The USA is in trou­ble

De­spite na­tion’s wealth, coun­try has a lot of ail­ments

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Art Hob­son Art Hob­son is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of physics at the Univer­sity of Arkansas. Email him at ahob­son@uark.edu.

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.

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