Why America is going backward: Being the richest nation in history isn't enough

America is the greatest economic and military power in world history — and our quality of life is garbage. But why?

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published August 5, 2023 12:09PM (EDT)

The parking lot is nearly deserted at Forest Plaza on March 24, 2020 in Rockford, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The parking lot is nearly deserted at Forest Plaza on March 24, 2020 in Rockford, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that's the way I likes it! — Grandpa Abe Simpson on the metric system

If you have friends who live in other countries, you might occasionally hear them ask, more or less rhetorically, why the hell we Yanks are still stuck with the English system of weights and measures. After all, Mother England herself went metric (and even decimalized the pound sterling) more than five decades ago. As of now, only two countries other than the United States use the English system: Liberia and Myanmar. Neither of them is exactly on the global cutting edge of science and technology, which suggests that maybe the U.S. has a problem.  

And problems there have been. In 1999, after almost 10 months' journey through space, the Mars Climate Orbiter disintegrated. The contractor, Lockheed Martin, had used English units, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory used metric, and someone had converted between the two incorrectly. There went $327.6 million down the drain.

Are you taking a plane at 7:30 tonight? Practically everywhere else in the world it would be 19:30. To avoid ambiguity for scheduling purposes, virtually the entire world (again, except the U.S.), uses the 24-hour clock. It is the standard for science, militaries and computer support. Evidently the mental exertion involved is just too much for Americans.

One might think that the United States, home of the world's biggest tech companies and the country where the internet originated, might be unchallenged in internet connectivity. Figures say otherwise: The U.S. ranks 27th in global internet connectivity. Part of the reason might be cost: Within the OECD, a group of mostly rich industrialized countries, the U.S. has the second most expensive internet service for customers.

This story of high prices and poor outcomes is true almost across the board for vital services, and there is none more vital than health care. The U.S. spends 17.8 percent of GDP on health care, nearly twice as much as the average OECD country. Health spending per person in America is almost twice as high as in the next most expensive country, Germany, and four times higher than in South Korea.

Does that high cost lead to better health? It does not. Probably the best proxy for the adequacy of health care is longevity; according to the UN, the U.S. ranks No. 70 out of 227 sovereign or semi-sovereign state entities. That's below most European NATO members, South Korea, Japan and Israel, just to name three countries the U.S. has pledged to defend militarily, at potentially huge expense. It's also below China.

As expected, lower longevity has implications for many other statistics, such as infant mortality; America's ranking among developed countries is abysmal: "U.S. maternal mortality in 2020 was over 3 times the rate in most of the other high-income countries." So much for the pro-life charade of the religious right. 

During World War II, American GIs were generally taller than their counterparts from other countries, thanks to better nutrition. Today, Americans are bigger in a different sense, with the highest rate of obesity in the developed world.

Health data also reveal some surprising outcomes. In World War II, American GIs were generally taller than their counterparts in other countries; better nutrition was responsible. Today, Americans are only bigger in a different sense: The U.S. ranks 12th in the world for obesity, but highest in the developed world and well above the EU nations and other rich countries like Japan and South Korea. Obesity, needless to say, also detracts from average lifespan

In the league tables for average height, the U.S. is now well below most European countries. The Dutch are the world's tallest people, and the reason may be "the Netherlands' world-leading healthcare system, low levels of income inequality and excellent social welfare system."

One could provide enough additional examples to fill a book. How did America, the quintessential "modern" country in the mid-20th century, become so backward? Perhaps it's a result of falling economic productivity. Robert Gordon, in "The Rise and Fall of American Growth," argues that the most rapid increases in the American standard of living came between 1870 and 1930, although impressive increases continued until about 1970. After that, productivity fell to little more than half its previous rate of increase.

Gordon says that inventions like electricity, internal combustion engines, central heating and sewage and clean water systems were far more significant than the so-called IT revolution of recent decades. Those things created a virtuous cycle, not only of industrial productivity but health and well-being. Indoor plumbing and general sanitation, he estimates, added more to Americans' lifespans than all the expensive wonder drugs we have today. 

If you were transported roughly 80 years back in time, to the house where your grandparents or great-grandparents lived around 1940 (assuming they were Americans and did not live in Appalachia or the Deep South), they would most likely have had indoor plumbing, electric lights, perhaps a washing machine and a refrigerator. Quite possibly a radio, a phone and a car in the driveway as well. It might seem a bit retrograde without high-speed internet and big-screen TV, but in general terms it would be recognizable. But if we time-traveled back another 80 years before that, virtually none of those amenities were found in American houses, and life would seem unbearably primitive from today's perspective.

Gordon's thesis is that these inventions, being one-time events, caused a historically unusual economic growth spurt but that over time, the marginal productivity improvements resulting from the inventions tapered off. Modern IT developments like the cell phone and the internet have not had nearly the same impact in terms of improving living standards. 

He makes a persuasive case about American economic trends as they relate to invention and productivity, but there is something missing: the international context. Other developed countries also experienced their post-World War II growth spurts: les Trente Glorieuses in France, the Wirtschaftswunder in Germany, il miracolo economico in Italy, or the Japanese economic miracle. Productivity growth was even higher in those countries at those times than in the U.S., because they started from a much lower baseline after the war's destruction.

Furthermore, like the U.S., all those countries experienced a downturn in growth after 1970 (mainly due to the 1973 oil embargo). In recent decades their productivity has mostly been poorer than that of the U.S. Indeed, U.S. median income remains well above that of most developed countries (not counting offshore banking islands and other anomalies). Yet they have overtaken America, and generally pulled far ahead, in the important quality of life measures I cited earlier. How can America be so rich financially and so poor in quality of life? Gordon suggests, certainly correctly, that rising income inequality played a role. But that dodges the question: Why specifically did this happen in the United States?

Perhaps the answer lies in the first items I mentioned, the metric system and the 24-hour clock; They are customs, rather than measures of standards of living or health. As such, they are symbolic of a deeper cultural attitude that determines our physical well-being. In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, stating that it was now government policy "to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce." And then nothing happened.

That law could be seen in retrospect as the last gasp of a bipartisan progressive spirit in America, coming at the end of the high-growth era and at the dawn of the radical right. The connection between U.S. backwardness and the triumph of the reactionary right can aptly be summed up by the words of the founder of postwar American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., who said his mission was to "stand athwart history yelling, 'Stop.'"

 Kurt Andersen has argued that the political and economic rigging of American life that he sees has come with a hefty side order of cultural stagnation. It started in the 1970s, he says, as a regression to a simpler time, with nostalgic movies like "American Graffiti" and "The Last Picture Show." By the Reagan era, it was in full swing. He notes that apart from high-tech devices, the "look" of American street scenes, of American life, of its cultural texture, is remarkably similar to what it was 40 years ago. Perhaps this explains why most movies these days are either the eighth sequel of a previous blockbuster of probable Star Wars or Marvel Comics vintage, or a live-action rehash of a cartoon or some other juvenile or escapist theme.

What caused all this? It is difficult systematically to disentangle the chicken-and-egg relationship between reactionary politics and the decline of intellectual and cultural life, but the evidence is staring us in the face. 

Postwar America experienced a renaissance of the public intellectual, with help from the infusion of ideas of European refugees like Hannah Arendt, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Albert Einstein. Today, more and more areas of science and intellectual discourse are met with unrelenting hostility.

Postwar America experienced a renaissance of the public intellectual, with help from the infusion of ideas of European refugees like Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Claude Lévi-Strauss and the greatest of them all, Albert Einstein. Their American-born contemporaries and near-contemporaries — Eric Hoffer, J.K. Galbraith, Richard Hofstadter, Christopher Lasch — have no real equivalents today. The current anti-intellectual climate is such that more and more areas of science are rejected, and when it comes to the social sciences and liberal arts, the political hostility is unrelenting.

Instead of intellectuals, we have "influencers," a term which itself hints at illicit manipulation: Consummate mediocrities like Joe Rogan are endlessly hyped for expressing uninformed opinions that resemble those you'd hear in a barroom at closing time. Instead of receiving clinical help, angry paranoiacs like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are invited to congressional hearings and treated like savants. 

Thanks to people like these, mass medical quackery will not die down with the passing of the COVID pandemic; the same people who brought you equine dewormer as a sovereign remedy for coronavirus are now touting boric acid, the stuff that kills ants and cockroaches, as good for what ails you.

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For every crackpot influencer, religious fraud or political charlatan, there must be dozens, if not hundreds, of devoted American followers. We cannot be certain what makes them tick, but the work of Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer is highly suggestive. He posits a distinctive human trait he calls the right-wing authoritarian personality and describes it this way

They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times and are often hypocrites.

Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result. ... And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told. They are not going to let up and they are not going away.

His estimate of 20 to 25 percent of adult Americans was later supported by a Morning Consult poll that used a version of Altemeyer's standard questions for determining whether a test subject held right-wing authoritarian views. It found that 25.6 percent of polled American adults scored high in that index, a figure two to three times higher than among adults polled in other developed countries.

That gap suggests that a genetic component of authoritarian behavior is only weakly present, if at all; there must be something distinctive about the American environment, something in our  politics, culture and family life that results in such a high propensity toward authoritarianism.  

Altemeyer has emphasized that the right-wing authoritarian harbors a peculiar mix of traits: aggression, submissiveness and conventionality. It may be this brew of behaviors that determines such disparate matters as America's penchant for violence, its inability to reform itself politically and perhaps even its refusal to adopt the more rational weights and measures used by the rest of the world. Economic issues may play a role, but the jaw-dropping difference between the U.S. and other countries in the polling data suggests that deeper and more terrifying psychological forces are at work.

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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Commentary Education History Inequality Intellectuals Metric System Psychology Public Health