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We're No. 16! Why Donald Trump's boorish American exceptionalism is so wrong

Here's how we need to make America great again. In most every metric that counts, we are slipping against the world


Phil Torres
January 30, 2016 7:30PM (UTC)

As a resident of white suburban America, I grew up believing that, as Fox News host Sean Hannity once so eloquently put it, “The U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.” This article of faith in the superiority of the U.S. was instilled deep within my brain as a child, right next to the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin and then visited by three Wise Men. But as I began to travel the world a few years ago — a globetrotting adventure that took me through Europe and Canada and inspired me to start a journal of international rankings of countries according to various metrics — it became increasingly clear that American exceptionalism is a baseless mythology of tribalistic self-aggrandizement perpetuated by people who (if I may generalize a bit) can’t locate Denmark on a map.

As it happens, the champions of this unique brand of nationalism are largely concentrated on the political right, where one also finds the attitude of anti-intellectualism in toxic doses. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The fact is that when one looks at infrastructure, life expectancy, family paid leave, health care, social mobility, income inequality, political corruption, government efficiency, economic stability, childhood poverty, student debt, water quality, education, prosperity, happiness and even Internet speed, one finds the U.S. absent from the top 10 “best countries” in every single instance. While the U.S. continues to have the largest economy in the world and by far the biggest military budget, in most categories relating to prosperity, security, happiness and well-being, the great American empire falls somewhere between the developed and the developing world.

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But don’t take my word for it. As the ancient philosopher Plato once observed, beliefs without justification aren't knowledge, and justification requires evidence. So, let’s take a gander at some statistics from various sources, beginning with the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Swiss not-for-profit foundation that’s “independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests.” According to the WEF, the U.S. fares as follows relative to the rest of the world: 16th in quality of overall infrastructure, 22nd with respect to competition, 33rd in terms of public institutions, 34th in terms of ethics and corruption, 35th in terms of health, 58th in terms of primary education, 67th in terms of security and 73rd in terms of wasteful government spending.

In terms of the WEF’s overall “global competitiveness index,” Switzerland comes in first with a value of 5.7 (out of 7), followed by Singapore with 5.6, and then the U.S., Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands all tied with 5.5. So, not terrible overall — yet conservatives would cringe at the thought that we’re tied with multiple “socialist” countries for third place. As it happens, though, the U.S. is far behind such countries according to other international rankings. Forbes, for example, ranks the U.S. as the 22nd best place for business in the world, with countries like Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Finland above us. Even the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom leaves the U.S. out of the top 10, placing Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and Denmark at the top.

In terms of “prosperity,” a concept that includes factors like governance, education, health, personal freedom and the economy, the London-based Legatum Institute ranks the U.S. 11th, with Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Sweden being the most prosperous. We’re also ranked 13th in the world with respect to social mobility, or the freedom for underprivileged individuals to climb the social ladder and become successful. The result is that, as Politifact confirmed in a “Mostly True” rating from 2013, it’s actually “easier to obtain the American dream in Europe” than it is in the U.S. Take a moment to let that sink in. According to the research that Politifact cites, “Of the 10 countries studied, the United States had the strongest link between parents’ education and a child’s economic, educational and socio-emotional outcomes … more pronounced than in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Nordic countries, as well as Canada and Australia.”

Social mobility is important in part because studies show that “a lack of wealth does make poor people sadder,” and social immobility prevents those without wealth from acquiring it. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. isn’t among the top 10 happiest countries. According to the most recent data, we’re the 15th happiest country in the world, behind Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and our gentle neighbor to the north, Canada. Another factor relevant to happiness concerns the overall empowerment of women, who constitute 50.8 percent of the U.S. population. As the Global Gender Gap Index reports, countries like Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark score the best, while the U.S. ranks a shameful 20th. Yet another happiness factor relates to the prevalence of childhood poverty. Here the U.S. ranks 34th out of 35 countries considered by a recent study. Sadly, this is consistent with a 2014 report from Johns Hopkins that found that “teenagers in Baltimore face poorer health and more negative outlooks than those in urban centers of Nigeria, India and China.” Other studies have revealed that rates of PTSD among inner-city residents in America are “as high or higher than [rates among] Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam veterans.”

There’s also evidence to suggest that people “are happier in times when the gap between rich and poor is smaller.” In other words, if a country is rich but all its wealth is concentrated among a small class of elite billionaires, society as a whole might be miserable. So, how does the U.S. fare in this respect? To quote a Pew Research Center article on the issue, “the U.S. has one of the most unequal income distributions in the developed world … even after taxes and social-welfare policies are taken into account.” In fact, of the 10 richest people in the world, eight are American. And the situation of inequality is only getter worse globally: just six years ago, the 388 most affluent people owned the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent. Today, Oxfam reports that “The world’s 62 richest billionaires have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.” Yes, you read that correctly: 62.

The U.S. also ranks 43rd in the world for life expectancy, 37th with respect to health care, 20th in terms of political stability and 26th with respect to cleanliness, according to the Environmental Performance Index, maintained by researchers at Yale and Columbia University. And while we’re often an early adopter of new technology, we rank 22nd with respect to our Internet speed. Regarding our moral behavior in the world, the Global Peace Index, which ranks 162 counties according to their “national peacefulness,” places the U.S. in 94th place — closer to the bottom of the list than the top. (In fact, a 2014 global survey found that the world as a whole sees the U.S. as the number one threat to world peace.) Furthermore, unlike many other countries in the developed (and developing) world, college education isn’t free for Americans, we don’t have a universal health care system, and we’re the only “major country” in the world that fails to provide family paid leave, as Bernie Sanders is fond of pointing out. Even our tap water isn’t among the safest in the developed world, nor do we have any of the best airports.

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The point is that, as should be clear by now, there’s an unequivocal pattern of American inferiority when our country’s performance is juxtaposed with the rest of the developed world’s. Indeed, in many categories — such as childhood poverty, income inequality and family paid leave — we’re just barely a developed country, if even that. The result of these failures is that our collective quality of life is not nearly as high as it ought to be. Here it’s worth turning to the Mercer Quality of Life Survey, since it attempts to quantify the livability of some 221 cities around the world. And guess what it finds? The U.S. has only a single city in the top 30 — and it happens to be the ultra-progressive den of liberal debauchery called San Francisco. At the pinnacle of Mercer’s list are cities like Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Munich and Vancouver. In fact, of all the cities in the North American continent, the top four are all in Canada. Now that’s just embarrassing, eh?

Quality-of-life rankings such as Mercer’s have obvious implications for where one might want to settle down and start a family. Fortunately, there are reports concerned with precisely this question: Where’s the best place to be born in the world? Consider the 2013 Economist Intelligence Unit’s “where-to-be-born index,” a ranking system that “attempts to measure which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead.” According to their criteria, the U.S. ranks as the 16th best place to be born. At the top of the list are (once again) countries like Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and Finland. Again, Western Europe, our friendly northern neighbor and the Land Down Under beat us.

So, perhaps the myth of American exceptionalism isn’t so much wrong as it is misunderstood: we are quite exceptional within the developed world. The phrase “Only in America” does capture something uniquely true. The problem is that this phrase doesn’t capture what most of us would like it to. There are so many ways in which our country could — and should — be better off than it is. We’re so rich, yet so poor when compared to other neighborhoods in the global village. This leads to an important question about causation: Why exactly are we ranked low in terms of opportunity and flourishing? What’s behind our middling performance compared to the world? Is it because our country is too progressive? Too socialist? Too secular? Too crowded with atheists?

The unambiguous answer to these questions is a resounding No! For example, the U.S. turns out to be among the most religious countries in the developed world. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, “nearly four in 10 Americans report that they attended religious services in the past seven days.” In contrast, only about 2 percent of Norwegians attend church on a weekly basis, as of 2009. Along these very lines, a 2011 study reported that religion is tumbling toward “extinction” in nine developed countries, namely Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland — all of which are doing just fine. And whereas a U.S. politician could hardly dream of running for president as an out-of-the-closet atheist, many other countries have had atheist leaders in the past. As the former Prime Minister of Australia — a progressive woman who doesn’t believe in God — said to the Washington Post, “I think it would be inconceivable for me if I were an American to have turned up at the highest echelon of American politics being an atheist, single and childless.” Yet the empirical fact is that secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious folks. So it’s not that our country is too Godless.

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The U.S. also turns out to be quite conservative by comparative standards. I find it hard to even map right-left American politics onto the political spectrum of European countries. On many issues, for example, the right-wing Tories in the UK are left of the Democrats. And Sweden, whose “thriving economy and society [are] based on a government of socialist principles, higher taxes, and healthy regulations,” has a tax rate that’s nearly double America's. As an article in Forbes notes, the common thread that weaves together the tapestry of happiest countries is that “they are all borderline socialist states, with generous welfare benefits and lots of redistribution of wealth.” In these countries, civil liberties are taken seriously (some even permit prostitution and drug use), and everyone has a robust safety net to fall back on in tough times. So it’s also not that our country is too progressive.

I would argue that our country lags behind the developed world precisely because of how religious and conservative we are. As Bertrand Russell correctly observed way back in 1927, “I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” As a matter of fact, religious conservatives in America have consistently opposed attempts to implement equal pay for women legislation, universal health care and stricter environmental regulations. For reasons that continue to baffle me, many middle-class people still vote for Republicans, even though the effect of Republican policies has been to knock us out of the top bracket with respect to nearly every metric of life-quality.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But until people become aware of just how better other corners of civilization are, we’re doomed to stagnate in mediocrity.

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Phil Torres

Phil Torres is the founding director of the X-Risks Institute and the author of "Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks." He’s on Twitter @xriskology.

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