Posted by: Randy Allgaier | October 30, 2006

The USA’s Eroding Stature- An analysis of our place in the world

I’ve heard a lot from the Republicans lately that the Democrats are too negative and that this is the best country in the world and we should celebrate that.  Bill O’Reilly recently appeared on a talk show and was discussing the danger of what he called social progressives and he posed the question of whether or not one would rather live here or in Denmark where their society has had a great deal of influence by the “social progressives”.

His question got me to thinking: Would living in Denmark be worse, better or the same as living here?  And for that matter how does the US stack up against other countries.  So I decided to do a little homework and see what I could find out about how our country stacks up against others. 

At the outset I want to be clear that I love this country and I think that our constitution is one of the greatest achievements of humankind.  I want this country to be great but I also believe that if we are not as great as we think we are and we bury our heads in the sand about where we are and where we are going we will slip down hill and become the albatross that was the fate of the Roman Empire, the British Empire and most other world powers that have existed throughout human history.  The decline of every world power in history has been due to a national hubris and I cannot think of one dominating world power in history that hasn’t fallen prey to that tragic flaw.  With vigilance and our eyes wide open we must shine a bright light on ourselves to guard against this all too common fate. 

I looked at data that I believe are objective and would not uphold any preconceived notions by either liberal or conservative.  I decided to look at issues such as literacy, freedom of the press, crime and punishment, health care and the economy.  Some folks may disagree with the issue areas on which I focused, but I am comfortable that these factors are a pretty accurate assessment of a nation’s quality of life. 

During my research I found facts that actually surprised me.  While my intuition told me that the quality of the United States is eroding, I didn’t have the facts to back up my sentiment.  Now I have some facts that actually show the situation is worse than I could have allowed myself to imagine.

First- let’s look at literacy rates.  For this information I used the “List of Literacy Rates” that was used in the United Nations Development Program Report for 2005.  The United States falls 55th in the list.  If that is not appalling enough the countries that are more literate than the United States boggles the mind and filled me with shame as an American.  According to the report- the United States literacy rate is about 97% meaning that about 9 million Americans cannot read nor write and this places us 55th of all the world’s nations.  Of course all of the Scandinavian countries (including O’Reilly’s example of Denmark) have literacy rates of 100%.  But here are a few of the countries ahead of the United States that may surprise you: Slovenia, Lithuania, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Albania, Bulgaria, Mongolia and Romania to name but a few.  How can this country continue to be a vital nation in the world arena when there is a higher literacy rate in Romania than in the United States?

Than I decided I would look at the issue of freedom of the press.  Due to our Constitution and its “guarantee” of freedom of the press, I assumed that we would be number one.  Imagine my shock when I found out that according to data from “Reporters Without Borders” we are not.  Their index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions about a whole range of  press freedom violations (such as murders or arrests of journalists, censorship, pressure, state monopolies in various fields, punishment of press law offenses and regulation of the media).  Using this index, the United States ranks 17th of the 139 countries included (other countries were not included due to absence of reliable information).  Again- all of the Scandinavian countries were well ahead of the United States.  The list of nations with more freedoms of the press than the United States also includes Netherlands, the oft conservative ridiculed France, Germany, Belgium as well as Costa Rica and Slovenia.  To say that this is disturbing is an understatement.

So what about crime?  The United States had the 24th highest murder rate in the world according to Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998 – 2000 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention).  Mind you- there are no European countries with a higher murder rate than the US (with the exception of Russia).  Only countries like Colombia and Thailand were in the ranks of countries with higher murder rates with Bulgaria andUruguay just above the United States in 22nd and 23rd place.  These rates do not of course include deaths that occur in war theatres.  According to The International Crime Victim Survey which is the most far-reaching program of standardized sample surveys to look a householders’ experience with crime, policing, crime prevention and feelings of un-safety in a large number of countries, the United States has the second highest percentage of the population victimized in one year (New Zealand had the highest) among industrialized nations.  These statistics just add to my concern about our standing as a great nation.

The obvious corollary to crime is punishment, just ask Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I knew that this country is addicted to incarceration but I really didn’t know the extent of the addiction.  According to the most recent report by Human Rights Watch the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world, 724 per one hundred thousand residents.  Seven million people in this country, or one out of every thirty-one people in this country is living behind bars.  According to the report, more than 600,000 people annually leave prison, most of them to distressed minority neighborhoods, facing formidable barriers to successful re-entry, including laws that limit their access to education, housing, and jobs.  Prisons are rife with sexual assaults and violence from both inmates and staff and they do not have the programs to prepare them for release which results in high recidivism.  Rather sobering statistics, aren’t they? 

But that isn’t the end of our horrific “prison record”- our record on juvenile offenders is appalling.  According to the same report from Human Rights Watch, while the United States no longer sentences child offenders to death they do face the possibility of life without parole sentences.  The report cites that there are at least 2,225 child offenders sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison in the United States, an estimated 59% of whom received their sentence for the first offense.  The United States is one of fourteen countries in the world known to permit such sentences and according to the Human Rights Watch report research suggests that there are no more than twelve child offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of release throughout the rest of the world.  I could not have imagined a worse record. 

Additionally the United States has increased spending on prisons at astronomical rates.  According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, between 1995 and 2000 the United States’ expenditures on prisons at the state and local level grew at six times the rate of expenditures on education.  This pithily describes part of our problem.  The lack of spending on education leads to a lower literacy rate which leads to hopelessness, poverty, drug use, crime and thus incarceration requiring more prisons to be built!  

With 46 million people uninsured in this country and being the only industrialized national without universal health coverage I did not expect that the United States would get a good grade in the area of health care and I wasn’t wrong- the facts upheld my intuition.  According to the World Health Organization our health system rates 37th in the world.  On the level of health of its citizens, the United States ranked 72nd in the world according to a WHO report that used statistics from 1997.  Finally the United States ranked 24th in a healthy life expectancy of its citizens according to WHO.  In its overall attainment of healthcare goals the USA ranks 15th and ranks first in spending money on healthcare (this includes all sources of expenditures- not just government spending).  

My conclusion from this is that we are spending more than anyone on health care and getting little bang for our buck.  With the money spent why are we not healthier.  With the money spent- why don’t we live longer?  It could be because we are the prisoners of a system that is controlled by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries that have a bottom line and have huge profits whereas other countries have public financing of healthcare that actually allows for better health outcomes with less spending.  Even in this country, Medicare is the most cost efficient provider of health coverage in the nation with much less money spent on administration than private sector providers.   

Healthcare spending leads me to my final issue area- the economy.  Let’s start with health care’s role in our economy.  According to a January 10, 2006 article in the Washington Post (“Record Share Of Economy Spent on Health Care” by Marc Kaufman and Rob Stein) health care now consume 16 percent of the nation’s economic output — the highest proportion ever.  The overall cost of health care — everything from hospital and doctor bills to the cost of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, insurance and nursing home and home-health care — doubled from 1993 to 2004, said the report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2004, the nation spent almost $140 billion more for health care than the year before.  In 1997, health care accounted for 13.6 percent of the gross domestic product.

“Americans rejected the tougher restrictions of managed care in the late 1990s, and yet they want all the latest advances in medical technology,” said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches health issues. “Since government regulation of prices and services is not in the cards, the inevitable result is higher costs.”The health care increase of 7.9 percent in 2004 was almost three times the overall national inflation rate, which was 2.7 percent. The average hourly wage for workers in private companies was essentially unchanged that year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. According to the Post article political, medical and economic leaders and experts have long warned that health care cost trends will gradually overwhelm the economy, and many companies now complain that employee and retiree health costs are making them less competitive.

For a report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, researchers compiled data from dozens of sources collected by the federal government and others to create 179 quality measures, including 46 “core” measures.  The researchers concluded that the overall quality of care in 2005 had improved at a rate of 2.8 percent from 2003. That was the same increase as the year before, and many measures showed no improvement or even decreases.  For example, there was improvement in the percentage of patients with high blood pressure whose condition was under control, but no improvement in providing speedy treatment to people having heart attacks. So while healthcare costs are overwhelming our nation and spending is a disturbing percentage of our economy our nation plunges deeper and deeper into debt.  Under President Clinton the nation experienced balanced budgets and actual decreases in the national debt.  During the Bush administration, due primarily to the costs of waging the War in Iraq and to a lesser extent due to the out of control pork from the 109th Congress the debt has increased exponentially to $8.2 trillion dollars.  Of this total amount outstanding at the end of the calendar year 2005, approximately $4.7 trillion was owed to the public (both foreign and domestic) in the form of treasury bonds and T-bills.  Of that $4.7 trillion, nearly half, $2.2 trillion was owed to foreign interests. A disturbing trend.  We are a nation that is heavily indebted to foreign interests.  Is this healthy?  I would posit that it is dangerous and wildly reckless.Our economy is also in an odd place- unlike any time in recent memory.  Economic indicators show a robust economy but it isn’t translating into better wages and quality of life for workers.  David Lazarus of the “San Francisco Chronicle” wrote an excellent analysis of this anomaly in an October 25th column.  Below is an excerpt from Mr. Lazarus’ article:

Since September 2004, average hourly wages have increased 6.8 percent and consumer prices have climbed 7 percent, according to the Labor Department. This means real wages over the period have declined 0.2 percent. In other words, and contrary to the president’s sunny appraisal of
U.S. workers’ fortunes, many people’s paychecks in reality are continuing to fall behind the cost of living.

“Since 2003, there’s been an ongoing decline in real wages,” said Arindrajit Dube, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations. “There may have been increases in wages in nominal terms, but paychecks aren’t keeping up with inflation.” What makes this situation even more remarkable is that productivity keeps growing — up 2.7 percent in the first half of the year. Traditionally, increases in worker productivity are reflected in increases in workers’ compensation. No longer. And economists have been scratching their heads to come up with plausible explanations.

Two related factors appear to be the continuing trend of companies outsourcing work abroad and the waning power of labor unions. With workers increasingly skittish about their job security, the thinking goes, there have been fewer demands on employers for higher wages. This means less money is flowing to workers and more cash is remaining on companies’ ledgers. This, in turn, helps to explain the stellar performance of major businesses and the stratospheric performance of the Dow Jones industrial average, which closed Tuesday at a record 12,127.88. “The economy’s doing quite well,” said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University labor economist. “The question is who’s getting the gains. Corporations are definitely seeing higher profits, but middle-class workers aren’t much better off than before.”  

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, wages and salaries have grown by an average annual rate of 2 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2001. Over that same period, average corporate profits have soared each year by 13.7 percent. “The overall pie is expanding as fast as ever, but most of that is being accrued in the form of increased profits,” said UC Berkeley’s Dube. “Over the next 15 years, if things don’t change, we’re going to have a vastly more unequal society.”

So I return to partisanship and Mr. O’Reilly’s original question about living in Denmark.  From all the research I can find, the Danes have a better quality and standard of life than we do here.  That doesn’t mean I am off to Denmark- I still have hope for this country.  After all we do have a remarkable Constitution- as long as it exists and is upheld – but with recent acts by the Bush administration that erode constitutional protections I am worried but I hope our rule of law wins out over the hubris of an out of control executive.  In fairness I think that the President thinks he is doing the right thing with some of his actions- but we aren’t a nation that is controlled by the President we are controlled by the rule of law- even the President cannot escape it.

By looking at the issue areas in this analysis and considering the recent trends in our economy, we need to be honest with ourselves.  In order to reclaim our greatness we must continually ask ourselves hard questions, if we don’t we will end up like so many other world powers that exist no more- guilty of hubris and relegated to a once great nation in the pages in human history. 


  1. I’m interested in how literacy relates to crime. Could you give me statistics on the literacy rate among criminals in the U.S.?

  2. Good question Meghan- I would suggest that you do a little research on the question!

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