America the Greatest?

Is our judgment based on the belief that the US is a paragon of democracy and freedom in the world? In 2003, World Audit, an international non-profit organization, computed the relative level of democracy of 149 countries with population greater than one million. Analyzing data from a number of human rights organizations, they developed a formula that factored in levels of personal, political and press freedoms, as well as human rights. The results? On the list of top ten, the US was last, just behind Canada, and with all three Scandinavian countries leading.

Has our perception been that our democracy means equal rights for all? Economically, the case is hard to make. In the US, over the past thirty years, wealth inequality has nearly doubled. At present, 20 percent of the people control 80 percent of the wealth, and of all the major industrialized nations, we are the most unequal. According to the World Bank’s World Development Index of 2002, the US doesn’t even appear in the top thirty of greatest equality, which includes the three Scandinavian countries and Japan in the top ten.

Worldwide, the proportion of income for the wealthiest one-fifth of the earth’s population compared to the poorest one-fifth dropped from 30 to 1 in 1960, to 59 to 1 in 1989, according to the UN Development Program. This trend has not only continued since then, but is also reflected nationally. The middle class is shrinking. Fact Check confirmed this, and that the lower class is growing as a result.

Do we believe that we enjoy the best standard of health and health care in the world? Hardly. Surprisingly, we (at 6.6 deaths per 1,000 live births) do not appear in the list of the lowest ten infant mortality rates in the world, which is topped by Singapore, and followed by Sweden, Japan, Iceland, Finland and Norway. Even more surprising, neither do we (with 77.4 years, both sexes) appear in the list of top ten in highest life expectancy. It includes Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and Iceland. Much of this has to do with the rich-poor gap and the selective availability of health care in our privatized system. Forty four million Americans are going without costly health insurance while premiums continue to escalate. According to 2001 World Health Organization statistics, the U.S. ranked a lowly 37th in the world for health care, between Costa Rica and Slovenia, and trailing all other industrialized nations.

Is our national pride based upon the perception that as the only superpower we are the world’s primary caretaker? Another illusion. Of the 21 wealthiest nations in the world, we are in last place in percentage of national income devoted to aiding less fortunate nations. That was less than 1/7th of one percent, according to the late Paul Simon, former Senator and Director of the Public Policy Institute in his 1998 book, Tapped Out. Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and even Saudi Arabia donated seven times what we did, he said. And the trend has continued.

In other terms, we are giving only 13 cents for every $100 of income. Furthermore, when we look at who actually receives this "aid", we wonder how much of it is actually meant for humanitarian purposes; Russian was the top recipient in 2001-2002, followed by Egypt, Israel and Pakistan in second, third and fourth place respectively. Colombia was in sixth place and Peru in tenth. If we subtracted what was effectively used for political leverage, military advantage, economic interests or an alleged war on drugs, how much would truly be left for genuine aid and development?

Are we persisting in the belief that our system is the most honest, transparent and least susceptible to corruption there is? Here comes disillusionment. According to the organization Transparency International, the U.S. scored a lowly 19th on their 2003 list (a three place fall from the year before) with a 7.5 CPI (Corruption Perception Index). Finland, Iceland and Denmark were the top three, with Norway, Sweden, Canada, the U.K. and Australia all in the top eleven. The next place on the list following the U.S., interestingly enough, was Chili.

Have we insisted that the U.S. is the best place in the world to live? According to the UN Human Development Index for 2004, the U.S. places only eighth on the list of most livable countries. First through fourth place went to Norway, Sweden, Australia and Canada.

With all these sobering statistics, do we wonder, are we first at anything? Yes, we are. For starters, we lead the world in energy consumption. North America consumes more energy than any other continent. By 2000 estimates, North America consumed 121 quadrillion Btu compared to South Asia and Asia-Pacific with 107, Europe third with 88 and Russia fourth with 34. On a country by country basis, the U.S. by a 2002 estimate consumed 98.03 quadrillion Btu in primary (all sources) energy, compared to China in second place with 43.18. Russia was in third place with 27.54, followed by Japan, Germany, India and Canada. The U.S. represents only six percent of the world’s population, but uses 33% of the world’s energy production. A child born in the U.S. today over his or her lifetime will use five times the energy of a child born in the developing world.

The U.S. has the highest annual water use per capita in the world at 525,000 gallons, according to a 1990 estimate. This is more than twice the world average of 165,000 gallons. By comparison, Nicaragua’s figure is 72,000 per person per year. According to another estimate, the average American uses three times more water in a day than a European, and twenty times more than an African.

It follows that as the world’s leading consumers, we are also first in the world as polluters. The United States spews 1,500,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually into the air, more than that released by China, Argentina, Spain and Japan combined. The U.S. alone is responsible for a quarter of the world’s total industrial CO2 emissions, and computed on a per capita basis, the United States leads the world in sulfur dioxide emissions as well. An average American citizen will produce 52 tons of garbage by the age of 75.

Environmental impact of any individual upon the planet in terms of the amount of resources that person uses has been quantified under a system gaining wide acceptance, termed the "ecological footprint". The ecological footprint of the average individual of any particular country can be computed according to a formula developed by Mathis Wackernael, et al, of Redefining Progress, which employs over 200 categories in its calculations. Their final result is summed up and expressed in terms of hectares or acres per average citizen. This methodology was used to compute the footprints of 151 nations, per average citizen. The maximum carrying capacity of the earth was computed as 4.45 acres per person. An average world citizen uses 5.4, over twenty percent in excess of carrying capacity. The U.S. now tops the list of highest ecological footprint at 23.7 acres per person, over five times the barely sustainable level. By contrast, Bangladesh and Mozambique have footprints of 1.3 acres per capita.

Similarly, a new study by researchers at Yale and Columbia, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, generated an index of global environmental stewardship of 146 nations. The U.S. ranked a lowly 45th on the list for environmental protection. 136 other countries and regional economic groups signed the international Kyoto agreement on global warming. But the U.S. abstained.

This wanton and unsustainable consumption also leads to another first for the U.S., and a new one – the most obese country in the world. It is a problem that is escalating as well, and portends darkly, especially for our children. According to a 2000 Associated Press report, 55 percent of the U.S. population are overweight. Today, one in four American adults and one in six children are obese. By comparison, 56 percent of the population of Bangladesh is underweight and 53 percent in India.

The US also holds an unquestionable first position in military expenditures. According to 2003 statistics computed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the military expenditure of the United States at $417.4 billion is nearly as much (47%) as the rest of the world combined. By contrast, the U.S. spends about $13 billion to alleviate the conditions of poverty and despair which can themselves spark global conflicts.

Does the fear that drives our continued escalation of military might then attract the very violence we fear? Or is it our culture of violence? According to the Center for Defense Information, President Clinton’s proposed FY 2000 Discretionary Budget listed $281 billion for the military, while only $38 billion for the next highest figure for education. At the same time, we are training our kids to kill with ever more realistic, and addictive, video games. By contrast, Canada’s homicide rate is one of third of that in the U.S. and continues to decline, despite having abolished the death penalty in 1976. The rate of firearm-related homicides in the U.S. is about eight times that of Canada. With a population of nearly 300 million, the U.S. represents six percent of the world’s population, but America holds 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated prisoners.

While we do have a lot to be proud of, the preceding statistics point to the many areas in which we can stand improvement, and why world opinion of the U.S. has become increasingly negative. Obviously, we need to curb wanton consumption, reduce our environmental impact, steer away from a fear-based mindset, show a more generous and authentically compassionate side to the world, and present more than a nominal example of freedom, human rights and honest government. We need to reinvigorate the middle class by making the economy more equitable and opportunity more available. It is essential to encourage a healthier population by letting good sense rather than marketing determine the diets for our bodies as well as our minds, and make quality health care equally available to all. Above all, reform is vitally necessary to have a truly democratic government of the people and not the corporations. Any truly moral position should advocate for equal opportunity for all; security, support and protection for those in need, an economic engine that serves yet is responsible to the greater good, policy that takes into account the long term interests of future generations, and environmental protection and restoration.

National pride is our right and a natural human sentiment. Let it, however, be based in realism. We have much to be proud of, as a nation and as a people. But also there is much we need to improve on many fronts. The question to ask oneself is, politically, are we going in the right direction?


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2005 Almanac