Monday, December 27, 2010

Is the US the Best Country in the World?

A little while ago, I participated in a discussion with the folks at Opinion Forum about whether the US is the best country amongst developed nations. One of the authors at the forum mentioned that
The U.S. has one of the highest poverty rates among developed countries, about 22% of our population live in poverty compared with, say, Finland and Denmark whose poverty rates are under 3%. Further, about half of the 40 million students in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. qualify for free or reduced lunches. America has, by far, the greatest income inequity among developed countries as well. It also has the greatest demographic diversity, with more than 25% of public school students who speak English as a second language. Plus, we have among the highest rates of low-birth weight and among the worst health care among developed countries.
I brought to the discussion the following statistics (which, to put it mildly, were not liked by some of the forum's regular readers):
Satisfaction with Life Index puts the US in the 23rd place. This index is based on how citizens themselves measure their own happiness. If you want to contradict it, you’ve got to contradict all the Americans who voted this way.
According to the human development index, the US is not in the first place either. In 2010, it occupied the 4th place.
In terms of Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, “which factors in inequalities in the three basic dimensions of human development (income, life expectancy, and education)” the US is in the 12th place.
According to the Democracy Index, the US is in the 17th place:
Obviously, there are many important factors in which the US lags behind other developed nations. I have written a while ago about how much worse working conditions are in this country than in most other developed countries:
  • 163 nations around the world guarantee paid sick leave; the U.S. does not.
  • 164 nations guarantee paid annual leave; the U.S. does not.
  • 177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers; the U.S. does not.
  • 74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers; the U.S. does not.
  • 48 nations guarantee paid time off to care for children’s health; the U.S. does not.
  • 157 nations guarantee workers a day of rest each week; the U.S. does not.
However, there defintely are areas in which this country is, at this point, ahead of all other developed nations. (You see, I wasn't going to drench you in negativity and fail to offer anything positive during this festive season. I wouldn't do that to kind readers who interrupt their partying to come to my blog. Remember that even drunk out of your head you are still welcome here).

1. First of all, there is the US system of higher education, which, I am absolutely convinced, is the best in the wrold right now. I wrote about it here, so I will not repeat my arguments. I will only add that whenever I consider looking for an academic position back in Canada, I get immediately discouraged by my memories of how nepotistic the academia is back there. Of course, there is nepotism and corruption everywhere, but it is a lot stronger in Canada than in the US. Believe me, I love Canada passionately, but from my own experiences and those of my friends, I know that it is a lot more difficult to succeed in academia on your own merits in Canada. There is also the pernicious tendency to coddle students to the degree where they believe no work needs to be done in college if you have learned how to whine well enough. What happened at the University of Manitoba is a case in point.

In terms of Western European education, I'm sorry to say that I cringe with shame whenever a European colleague in my field of Hispanic Studies comes to a conference and everybody discovers just how non-existent their Spanish is. I have met people who have worked for 40 years in the field of Hispanic Studies in Great Britain and France but who wouldn't be able to buy a loaf of bread in Madrid. (I've seen that in Canada, too, but never in the US.)

Eastern European education does not exist, so it makes no sense to discuss it. I don't know why I'm even mentioning them if we are talking about the developed countries here. In short, read my original post on the subject if you want to hear more about this.

2. The second area where this country is the best is access to consumer goods. (It would be really great if people refrained from holier-than-thou anti-consumerist speeches here. I am willing to bet that I have less stuff than any one of my readers. I moved so many times that it became impossible to accumulate material objects. I know what it means to live out of a suitcase. Literally. Still, I am willing to acknowledge that people need things. And it's good to be able to have access to things you need.) Whenever I observe my sister who lives in Montreal jump through hoops to buy pretty much anything she needs, I realize that I would find it very difficult to unlearn my American consumer habits and learn to live anywhere else. I don't want to waste the precious time of my life devising strategies of how to locate the stuff I need and get it shipped to me. Also, services are a lot better in the US than in Canada where a consumer often is greeted with a nasty, contemptuous attitude. From what I have been able to gather, Great Britain is comparable to the US in terms of its selection of consumer goods. But it's still not quite as good. The rest of Western Europe lags behind significantly.

3. Television is the third area in which the US is an undoubted world leader. Of course, American movies are amongst the worst in the world, but the television is a different matter altogether. It's really good here. I'm sorry if it hurts anybody's sensibilities but everywhere else in the developed world people sit and watch shows that are rip-offs from American shows. Once again, I hope to be spared sanctimonious anti-television rants. I like television. I grade students' papers, write research articles, plan my classes, and, most importantly, blog (like right now) while watching television. And I view people who have never seen a single TV show they liked with the deepest suspicion.

I haven't mentioned the regular things that people bring up when discussing where life is better, such as, for example, "the best opportunities." I don't know what that means and how it can be measured. According to Renan, patriotism is unreasonable by nature because it is based on people believing things that are patently untrue. National identities are always based on emotions for the simple reason that they cannot possibly be sustained on a reasonable level. It would be nice if people stopped being emotional about countries and started discussing these imagined communities in a dispassionate, logical way.


Pat said...

The UK has a lot of original TV programming and I seem to remember that the US has re-made a lot of our series. We don't re-make US shows. The Office became quite popular, I believe.

Clarissa said...

"We don't re-make US shows. "

-Oh really? :-) What's that I hear about "Law & Order: UK"? And how about all the game shows? And reality TV shows?

I agree that British TV is VERY high quality. But i terms of variety I remember it as beeing a lot more limited.

Clarissa said...

I so hope that people will read the last sentences of the post and will abstain from making this into a weird patriotic competition. Remember: "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" (Samuel Johnson.)

Anonymous said...

"And I view people who have never seen a single TV show they liked with the deepest suspicion. "

Me, too. Anyone who dislikes a whole medium of such breadth and variety is probably operating from ideology, not consideration.

It's pretty great when one gets to live in the belle epoque of an art, as I've mentioned before on my blog -- and for TV, that time is right now. Anyone not taking advantage of it is missing a lot.


Anonymous said...

Watch British sitcoms. They are miles ahead of American TV. And it's not about patriotism. TV humor is very much a British invention.
(I hail from a country that was abused by English rule for a few centuries and have no love lost for them)

fairykarma said...

"But it's still not quite as good. The rest of Western Europe lags behind significantly. "

"Also, services are a lot better in the US than in Canada where a consumer often is greeted with a nasty, contemptuous attitude."

"Of course, there is nepotism and corruption everywhere, but it is a lot stronger in Canada than in the US. "

I think small insights like this are why I enjoy your blog. I've never really been outside of the States, so learning things that destroy the undeserved utopian view of Europe and Canada that I hold will certainly sober me up before I make a trip there.

Did I mention I also love run on sentences?

Tom Carter said...

Clarissa, I won't re-hash the discussion over at the other place. I think the things you mentioned about the U.S. that are good are valid, but I agree that British TV, which I watch quite a bit of, is also very good. "Coupling" and "'Allo, 'Allo" are two of the greatest TV shows ever.

Comparing countries, which is really comparing cultures and societies, is a tricky undertaking. None are all good, although I could point to a few that I would list as all bad. Your list of what the U.S. doesn't have (or have enough of)--paid sick leave, paid annual leave, paid maternity leave, paid leave for new fathers, time off to care for ill children, guaranteed day of rest--is for the most part incorrect. Your objection is that these things in many cases aren't enshrined in federal law. In practice, state law does some of these things, but most often businesses do it on their own or unions get such benefits included in contracts. In fact, some industries (like the auto industry) are so obligated by the benefits of current and retired workers that their competitiveness has been seriously impacted. In short, you're making the liberal's mistake of assuming that if the nanny state hasn't dictated something, then it doesn't exist.

Pat said...

Sorry, I should have been more precise. In Britain we do not "sit and watch shows that are rip-offs from American shows". We have our own indigenous TV culture that produces a remarkable amount of good programming considering we have a fifth of the population and a lot less money than the US. We do watch a lot of original US shows but we don't tend to need them translated into our own idiom as Americans seem to.

The two most popular worldwide game show franchises are British in origin: Who Wants to be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link.

I know nothing of reality shows (I prefer fantasy and science fiction) except to apologise for the existence of Simon Cowell. However, doesn't a British accent ensure casting as the baddie in US media?

Law and Order: UK was franchise rather than a rip-off, I believe. I expect a CSI: Blackpool at some point.

Clarissa said...

It's true that a British character is always the meanest on every show. But s/he is also the most competent, sharp, intelligent. Even when the character is American, they have to hire a British actor to play someone smart (e.g. House, MD.) That's quite a compliment, I'd say. :-)