Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The United States is the greatest country on earth, different from others and better than the rest in all respects. Or so the great majority of its citizens believe, in good times and bad. Two new reports might dent that self-image.
One is the World Bank’s annual ranking of how easy (or not) it is to do business in 183 countries. The other is from the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank, and examines social justice in the 31 of the 34 countries of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD), often dubbed the rich-country club. On the World Bank list, the United States came fourth behind Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. In the Bertelsmann study the United States ranked a dismal 27th.
It shows the United States as the country with the biggest rich-poor gap of those examined, except for Mexico and Chile. On providing health care, it ranks 23rd; on access to education 20th. Five Scandinavian countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – topped the list, prompting the conclusion that social justice and economic performance are not mutually exclusive.
(This is not a concept embraced by most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. Herman Cain, a front-runner, made headlines with a punchy comment on the growing anti-inequality Occupy Wall Street movement: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself.”)
The World Bank’s ranking shows that the United States is better at Doing Business (the report’s title) than it is at social justice but even on the business front, it is no longer the best overall. It doesn’t fare well in a number of categories, from “ease of starting a business” (13th) and “trading across borders” (20th) to “ease of registering property” (16th). The five top scorers in the social justice study also rank among the top 15 rated by the World Bank, evidence that American-style inequality is not a prerequisite for flourishing capitalist enterprise.
How do such statistics mesh with the perception of most Americans that their country is the best? They don’t.
According to a Fox News poll in April, 84 percent of American adults think the United States is the greatest country in the world. Almost 70 percent said they would not leave the United States to live anywhere else. Just 19 percent they would, for financial security or greater physical safety. While two thirds considered the United States weaker than it was five years ago, they still thought it the best.
That firm belief in America’s standing as the world’s number one became a political issue early in the presidency of Barack Obama who said, in reply to a news conference question in France four months after taking office: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Ever since, Republican critics of the president have accused him of lacking patriotism and the conviction that American values and the American way of life are superior. That criticism is likely to bubble up again in the 2012 presidential election campaign and the offending sentence will be recycled without the rest of the quote.
That included references to the American constitution, democratic practices, free speech, equality, an exceptional set of core values “and if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability.”
True enough. The United States spends almost as much on military power than the rest of the world combined and even if that expenditure were cut in half, it would still be more than its current and potential adversaries. The current defense budget is higher than at any time since World War II and could be cut substantially without risking the country’s security, according to Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Defense spending now takes up more than a fifth of the total budget.
Is there a link between that kind of military spending and America’s poor showing in the social justice study? It’s a question that merits debate.
World Affairs columnist Bernd Debusmann has reported from close to 100 countries, on stories from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the seizure of American hostages in Iran to Lebanon’s descent into anarchy and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Debusmann was shot twice in the course of his work — once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting.
See online: America world’s Number One? Think again