measures of the basic quality of people’s lives. Things like access to public goods, like education, healthcare, transport. And in what the SPI calls “basic human needs”. Things like child mortality, utilities, personal safety, and so on. If we measure these alone, the US ranks probably dead last among advanced economies — around 25th.

The thing pulling America’s rank up to 19th is yesterday’s achievements: personal property rights, freedom of religion, and so on.

All this squares pretty neatly with life as you and I know it, what we might call qualitative data. The US is the only rich country in the world with regular mass shootings, skyrocketing incarceration, no real social support, especially for young people, no real healthcare, no public transport outside cities, and so on. In starker terms, life expectancy is beginning to fall for the first time ever, the young face a sharply lower quality of life, the majority of public school kids are in poverty, and incomes appear set to never rise again for the average person barring diamonds falling from the sky.

Phenomena like these will show up in indices like the SPI, but it will take a decade or so. Anticipating that, the US’s position globally is likely to fall over the next decade. In historic terms, the US is probably going to peak somewhere between a developing economy, like Brazil, and a truly prosperous one, like Sweden.

So: is America the greatest country in the world?

Judge for yourself. But don’t do it naively. “But we make iPhones!!” is a pretty poor argument. Because things like functioning healthcare are life-savers, whereas iPhones are pleasure-enhancers. Which is precisely why indices worth looking at, like the SPI, differentiate between them.

Let’s put all that differently.

The real question is this: given data, facts, and everyday reality, is it really credible to say that the US is the world’s greatest country today?

I don’t say the above to score intellectual points. I’m not a pundit, I’m not interested in being “right”. I want to make a larger point.

This election boils down to one simple question. Who do you dislike less? Never before have two candidates been so disliked. Yet the truth is: we’re going to end up with one. Which one will that be?

I think this election will be decided by which candidate is more credible. Will that be the candidate telling society it’s “the greatest”, in an era when it’s so plainly broken — or the one telling society it could be great again?

Which story is more resonant with reality?

It is wrong to say that Donald Trump is the only liar in this election. Hillary’s team is telling a Big Lie, too. That lie is: America is the greatest country in the world, in history, ever, still, today.

And it is just as dangerous a lie, but for different reasons.Where has telling this lie gotten America so far? It has only really blinded it to its own suffering, its broken, its flaws and faults. Just like an immature person, it is unable to really grow as a society. That is why the middle class has been imploding for decades while elites laugh in their palaces in the sky, right?

Yet here we are, retelling it. But the stakes are different this time. There is not just another candidate on the opposing side, but an authoritarian. And by telling the Big Lie, the Democrats are effectively ceding the election to him.

It’s OK not to be “the greatest”. That is the truest hallmark of maturity. It’s as true for societies as it is for people. If I told you that I was the greatest economist, lover, writer, person, I’d be boasting. You’d roll your eyes and laugh at me. You’d be right to. Why? Because I’d be blind to my faults. And so I’d never really be able to grow. So it is for societies. When a nation believes that it alone is “history’s greatest”, how can it ever recognize its faults? Admit its wounds? Heal its broken? There is no need to, is there?

The simple fact is this. If you’re sitting in an abandoned industrial town, forgotten by your leaders, exploited by the heartless, and suddenly you’re faced with two stories — America’s The Greatest, or America’s Broken and Maybe it Can Be Great Again — which one are you likely to believe?

This election, this fatal choice, is in the hands not of you and I, the coddled elites, the comfortable and smug. But in the hands of the broken, the desperate, and the abandoned. They will decide our fates this time, not we theirs.

And the more that we lie to them about the greatness of our society, the less likely they are to believe us.

An immature person grows up when they stop believing their own lies. So it is for societies.

The true tragedy of this election is that the truth is not a dialectical choice between Hillary and Trump, but a synthesis of them. America used to be great, perhaps the greatest, in many ways. Today, it is broken, perhaps the most broken, in many ways. Its potential, its possibility, to do great and wondrous things again, is being squandered, wasted, turned to dust. That much is factual, for anyone who cares to look.

The sooner that we admit it, the greater the vanishing chance is that we may come together and heal the wounded body politic.

July 2016

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