The Decline and Fall of America (In Numbers)

Tobias Stone
Aug 31, 2017 · 12 min read
Photo: AP Images

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In numbers, a lot about the United States appears to be on the decline. Of course, you can focus on the positive numbers like unemployment and the stock market, but they do not excuse the statistics that are so out of keeping with America’s image as the world’s leading developed nation.

Trump ran on a message of making America great again, which puzzled people who were informed and not lost in conspiracy theories. America is already great and doing very well on many measures. The stock market is high, unemployment low. The great universities, and their associated cities, continue to push the boundaries of inventiveness, changing the future of humanity: from breakthroughs in space flight and electric cars to algorithms and AI. Yet America also has another story, one told in statistics, which is in conflict with the science, innovation, and industry that is truly great about the country. Ironically, while addressing these issues would be the most direct path to greatness, Trump is not addressing any of them and is actively making them worse.

When viewed together, the darker statistics paint a worrying picture of a country failing on some of the most fundamental measures that we — including Americans — would consider the foundations of a successful and advanced nation. These are the failings by which we judge other, less advanced nations, yet they persist in the United States itself.

And the painful truth about this story is that it cannot be pinned on Trump. Declines, as they appear in numbers, are deeply entrenched. Mistakes take a long time to show in the stats. The United States is suffering from systemic failures that go back decades. Neither Democrats nor Republicans carry the blame alone. While things were good under Obama, these individual trends, buried under a growing GDP and brilliant innovation, are as much his failure as that of Clinton, the Bushes, and Reagan.

But the biggest tragedy of this story is that many of the victims of these failings tried to bring around change by voting for a renegade who promised to make their country “great again,” and who has now entirely turned his back on them. Trump came to power at a time when he could have (if he were a completely different person, in a parallel universe) taken steps to correct some of these trends. A truly renegade leader committed to change could have built on the progress made by Obamacare and made sure everyone in the United States had access to health care, improving life expectancy. He could have ensured everyone had access to dental care, rather than to firearms. Instead, in his populist, selfish, ultracapitalist way, Trump looks set to accelerate this decline. Rather than bringing evidence-based policymaking to solve these problems, Trump leads an uneducated team that bring god and ideology into decisions that will decide people’s futures. That will be a tragedy for America and for Americans.

Where would you place a flag on a map when identifying a country that is ruled by a demagogue, who has his family sitting alongside him at state occasions, whose very beautiful “daughter-adviser” also runs a clothing chain, and whose son and son-in-law carry out unorthodox foreign policy negotiations for him; a country where people carrying guns are allowed to march in the streets under Nazi flags? There have been satirical comedies about fake-istan countries that fit this description. This is more Borat than leader of the free world.

An article about a recent report on income disparity in San Francisco ranked the city equal with Rwanda for its gap between rich and poor. Such comparisons are a trend that starts to emerge across U.S. statistics. The report found that:

This income inequality also has a racial component: the average white San Franciscan makes three times more money than the average black resident, 66 percent more than the average Latino resident, and 44 percent more than the average Asian resident.

This sort of imbalance is what countries look like before revolutions. Numbers like these are referred to in history books when they ask why that period in history ended. You only need to peer over at Venezuela for an idea of what can happen next. Or down to Charlottesville to see angry white men marching under Nazi flags, reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Those things are linked to societal imbalances and poor government.

What happened in Charlottesville was shocking on many levels, but for an English onlooker, the mere fact that any protest could make it that far when the protesters were armed and wearing combat gear, or carrying batons and shields, was astonishing. Forget the politics for a moment and ask yourself what sort of country doesn’t automatically arrest people who turn up to protest on the street carrying assault rifles? In Germany (and they are the experts), it is illegal to display any Nazi symbols or make a Nazi salute. In the UK, it would have fallen foul of laws against incitement to racism and violence.

Yet in the United States, white men can march in protest carrying guns and symbols of the deepest, darkest period of racial hatred in human history, and the only sanction they get is on Twitter. As people have pointed out, if young black men had marched through a town similarly armed and violent, they would presumably have been shot by the police, as they are for much less.

The big one, the statistic of statistics, is life expectancy. The United States ranks 31st in the table of countries by life expectancy, just one above Cuba (32), and well below most Western countries (UK is 20th; Canada is 12th). Life expectancy is an important measure when judging how a country is run, because at the end of the day, surely, keeping people alive is the most basic duty of a government. The United States does a worse job of this than bankrupt Greece, or Costa Rica. While Trump can’t be blamed for the trend, removing health insurance from more than 20 million of the most vulnerable Americans will make this worse, not better.

Within the life expectancy statistic is one of the United States’ darkest shadows, and one that runs contrary to the country’s claim to be a leading first-world economy: the maternal death rate. We always think that surviving childbirth is a miracle of modernity, capitalism, and economic success. Whereas giving birth used to be a serious risk to a mother, it is now relatively safe. As countries become more developed, maternal death rates drop. That is just a given, isn’t it?

The United States is the only developed country where maternal mortality is rising. Whereas 3.8 women per 100,000 die from childbirth in Finland, 26.4 women die in the United States. Women in the United States are three times more likely to die in the maternal period than their Canadian neighbors. This number of deaths per 100,000 has dropped significantly in all developing nations, and even in Russia, Vietnam, Romania, and Iran. It has risen only in places like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and…the United States.

Again, Trump can’t be blamed for this, as such things are embedded in the longer-term provision of health care. But instead of taking steps to address this, which involves listening to doctors and scientists, Trump’s medieval court of science-deniers and conspiracy theorists are cutting funding for services designed to protect women and cutting health care provisions in general. This will only make it worse.

If anyone had any doubt about the link between funding for maternal health care and maternal mortality, they just need to look at Texas, where maternal death rates doubled in a two-year period, from 2011 to 2012, after the state legislature cut $73.6 million from the state’s family planning budget of $111.5 million. Consequently, Texas now has the highest maternal death rate in the developed world. This was a policy led by hard-right conservatives, who are also heavily influenced by religious and ideological beliefs and clearly not looking objectively at the evidence in front of them.

Photo: AP Images

Linked to this, the United States has the peculiar distinction, for a developed nation, of having a religious fundamentalist influence on its politics and policymaking. Religious beliefs interwoven with health care policy leads to scientifically bad policy, which is evidenced by the situation in Texas.

A lot of the problems relating to maternal death rates stem from Christian beliefs around contraception and sex influencing policy that should be, and elsewhere is, led by science and facts. God sneaks into U.S. domestic and foreign policy to an extent that would seem bizarre to most Europeans. Again, the statistics tell a story.

Just over 70 percent of Americans questioned by the Pew Research Center identify as Christian, and 63 percent of Americans absolutely believe in god. One-third of Americans said the Word of God should be taken literally. The United States is a predominantly Christian, god-fearing nation. We see that in the way presidential candidates have to declare their love of god to the electorate, and how god is invoked in so many political debates and by the white Christian right to justify their racism and belief in white supremacy.

For context, 48.5 percent of the UK population declared they had no religion, with the number at 52 percent in Scotland. To a Brit, sitting in 21st-century London, it is hard to fathom that the country producing all the great science and technology, with some of the world’s greatest universities — pools of rational thought and evidence-based ideas — is a country in which over 60 percent of its people believe god is literally real.

To outsiders, it looks bizarre when Americans bring god and Christianity into political debate, policymaking, and foreign policy. To hear that an evangelical adviser to the president (even that he has one) has argued that God supports Trump attacking North Korea is shocking. Trump’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, actually said:

When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.

Many Americans will be fine with this, because it’s a white preacher talking about the New Testament god, but when a fundamentalist Muslim cleric calls for a jihad against the United States, that is terrorism—shocking and backwards.

This religious extremism affects the United States now at the highest level, with Christian fundamentalists in senior government positions, including the vice president, but also those responsible for science-related areas of policy like climate change. When the most powerful country on earth veers toward the Bible instead of science books to form policy, the whole world suffers, as we have already seen in Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.

Another aspect of the new Trump-era America that is more reminiscent of a madeup-istan parody is the gerrymandering. Stories, like that of North Carolina, that we would elsewhere call blatant vote rigging, will astonish outsiders who think of the United States as “the land of the free” and a champion of democracy. It seems bewildering that this beacon of democracy, in which Republicans claim to be the ones safeguarding American freedom, has such profound examples of (primarily) Republican politicians manipulating democratic system like this. It damages the United States’ leadership globally when it tries to bring democracy to other countries.

Clearly part of this problem stems from education. People who are educated are more likely to use evidence to form arguments and are better equipped to weigh different points of view when building an opinion. And the United States’ statistics on education are another cause for concern. One would assume that the richest nation on earth, the world beacon of Western democracy, the world’s superpower, would be a country in which everyone was highly educated.

On education, the Pew Research Center writes that out of 71 countries, the United States sits in an unimpressive 38th in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the United States ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

What we saw in Charlottesville were people who believe in ideas that have no basis in fact or history. Ideas that range from god saying they are superior to other races to scrambled logic about the economy, immigrants, and liberal ideas. Ideas that are based on this toxic mix of poor education and fundamentalist beliefs. Science education combats these ideas, as they are so clearly contradicted by even the smallest amount of knowledge.

And then there are the guns. Granted, other developed nations allow their citizens to own firearms, but the extent of gun ownership and gun usage in the United States dwarfs the rest of the developed world. Quoting a report in the American Journal of Medicine, CBS writes:

Even though it has half the population of the other 22 [developed] nations combined, the United States accounted for 82% of all gun deaths. The United States also accounted for 90% of all women killed by guns, the study found. 91% of children under 14 who died by gun violence were in the United States. And 92% of young people between ages 15 and 24 killed by guns were in the United States.

Other countries with this many guns, and this many gun deaths, are either at war or suffering a civil war. Again, as with life expectancy, these statistics are Second World. And as with the god question, the inability to process data and facts or the opinion of experts perpetuates the proliferation of guns, and gun deaths, in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-American rant — but surely it is anti-American to let the country slide backwards on so many different measures. Making America great must involve reversing these trends. America was founded on principles that clash with these statistics: A great America would be one where everyone had access to basic health care and dentistry, everyone was educated above a basic level, and everyone was treated equally and well. A great America would build policy on all the great science its universities produce. It would be a world leader in translating the latest knowledge into policy that improves people’s lives. It would be a beacon of Enlightenment thinking, as it was when it was founded.

The extent to which any rational discourse has failed to evolve in the United States is that people and politicians are still debating things like gun control, abortion, whether climate change exists, and whether a president should take his daughter to world summits. This is basic stuff. It gets in the way of real policy discussions on how to solve these very deep problems. I fail to see how a country like the United States can move forward and evade collapse when so much of the political discourse is still stuck somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Victorian era.

What is so disappointing is that Trump’s government seems intent on making all of this worse. As these statistics worsen, the United States will slip down more and more on global tables, finding itself uncomfortably on par with undeveloped, war-torn, undemocratic, failing states. At what point does it actually become one?

These statistics need to be reported as front-page news, confronted head-on, and discussed as a pattern, not as unrelated factoids. It falls to someone, to some political group, to shine a light on what is happening as shown in the data and to ask what it means and what to do about it.

I wonder how many on Trump’s team are familiar with these statistics. I wonder if the Republicans voting to take health care away from so many Americans know that their country has Second World life expectancy figures. I wonder if they would be proud of this. And if so, how? I wonder if the likes of Pence would argue back something about god and morality in his defense of the increase in maternal deaths in Texas.

Whoever takes on the mantel of opposing Trump needs to take this statistical picture and make it part of their campaign. The United States needs to confront the fundamental problems that have developed over generations and that will require radical, intelligent, informed policymaking. When Trump points at employment and GDP as a mark of his success, his opponents need to point to the numbers that read like a developing nation as a response.

Tobias Stone

Written by

Writing about politics, history, and society. An outsider's view on the USA, insider's view on the UK, and cautious optimist. @ts_writing

Making Sense
Making Sense
Making Sense

About this Collection

Making Sense

Tobias Stone wrote one of the most widely read pieces of 2016 on Trump, Brexit, and the political landscape we face today. He continues to try to use history and current commentary to make sense of our fast changing world.

Tobias Stone wrote one of the most widely read pieces of 2016 on Trump, Brexit, and the political landscape we face today. He continues to try to use history and current commentary to make sense of our fast changing world.

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