(This piece was posted a bit more than a year ago, but given the recent comments of General Secretary Putin about American exceptionalism, it seems a good time to repost (slightly updated), especially since I needed to be out of town this last week. The statistics remain essentially the same.)
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most recent tyrant, has in a piece in the New York Times questioned America’s claim to be “exceptional,” except perhaps in the area of being a global busybody, which has of course been entirely unexceptional behavior on the part of major powers, including Russia. That Putin should be lecturing another nation concerning its behavior and play the part of the peacemaker and champion of free speech is of course a wonderful study in irony, brought on to a great degree by the current administration. And he is dead wrong on the exceptionalism issue.
“American exceptionalism” has been a phrase dear to the hearts of all politicians but most especially Republicans, who, however, never bother to specify exactly what it means. Presumably they are thinking of the America of the 19th century, when we were the only serious power with a fully functioning democracy and without any traditional class distinctions. Ours was the society that rewarded hard work and cleverness and afforded the individual the greatest opportunity to improve his condition, regardless of his background. Of course it was also a society that accepted a high level of individual violence and lagged behind western Europe in abolishing slavery and establishing mechanisms of social welfare, but it was nevertheless exceptional, as Tocqueville recognized.
But this is the now the 21st century and virtually all the industrial democracies display the characteristics that once made us exceptional. Yet one can still speak, as the conservatives do, about an American exceptionalism. The problem is that we are now exceptional in ways that one might be reluctant to brag about.
We are of course still the richest nation on earth, but we now lead the industrial democracies in income inequality, that is, our rich-poor gap is wider and becoming more so. In roughly the last 30 years the income of the top 1% has increased by 275%, that of the next 19% by only 62%, the next 60% by 40% and the bottom 20% by a mere 18%. We are #50 in income distribution, with 30.5% of all income going to the top 10%; Russia is the only European country below us in this category.
But we sure know what to do with all that wealth. We are #1 in spending ($4271 per capita per year), #1 in military expenditure (but only #3 in military personnel), #1 in energy use (equivalent of 8.35 tons of oil per capita per year), #2 in coal use (1.06 million short tons per year; China edges us out, whereas #3 India uses only .339 million), #1 in carbon dioxide emissions (5.7 million metric tons per year – this is probably changing), but alas, only #2 in biggest environmental footprint (the UAE is #1).
We are #1 in per capita health care expenditure ($6096) and #1 in health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP (15.4%). Yet, for all that money we are #44 in doctors per 1000 people (2.67; little commie Cuba is #2 with 6.4), #14 in nurses and midwives per 1000 people (9.8), #77 in hospital beds per 1000 people (3.1) and #1 in obesity (30.6% of the population) but only #49 in life expectancy (78.37 years). And this is a health care system that does not include some 30 million citizens, unlike the total population coverage present in every other industrialized democracy. Sure, we have the best health care system in world, as conservatives like to say – if you can afford it.
We are #37 in percentage of GDP spent on education (5.7%), but that is of course a big number in dollars. Still, we are #12 in years of adult schooling and #18 in math literacy. On the other hand, we are #1 in teen pregnancy (22% of all 20 year old women), so they are doing something in school.
Incidentally, most Republicans like to think of the US as a “Christian” nation, even though most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian. Well, as the teen pregnancy indicates, some of us are not engaged in very Christian behavior. Further, we also have the #1 divorce rate (4.95 per 1000 people) and #1 incarceration rate (715 per 1000 people; #2 Russia has 584). In 2007 we were #7 in executions (42), up in the top ten with such enlightened countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Considering our firearm policies, we were only a disappointing #4 in homicides with guns, but we are certainly #1 in civilian firearms (94.3 guns per 100 people; Serbia is #2 with only 58.2 – and this is the Balkans!) Hardly surprising, we are #1 in motor vehicle deaths (15.5 per 1000 people); the death toll from 9/11 in fact represents a slow month on America’s highways.
But I suspect most Americans are completely unaware of our new exceptionalism. They are too busy: we are after all #1 in TV viewing (28 hours per week).
(The statistics are mostly from the last decade and from the UN via nationmaster.com.)