From birth, we here in the US are raised to think of this as the greatest country in the world. Well, it’s time to think again. We no longer live up to our own hype by almost any metric.
This past week has seen two new studies that have got to cut flag-waving Uncle-Sam-has-abs-of-steel boosters to their jingoistic quick. In the latest World Happiness Report, America ranked 19th. In the most recent Freedom House World Democracy Rankings, the US plummeted to a position right behind Argentina and Mongolia and on a par with Panama, Romania and Croatia. On top of that at President Biden’s inaugural press conference, he made reference to how poorly America’s infrastructure ranks when compared to other countries—13th in the world as it turns out.
Now look, there’s no shame in being in the top 10 percent of countries. But that’s not how we have been selling ourselves for the past century. “We’re number 19,” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? It’s going to be darned hard for Toby Keith to turn that into a song lyric, isn’t it? Gonna be hard to thump our chests about the legacy of the Founders when we now have a system of government on a par with places like Mongolia and Romania, countries that began their marches to democracy barely three decades ago.
Two rankings hardly make or break a country’s standing in the world, of course. But these two are not outliers. A quick scan of the other major metrics by which countries are measured reveals that we are definitely not who we think we are.
Beginning with the basics, and you probably already knew this, but we are not the largest country in the world. In fact we are only third largest by population and fourth largest by land area.
We like to say we are the richest and in terms of nominal Gross Domestic Product, we are. But upon closer inspection that number is misleading. If you look at our GDP in what economists call “purchasing power parity” terms, an adjustment that reflects what citizens and companies can buy for the money they have, then we fall to second after China. On a per capita basis, rankings vary, but we come in somewhere between fifth and eighth. And when you look at that number on a PPP basis, we fall to between seventh and 13th.
We rank 15th in the world in terms of economic stability, according to US News and World Reports, and from a different perspective, that of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, we rank 20th in terms of economic freedom.
Of course, money isn’t everything. Quality of life is what is most important. According to US News, we rank 15th in the world on that front. According to the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index, we rank 17th.
We like to think that this is the land of opportunity. But in reality, even there we lag the world. According to the Institute for Management Development’s global competitiveness ranking, on which we led the world as recently as 2017, we’ve fallen all the way to number 10 last year. The World Economic Forum says our performance is impeded by the fact that we are not even in the top 10 in technology adoption or digital skills. They argue that the skill sets of our graduates actually declined between 2016 and 2020. We currently rank 27th in global internet connectivity and a dispiriting 24th as environmental stewards, according to the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks us only eighth out of 40 countries in educational attainment, 26th out of 40 in years our students spend being educated, and 21st out of 40 in terms of the social inequality within our economic system. In 2017, a Pew Study showed those students ranked 24th in the world in science scores, 24th in reading scores and 39th in math scores. And a 2019 US News study showed our students at 30th in math, eighth in reading and 11th in science.
That is no way to reclaim the top spots when it comes to economic leadership or better quality of life. But we face other challenges on that front. According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 27th on its global social mobility index. What that translates into is that on average it will take low-income Americans four generations to reach the mean income of the country.
That’s nothing to brag about, though we’re still higher up there than on the Global Peace Index ranking the world’s safest countries, where we come in 128th, right after Myanmar, Niger, and South Africa. Global perceptions of how dangerous life here are also abysmal, with the U.S. ranked number 32. (This past fall, we were ranked as 58th in the world on COVID safeness, according to Forbes.). As the recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder underscore, this is all due in part to the fact that we have a crime index that places us after 79 other countries. One place we’re almost number one is total gun deaths, where we’re behind only Brazil. On a per capita basis, we’re seventh. According to Politifact, “Americans are 10 times more likely to die as a result of a firearm compared with residents of (the other 26 OECD high-income) countries.” With 120.5 firearms for every 100 people we, by far, have the most guns per capita, twice the level of the runners-up, the Falkland Islands and Yemen. (The fact that we also lead the world in prisoners incarcerated, with 655 per every 100,000 people, is not, apparently, helping.)
For the first time ever, in the 2020 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, the U.S. fell out of the top 20 countries in the world. This is linked to the fact that , according also to the WJP, the US ranks 11th in the world in terms of open government. That may sound shocking. After all, we pride ourselves on our freedoms. But the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked this country as a “flawed democracy,” only the 25th most democratic country in the world. As the Freedom House report mentioned earlier underscored, “The presidency of Donald Trump brought heightened attention to the institutions of democracy that he most often attacked, including the press, the judiciary, safeguards against corruption, and the constitutional authority of Congress.”
A related ill is that now, according to the World Press Freedom Index, the U.S. ranks 45th in the world.
Coping with any or all of the above is not made easier by the fact that our health care also lags the world. Life expectancy in the US is 46th longest, with women living an average 81.65 years and men 76.61. But racial disparities make outcomes much worse for Americans of color. Black American males die, on average, 12 years sooner than their white counterparts. Our maternal mortality rate, at 16.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, is almost four times higher than in peer countries and it is three times higher for Black women than for white women. In 2016, we ranked last among peer countries in amenable mortality, a key measure of health care access and quality. US News ranks our public health care system 15th in the world, World Population Review ranks it 37th.
Thanks, Boomers. The country that at the end of World War II was the undisputed largest economy in the world, through which almost half of all world trade flowed, that was the most powerful by far, the most admired, whose democracy shined as an example (even with all it glaring flaws), and that helped Europe and Japan build back up after they were devastated by war now lags, by many measures, the countries we helped rebuild.
Many of us are still thumping our chests. But when you look at the data, it is clear these days we most resemble an aging former high school quarterback telling stories in a bar about by-gone days.
Even we can’t believe what we’re saying any more. “The world’s greatest democracy!” “The Senate is the planet’s greatest deliberative body!” “A shining city on a Hill.” If you are paying attention you have to suppress a sigh or a moan. No, that’s who we were, not who we are.
As for who we might become, that will depend on whether we are actually able to see where we have faltered, see who has succeeded and have the humility to be able to learn from both our lessons and theirs. Seeing that we lag can be, as it appears to be for advocates of building back better, motivation for reinvesting in our country and fixing what is broken.
So, as it turns out, the MAGAs were right. We do need to be made great again. But, also as it turns out, the way to do that is to do the opposite of almost everything else they advocated: It would mean investing in health care and green infrastructure, supporting democracy and the rule of law, and believing science and math should be taught in the schools.
Right now we may reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are now something like a jumbo-sized Luxembourg—doing fine but hoping that some day we may be Norway (which does very very well on a lot of these lists, as does much of Scandinavia). Or we can ignore the data and what actually works on this planet and settle for being the Jared Kushner of nations, arrogant and clueless about what we have inherited, or we can get to work maintaining and building upon it.
We get to decide which it is. But what is certain is that for now we should probably not be selling as many big foam fingers saying “We’re #1” as we once did.