What does it mean to be "the greatest country on Earth?" Following World War II, the United States became a symbol of hope, with a surging middle class, a strong manufacturing and farming base, and a multitude of personal freedoms that offered both opportunity and security. People from around the globe clamored to immigrate here for the chance at a new and better life.
On the eve of the most important election of our lifetime, we must reflect on who we are as a nation, where we came from, and where we are headed.
Based on the lifestyle we enjoyed during the 1950's, '60's and '70's, our claim as the greatest country rings hollow. The US now comes first in some areas, but not necessarily those that once made us proud or the envy of the world.
Here are just a few:
American workers toil longer than those in any other industrialized country, an average of 42.5 hours a week. They are the most productive workers in the world, yet have seen their real wages eroded over the past 30 years. In the 1950's and '60's, a middle class family lived comfortably on one income. Today, two adults in an average household work one or more jobs apiece, yet millions of working families are hard-pressed to make ends meet. The erosion of worker rights, failed trade policies, lack of adequate health care and runaway inflation have made US workers less secure than at any time since the Great Depression. Thanks to the Bush policies of the past eight years, America now holds the dubious distinction of having the biggest gap between rich and poor of any other first world nation.
The US is the only industrialized country that does not offer universal health care as a basic right. We pay twice as much per capita than Canada, Great Britain or France, while approximately a third of US citizens are uninsured or underinsured. Those who are uninsured and fall ill are charged six times or more the rate of those who have insurance. Half of all personal bankruptcies in the US are due to major illness. Even those with insurance are not immune from financial ruin. Annual health care costs are $2.3 trillion, or 16 percent of GDP, and are expected to rise to more than $3 trillion by 2012. In 1945, the US ranked number one in life expectancy, but this number has dropped to 20th, behind all but one European country. US infant mortality ranks 43rd, behind Cuba and the Czech Republic. Despite the huge monetary outlay for health care, a leading cause of death in the US is directly attributed to a flawed health care system, including improper diagnosis and treatment, drug reactions, and infection from hospital stays.
The US spends more on its military than any other country, with nearly half of all expenditures in the world. The annual budget went from $333 billion in 2001 to $706 billion in 2007, an increase of more than 100% in just six years. This runaway spending, which excludes the estimated $3 trillion cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, poses one of the gravest threats to our economy and our national security. Our imperialistic foreign policy and pre-emptive stance has damaged our reputation abroad and made us less safe.
America comprises five percent of the world's population, yet incarcerates 25% of the globe's prisoners. One in 100 of all US citizens are now behind bars. One in nine US African-American males between the ages of 20 and 34 are jailed. The average state expenditures for corrections rose 127 percent in the past 20 years, while investment in higher education grew by just 21 percent.
Our five percent of total world population consumes 25% of the world's oil, more than any other nation. Oil companies reap obscene profits (ExxonMobil just announced a new record $14.83 billion quarterly profit) while we get gouged at the pump and our government looks the other way. The US has no comprehensive energy policy to address shrinking supplies, alternative energy sources or global warming. Home heating costs this winter are forecast to spike by 40% over last year. Families already hit by economic hardship will be unable to afford to stay warm.
All of these problems have grown exponentially worse under the current administration. One is hard-pressed to think of a single thing that has improved for most Americans in the past eight years.
The US was once the world's largest exporter of manufactured goods, but we have lost more than 3 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs since 2000. Now, our biggest exports are weapons and debt. The current fragile state of foreign relations, coupled with the crashing economy, are symptoms of this disturbing reality.
Then there are the matters of two stolen presidential elections, two illegal wars and a Congress that repeatedly subverts the will of the people they took an oath to represent. A government that wiretaps its citizens, sanctions torture and practices pre-emptive aggression on foreign nations (Syria and Pakistan were both recently attacked by the US, with nary a peep from the mainstream media. Iran has also been the subject of numerous covert operations inside its borders). Our government has allowed the decimation of the middle class, while bailing out the reckless behaviors of Wall Street and its major financial institutions.
The United States is but a shell of its former self. Nonetheless, many Americans still cling to the notion that we are the greatest country on Earth. Radical neo-conservative policies got us into this mess, and it will take a monumental shift in thinking and policy to get us out.
Genuine change will require more than a collective wish and a prayer for a Democratic president and Congressional majority (which is far from a done deal). Even if Democrats win big in this election, they are still for the most part, the left wing of the Corporatist Party.
Post-election, the real work must begin. Clinging to the Great American Myth ironically keeps us from achieving the greatness we once had. We need to restore accountability and find a way to heal from the criminal transgressions of the past eight years. Just as trickle-down economics don't work, neither does trickle-down politics. The elitists in Washington are out of touch with their constituents and beholden to their corporate masters.
To effect real change, citizens will have to do more than pull a voting lever once every two or four years. As our forefathers envisioned, we need grass-roots involvement by a large segment of the populace (i.e., trickle-up politics) along with the restoration of Constitutional rule. If we can somehow find a way to reestablish governance by and for the people, we might dare hope for a new chance at greatness in the 21st century.
Report: Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor
The Dangerous Myth of American Health Care Supremacy
Why Does Health Care Cost So Much?
Medical Debt Sending Many Over Financial Brink
Drugs and Doctors May be the Leading Cause of Death in US
World Military Spending
Pew Report Finds More than One in 100 Adults are Behind Bars
Home Heating Costs to Increase 40% this Winter
A Grim Forecast for Heating Costs
Best US Factory Jobs in Rising Jeopardy