Sunday, November 24, 2013

Is America really the greatest country in the world?

When I was younger, I used to hear about how great America is, and how we are the greatest nation in the world.   I heard this on the news, from politicians, from family and friends.  It came from everywhere.  And I believed every bit of it.  "We are this great nation, with freedom, democracy, and everyone in the world aspires to become an American".  That's what usually went through my mind.

Is it true?  No, I do not even remotely think that it's true.  Once I moved away from home, I started encountering other cultures and other ideas, especially as a graduate student.  I often refer to my grad school years as the greatest years for me in terms of expanding my mind.  There are many ways in which I expanded my mind, one of which was to study physics and learn what it means to be a scientist.  But I also paid more attention to world events, talked with people who had different views than my own, and I generally became a more open-minded person.

Through all of this, I realized that America is no longer the greatest country in the world.  Not even close!  Granted, this "grand awakening" of mine came during the Bush era... not exactly America's finest years.  However, even looking towards the past, I started to learn about how maybe we have never really been the greatest country in the world, at least not by the criteria of morality.  But I'll actually address that particular point in a future post.

In the remaining lines of this post, I want to point out some numbers which show where we fall in the world in terms of education and health.  Let's start with a video.  While this is from a fictional TV show, The Newsroom, the actual numbers that I have had a chance to look up are not too far off, as I'll address next.

Warning: Adult Language

So, let's do some fact checking.  For the sake of brevity, I won't check every stat that Jeff Daniels' character mentioned, but here are a few.

From the Rankings Table on this site, in 2010, we were in fact 49th in life expectancy.  From this same website (which provides citations and sources), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, ranked the US 31 of 74 in mathematics and 23 of 74 in science, numbers that are roughly consistent with the above video.  This site (from the US Department of Education) has somewhat different numbers, though still relatively low.

Of course, these rankings depend on how exactly the studies were conducted.  So the numbers shouldn't be taken as gospel; one could spend all day searching the internet and finding different studies with different numbers.  And I do encourage you to do some fact checking of yourself - I would love to be proven wrong on some of these numbers.

But given this information, my point is this:  for a first world country that has done some of the most amazing feats in history (going to the Moon comes to mind...), we are now awfully low in our numbers for educational and health rankings.

If we want to remain competitive on the international stage, we have some serious serious work to do.  As Jeff Daniels put it, "the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one."  Let's acknowledge that the US has problems, let's vote competent politicians into office, and let's get these problems fixed!

More later...


  1. Jake, have you traveled to Asia at all? Just the fact that corruption here is at least well-hidden - and we generally can count on due process of law - is huge. And women's rights are so far in advance of much of the rest of the world. And running water. Running water that you can drink is precious. After a year of traveling through Europe, and all over Asia, and having been to S. America, I am very glad to be back home in the US of A. The term "greatest" also is relative. It depends on the culture that you feel is most comfortable to you. Many countries and cultures are great in their own way. But when it comes to things like the ability to own your own home, to not -have- to work on a farm or a factory, to a court system that generally isn't influenced by bribes (although being able to pay for a good lawyer helps), to awareness and general public will for equal rights for all, and the freedom to express yourself without getting shot, America is pretty far up there. Yes, there are ways we can be better, especially in education, I agree there!

    As far as life expectancy - one of the good things about this country is that we are free - we allow people to do their own thing, and to take their own risks. Ie, smoking - that is a choice. It may lead to lower life expectancy overall, but to me, it is more important that I am allowed to make my own choices with regard to my body and what I do with it or how I eat (I don't smoke, just using it as an example). I don't think life expectancy is a good measure of the quality of a country, unless it is really low (ie, the DR of Congo, at 49 years - perpetual civil war). Our overall life expectancy is 79 years vs. 83 years for the top country - Japan (see wikipedia, sourced from the WHO, 2011). That isn't a big difference - 5%. We are also number 13 for quality of life, according to the same Rankings table you posted, and number 3 for ease of doing business, a couple more of many other scales.

    I request that you reconsider your comment that America isn't "remotely" the greatest country in the world! Cheers, T

  2. Hi Jake. Echoing a little bit of what Anonymous poster#1 above has said - It's too easy to dwell on all of the shortcomings of this country, especially in light of poor standings in statistical metrics like life expectancy, education and wealth inequality. Always consider the other side too, which is that all countries have their share of weaknesses and problems. We take for granted our basic needs that are provided relatively cheaply. As noted above, the fact that we can count on due process of law is critical.

    On an academic note, if those statistical measures factor in the population and diversity of the countries, how would the USA look? I'd like to compare comparable economics - like that of California vs Canada or Korea or Australia - and see what those same stats say.

  3. Anonymous poster #1 here again, good point on diversity! I don't know the statistics, but I would bet we are way ahead of any other country in terms of diversity. We actually inter-marry! That is a huge no-no in many other parts of the world. I visited Malaysia, which I thought was diverse - Chinese, Indians, ethnic Malay populations. But they all stayed in their own corners / neighborhoods. And if one wanted to date or marry someone from another ethnic group, basically they'd have to move away from Malaysia (to America for instance) to be able to start a new life for themselves, else they'd be ostracized by their respective communities. At least that is what people told me there when I asked about it.

  4. Hi various Anonymous posters!

    You definitely all bring up good points, and I thank you for them. You are right in that America is great in a lot of ways, and yes, it is easy to dwell on the negative. One thing I love about this country (and I've been told this from a few people I know from other countries as well) is the greatness of our freedom of speech. Sure, there is some worry about the power the NSA has right now and the negative effects of the Patriot Act. However, we are still able to say whatever we want. I mean, how great is it that I get to post this article about how I think America has serious problems without any worry that the government is going to black bag me (V for Vendetta reference...)?? It is awesome.

    All that being said, my point in wring this is not to point out that America is at the bottom of the pile. But rather, we are not at the top in MANY categories in which we used to be at the top. I am attempting to get at a certain level of denial that I perceive among many Americans. As touched upon in that video I posted, many people still blindly think we are the greatest country in the world. Many people don't even see beyond our own borders to see how we can be better.

    So, yes, America is great. But we are also NOT great. It does depend on the category, but the bottom line is that many Americans need to get their heads out of the sand and see what needs to be done to improve our nation.

    I am a patriot just like all the rest of you. I post this not to fight against the establishment, but to help open our eyes to the problems that we do have.

    I hope this makes sense. Good comments though!