How America compares with other nations

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

America is, and has always been, exceptional in so many ways. It is, and always has been, superior to all other nations. Or so we have been led to believe. Howard Steven Friedman says in “The Measure of a Nation” that this strongly held belief is not really true and if we would look at comparable nations today, we will find that America is actually average or less than they are in four important fields.

To make meaningful comparisons, he first considers various criteria and ends up selecting two, both of which must be used together. First, they must be wealthy nations, by which he means that their annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita must exceed $20,000. Second, they must have reasonably large populations, by which he means at least ten million persons.

The reason for needing a large population is the matter of scale, for problems show up with large populations that do not appear in smaller ones. He admits that these are somewhat arbitrary criteria but finds that he comes up with a manageably sized group of similar countries in the end.

The fourteen nations that meet the selection are Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, The Netherlands, South Korea (Korea), Spain, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (U.S.).

He says the U.S. needs to know its position in relation to various issues in these comparable nations in order to improve what it is doing. He likens the U.S. to a business, which must know what its competition is doing in order to make its own plans.

In considering America’s position relative to these other nations, he examines four topics, giving each its own chapter. They are health, safety, education, and democracy. He uses simple statistical analysis of various components to learn how the nations compare, which could be quite deadly reading. However, he helps the reader greatly by having graphs, which summarize what he has just said in words at the end of each section. He rates and names the nations from high to low on the vertical axis and from outstanding (he calls them “Stars”) to poor (he calls them “Dogs”) on the horizontal axis. To make things even easier and more obvious for the reader, he uses a special symbol for the U.S. In general, he finds the U.S. is in the average to poor position for most comparisons. At the end of each chapter he makes recommendations for change.

“Nothing else about our lives as Americans matters at all if we do not have a reasonable expectation of a healthy life,” says Friedman. He looks at several factors influencing our health, some of which we have no control over and finds the U.S. is at the rock bottom. The U.S. is in the last position for life expectancy, 77.9 years, versus the best, Japan, 82.7. These relative positions are true for both men and women, though women everywhere live longer than men. Other factors he considers are infant and maternal mortality, insurance, return on our expenditure for health, physicians per 10,000 people versus life expectancy and non-communicable disease, in all of which, we are last. On the other measures, we do somewhat better but are not near the top with any of them.

Friedman divides safety into internal and external. By the first, he means being safe in our own homes and in going about our everyday business. He finds that we have far more intentional homicides per 100,000 population than any other country.

Our incarceration rate is far higher than any other country but the wars on drugs and crime are not making us any safer. By the second, he means our military and its use. We spend more money on the military as a percent of our GDP than the other nations and he asks whether this is really necessary.

“Education is fundamental to the success of any country,” says Friedman. He finds that while we have the highest mean number of years of primary and secondary schooling, our reading, math and science literacy rates for 15-year-olds are in the middle or slightly below. Our school years are too short. We spend more money as a fraction of our GDP than others on education but we get the lowest return of all on our investment. We pay our teachers less in terms of GDP per capita than the other nations and give them low social status, so that we cannot attract the best to be teachers. Our colleges are far more expensive than any other nation. These situations are getting worse.

We like to feel that our democracy is the best in the world but on closer examination we find that a lot of people are left out of the process for one reason or another.

The origin of the problem, he says, is our Constitution, which was written by “a small group of wealthy, white, male landowners,” needs to be changed. We have the lowest voter turnout of registered voters of any of the comparables, 42 percent and of age-eligible voters, 38 percent.

Even if we had greater turnout, we still would not have true representation of the will of the people because we have a winner-takes-all way of counting votes. The loosing parties end up with no representation, no matter how close they may be in numbers to the majority.

Both houses of Congress are set up by the Constitution so that the voters in one state may get more representatives per capita than those in another.

The last two chapters summarize what we have learned from these comparisons in the previous chapters and what to do about our shortcomings. All of what Friedman says is nothing new to the reasonably well-informed reader. The problem is that this same reader also has read equally certain statements to the contrary. Each usually tells of what goes on here in America and little of what happens in other countries - countries that may or may not be comparable. He acknowledges that changes of the sort he proposes take a long time that we cannot do them all at once but says that we need to get started.

Howard Steven Friedman’s “The Measure of a Nation” is important because it uses statistical analysis to find and compare meaningfully nations that are reasonably similar to our own, and it pulls all of these data together in one place so that the reader can see what is really going on and how things compare. Armed with this knowledge and understanding, the American people can make meaningful change in their lives, their national affairs and their position in the world.

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