The USA is in trouble
Despite nation’s wealth, country has a lot of ailments
Recently my extended family got together near the beach in Venice, Calif. Like other U.S. cities, it bears the scars of our national dysfunction. By day, the boardwalk, bikeway and adjoining businesses are packed with thousands of people. But when the sun dips, the tone darkens as homeless people, some mentally ill and some on drugs, begin to dominate. Restaurants and bars won’t accept new customers after 8 p.m., and tourists vanish, fearing for their safety. The daily financial turnover along the boardwalk must be an enormous boon for this city of 41,000, but it all stops when evening falls and homelessness, poverty, mental illness and drugs take charge of Venice’s crown jewel.
The solutions are obvious and surely far less expensive than today’s virtual curfew. With sufficient subsidized affordable housing, free medical care, free mental health care and intelligent, humane policing, the lives of the homeless could be made whole and the area could thrive after dark, making the world a happier, healthier, wealthier place. The profits gained from the new nighttime business would probably (and yes, I’m guessing) far outweigh the expense of solving the problem.
But such a rational solution seems impossible because it involves big increases in taxes and government activity, and at least for an embittered ideologically conservative minority of Americans, it’s a deep cultural tradition to hate both.
Like the proverbial frog in water gradually reaching the boiling point, Americans seem unaware of our encroaching third-world status. An Internet search quickly verifies several examples: Our homicide rate ranks with Turkey’s and Chile’s and is several times higher than in every other high-income nation. Our incarceration rate of 700 people per 100,000 is by far the highest in the world and rivaled only by Russia (600), South Africa (300) and Poland (200). Every industrialized nation except the USA and Japan has abolished capital punishment. Sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are far more prevalent in the USA than in Europe. Although we are by far the wealthiest nation (having over 40 percent of global personal wealth), we also have the largest personal wealth inequality gap among the 55 nations studied in the Global Wealth Report for 2015. Another study of income (rather than wealth) inequality concluded we have the fourth-highest inequality among the 35 relatively advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after Turkey, Mexico and Chile. Among these 35 OECD nations, we rank next-to-last (above Romania) in child poverty rate, and next to last (above Israel) in total poverty rate. A study by the U.S. Department of Education concludes 14 percent of U.S. adults can’t read, 21 percent read below a fifth-grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
There’s more. Americans are sicker than citizens of other rich nations. An 11-country survey by the Commonwealth Fund finds we are far less likely to be able to afford needed medical care, decent housing and healthy food. U.S. adults are more likely to report having poor health and emotional distress. Higher health care costs, greater income disparities and low social spending compound these problems. Fourteen percent of chronically ill U.S. adults cannot get needed health care support, twice the rate in many other rich nations. But ironically, U.S. health care spending recently reached a new peak of $10,345 per person — more than twice the health care expenses of most developed countries, including rich nations like France, Sweden and United Kingdom.
It’s fair to conclude we are in the lower rank of nations worldwide.
But wait! Aren’t we among the richest of nations? And isn’t our military prowess unequaled? Yes and yes. Our per capita gross domestic product is among the world’s highest, although scandalously mal-distributed. And we are certainly muscle-bound, with military power greater than the next eight powers combined. Some of us might call this not a strength, but a weakness.
What’s wrong with us? Perhaps there is something to be learned from other nations: Most high-GDP nations are more politically liberal, more socialized, less individualistic and less “macho” in terms of incarceration, capital punishment, gun ownership and military muscle. Such nations seem to be better off than us.
I view America’s cup as half full, not half empty. We are in a stormy political time, and one might hope America will learn something from it. My suggestion is to base public policy on evidence and reason rather than on cultural habits, emotion and religious belief.