Over the last several years, I have been sharing my impressions that America is slipping from its dominant position amongst the wealthy nations and as a global power. A new book by Howard Friedman, Associate Professor at Columbia University, seems to reinforce my contentions. The book, The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing, compares America with 13 other wealthy nations that meet the selection criteria of having a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) higher than $20,000 and a population greater than 10 million. These nations include Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom. America comes up short on the ideals of freedom, equality, and upward mobility achieved through hard work.
There is a widening income gap in the US. If we compare 1979 to 2007, the top 1% saw a 275% increase in its income, while the bottom 20% experienced an 18% increase. Social benefits and social support are the least in the US. There is no safety net to help and there is gross inequality of opportunity. Canada has twice the socio-economic mobility of the US. If you are born in a poor family, then you are likely to remain in poverty more than any other country in the study. The top student from a poor neighborhood in America has roughly the same chance of graduating from college as the worst student from a wealthy neighborhood. The book also brings out the fact that there is discord between Americans’ self-perception of excellence and the reality of objective facts.
Many Americans continue to believe that their health care is the best in the world. America spends two times or more per capita than other wealthy nations, but has the lowest life expectancy amongst the nations. In 1960, the US had the 12th lowest infant mortality rate. In 2008, it moved to the 34th place. Similarly, many Americans continue to believe that America has the best education system. Again, their impression is not substantiated by facts. The US had the highest rate of college education. It is now in the 15th position. America does lead other nations in certain dubious parameters: America has the highest incarceration rate and homicide rate, the most inadequate insurance coverage, the largest education budget cuts, the lowest voter turnout, and the income of the bottom 90% of Americans has stagnated in the last 20 years. The US incarceration and homicide rates are 10 times more than Japan.
I feel that the main reason for American decline is that America has tried to reverse the collective experience of thousands of years of humanity. America has denied the fact that evolution of culture takes thousands of years. America has tried to replace naturally evolved cultures with its consumerist culture, which is not a true culture. The fact is that America has no stable culture or value system and there is a cultural vacuum. The second thing which goes along with the first is that America considers history irrelevant, while the accumulative experience of mankind has shown that history is a very strong force to motivate people. It is true that America has no history to be proud of, but that does not negate the fact that history is a great source of inspiration for people. The lack of a stable culture and absence of inspiring history has contributed a lot to the decline of the US. In the absence of these stabilizing factors, American decline was inevitable. Moreover, unlike Russia, which has been able to regain some it its lost glory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America is not going to have such luck. This is so since culture and history not only play a role as stabilizing factors, but also help to regain the lost glory.
The two recent tragedies, the Aurora, Colorado shooting and the exposing of the Jerry Sandusky affair in Pennsylvania State University, have one thing in common: they were committed by the highest achievers who were white. James Holmes, the shooter, was a neuroscience PhD student, was among the top 1% of the class, had graduated with honors from the University of California, Riverside; and was the recipient of full tuition scholarship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Jerry Sandusky was a high-level football coach and a highly accomplished man. He was inducted in 2004 into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame for Football. Ironically, Sandusky founded The Second Mile in 1977, a non-profit charity for underprivileged and at-risk youth in Pennsylvania, which was praised by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and by U.S. Senator Rick Santorum in 2002. This charity is where he gained access to his innocent and defenseless victims.
When the highest accomplished people start committing such hideous and barbaric acts, then that society is in deep trouble. It shows that the crisis of the society has become very, very critical. Usually, underachievers or frustrated people commit such crimes. The Colorado shooting was the result of a well-planned and cold-blooded murder, rather than an outburst of a frustrated individual. Similarly, Jerry Sandusky’s atrocities on the unfortunate children were a very prolonged affair stretching over a period of many decades.
There is no easy way out of the mess which America has made for itself and the rest of the world. However, there are certain steps which other countries can take to minimize damage which the American crisis is causing to them. They should not take the temporary and transient progress made by America as proof that America can be the leader of the world and its example followed by other countries. They should stick to their own culture, value system, and the historical experience of their people. Instead of feeding American arrogance, other countries should teach America that accumulative human experience has concluded that arrogance is the greatest human vice while humility the greatest human value.
Instead of America acting as the only superpower and the policeman of the world, the world needs collective leadership. In this collective leadership, each country should bring its experience based upon its culture, value system and history. American leadership has pushed the world to the most dangerous situation. We need all of the help we can get to save the world and mankind from one of the greatest challenges that it has ever faced.