A run-of-the-mill superpower

What is most striking about the US is just how unexceptional it is compared to other developed nations.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Books

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There is a YouTube clip doing the rounds with the title ‘The Most Honest Three and a Half Minutes of Television EVER’. It is taken from the US television series The Newsroom and features a news anchor, played by Jeff Daniels, contemptuously dismissing the suggestion that America is the greatest country in the world. With a string of statistics (‘we’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math…’ etc), he crushes his audience’s patriotic faith in American exceptionalism. The speech has been viewed over three million times and might well appeal to Howard S Friedman, whose book The Measure of a Nation aims to inject some sober, and sobering, statistics into the discussion of America’s status in the world – a discussion that too often flies between the extremes of Glenn Beck jingoism and Naomi Klein self-laceration.

Friedman, a former senior policy adviser for the United Nations, comes neither to praise nor bury America, only to find room for improvement. If businesses can use competitive intelligence to find best practice, he says, then why shouldn’t countries? By comparing the USA to other wealthy nations in a series of graphs, he has written a thinking-man’s Spirit Level. But whereas that book blamed all the world’s ills on a single economic variable, Friedman understands that different problems have different causes and he believes he has the practical policies to put Uncle Sam back on top.

Just as it is easy for British conservatives to romanticise the allegedly low-tax, free-market USA, American liberals are inclined to put European welfare states on a pedestal. Friedman’s book – which he describes as an ‘inexpensive trip abroad’ for American readers – is admirably evidence-based, but he occasionally dons the rose-tinted spectacles of the latter. This is particularly true of his assessment of continental democracy, which depicts Italy, a country which endured endless changes of governments before settling on Silvio Berlusconi, as a role model. Friedman is right to argue that two political parties have a stranglehold on American politics, but this is hardly unusual in democracies and, while his advocacy of proportional representation should not be lightly dismissed, Friedman turns a blind eye to the political instability and squalid backroom deals that often accompany it. And while he is right to condemn the gerrymandering that has led to thinly populated states being over-represented in Congress, his analysis depicts the USA as the democratic runt of the litter because Americans have only one elected representative for every 580,000 people. Greece, meanwhile, is the ‘star’ because it has a ratio of one politician for 38,000 people. The underlying assumption here is that society is better served by having the maximum number of politicians, a view that can be most charitably described as debatable.

His portrayal of Americans as politically apathetic does not ring true. One does not need to revere Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken to appreciate that round-the-clock political talk shows cannot exist without a significant public appetite for political discourse. How many European countries have an equivalent of The Daily Show? Friedman’s graph shows voter turnout in the US to be lower than any of the competing nations he ranks his homeland against, but this is only possible by using data from US mid-term elections and comparing them to parliamentary elections overseas. If he used the turn-out for US presidential elections, America would be in the middle of the range.

Friedman is on stronger ground in his criticisms of America’s healthcare, education and penal systems. It is difficult to argue with his contention that ‘three strikes’ laws – which mandate automatic life sentences for three serious crimes – are draconian and that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed. He is persuasive in making the case for teachers to be better paid and he provides sound explanations for the overpricing of both healthcare and higher education. In some cases, there are practical solutions, but these are not always as straightforward as they appear. A European-style welfare state may well be incompatible with American levels of immigration, for example, and while Friedman says that ‘gun control tops the list of changes that would make a difference to Americans’ safety’, it is far from certain that any legislation could make a significant difference in a country that already has 280million firearms. The sentiment is noble, but the horse may have bolted.

The Measure of a Nation’s portrayal of the US as a waning superpower which is ‘slowly self-destructing’ makes an interesting counter-argument to Peter Baldwin’s The Narcissism of Minor Differences, now available in paperback, which takes a similar approach of comparative analysis but comes to a quite different conclusion. Like Friedman, Baldwin hopes to ‘bring some empirical meat to the table’, and with 212 graphs, he does so in spades. But whereas Friedman focuses on outcomes that can be influenced by government policy (health, education, defence spending, etc), Baldwin looks at a vast array of cultural indicators, from pesticide use to the percentage of the population who have enjoyed a threesome. (Iceland comes top, since you ask, with the USA in second place.) This would make The Narcissism of Minor Differences a fascinating reference book even if it came without the author’s insightful commentary. Eye-catching findings fly off the page. Did you know, for example, that fewer Americans take astrology seriously than do the French, Germans or Brits? Or that Dutch people are ten times more likely to use homeopathy? Or that, if one takes official statistics at face value, more than a fifth of the Swedish population is disabled?

Unlike Friedman, Baldwin sees the US as neither a ‘star’ nor a ‘dog’. Instead, he says, ‘in almost every quantifiable respect, the United States and Western Europe approximate each other’. There are differences in methodology that help explain this contradiction, but only up to a point. Friedman quite reasonably compares the US to the 13 largest wealthy nations (nine European states plus Australia, Korea, Canada and Japan). Equally reasonably, considering his mandate, Baldwin uses all the Western European countries as his comparison group. There is no disagreement between the two authors about the fact that America has very high rates of homicide, infant mortality, obesity and incarceration – Baldwin accepts that ‘some outcomes are nothing short of shameful’. He does also rank the USA at the top of the charts for blood donations, charitable giving, rail freight and percentage of the population to have had a homosexual experience. Over all, however, Baldwin finds that America does neither especially badly nor especially well. On everything from crime and corruption to working hours and electricity consumption, the USA is well within the European range. ‘There are, of course, differences between America and Europe’, he writes. ‘But in almost all cases, they are no greater, and often smaller, than the differences among European nations.’

Aaron Levenstein once said that statistics are like bikinis: what they show is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. Taking these two books side by side, it is the different interpretations of similar data that is most striking. For example, Friedman shows the USA to have the highest rates of death by injury and homicide, whereas Baldwin combines murder, suicide and fatal injury to create an index of ‘catastrophic death’ in which the USA does better than Belgium, Norway and four other countries. Friedman looks at military expenditure as a percentage of GDP and finds America at the top of the chart. Baldwin shows a similar chart but he also digs out the data showing what percentage of the population is enlisted in the army. By that measure, the US is very average, sitting just below Spain and well below Finland. Which of these comparisons is more revealing? The reader must decide.

The bikini metaphor comes to mind again in the discussion of poverty. It is true that more Americans live on less than 60 per cent of the average income that do Europeans and so, by the conventional relative definition, the USA has the most poverty. But America is wealthier than all but a couple of European countries and, as Baldwin notes: ‘If poverty means to live on less than the cash equivalent of 60 per cent of the median American income, then the only countries that have proportionately fewer poor people than the United States are two Nordic nations (Norway and Denmark) and the wealthiest European countries, Luxembourg and Switzerland.’ Twice as many Italians, Spaniards and Greeks fall below America’s poverty threshold than do Americans. This is not an insignificant piece of information, but Friedman does not mention it. Baldwin, for his part, could have drawn more attention to the additional out-of-pocket expenses Americans need to pay, notably for healthcare, which Europeans get for ‘free’. One might also complain that Baldwin’s less pessimistic view of American healthcare focuses too heavily on cancer survival rates, which are often the result of earlier detection rather than successful treatment. Friedman, meanwhile, could have more thoroughly explored the question of whether it is better to be insured in America or dependent on socialised healthcare in Europe.

Conflicting interpretations are inevitable when such a wealth of raw data is presented and these two transparently honest enquiries encourage and invite critical thinking. Despite the different conclusions, there is significant agreement between the authors on many of the key issues. Both agree that the empirical evidence does not show the USA to be Number One. The difference is one of expectations. Baldwin’s glass is half-full while Friedman’s glass is half-empty. Moreover, Baldwin is broadly comfortable with America being there or thereabouts and almost pre-empts Friedman’s critique with these words: ‘My point is not that Americans should break out the champagne to congratulate themselves. Of course, there is room for improvement, and serious deficiencies can be revealed by such comparisons. But there is a curiously hubristic quality to American social scientists’ self-flagellation. If America is not Number One, or very close to it, then – so seems to be the attitude – it is nothing. The idea that the United States might be just another country, muddling through somewhere along the bulge of the bell curve, is rarely entertained as an acceptable possibility.’

Baldwin offers a few suggestions as to how to improve the nation, but his reform agenda is less ambitious than Friedman’s manifesto of lighter prison sentences, universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, gender quotas, stronger trade unions, a less interventionist foreign policy and a more progressive tax system. These are, in effect, the standard policies of your average European welfare state and herein lies the contradiction. If the aim is to restore the USA to its supposedly rightful position at the top of the tree, it is not clear how this will be achieved through wholesale emulation of run-of-the-mill social democracies. Unless the American people are inherently superior, such a country would most likely resemble another run-of-the-mill social democracy. It would, perhaps, no longer be America at all.

Christopher Snowdon is a research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Read his blog, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist.

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Topics Books


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