Before you sell the house, auction the family heirlooms, gather up the kids and book passage on a boat to anywhere to escape the decline of the American Empire, take a deep breath. Things aren’t as bad as some would have you believe.
Perhaps you’ve read articles or seen statistics that claim the U.S. is among the worst of the worst when it comes to things like income inequality, life expectancy and student performance in math and science.
If that’s the case, you have to wonder why so many folks are risking life and limb to get in. The U.S. happens to be the No. 3 destination for asylum seekers, according to NationMaster.com, an online database that aggregates statistics from the CIA World Factbook, United Nations and World Bank among others. Not surprisingly, the U.S. ranks first in the number of immigrants. (We are a nation of immigrants.)
What about other indicators that challenge the notion the U.S. is going the way of empires past? Students from across the globe flock to the U.S. for college and post-graduate education. Six of the top 10 universities in the world are located in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report. The other four are in the U.K., that other emblem of Empire Passe.
U.S. students may score poorly in math and science, but somehow they manage to overcome that handicap to become world-class researchers. The U.S. can claim more Nobel Prizes than any country: 320 versus 116 for runner-up U.K. In areas such as physics, chemistry and medicine, the U.S. has two to three times as many Nobels as its closest competitor, which is either the U.K. or Germany.
You know all those manufacturing jobs that are disappearing to low-wage developing countries, or better yet, the jobs China is stealing from the U.S.? The real reason for the vanishing act is increased productivity, the ability to produce more for each hour worked.
This is one of the areas where the U.S. excels. In the last decade, the U.S. ranked third in the average increase in manufacturing productivity, behind Taiwan and South Korea, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gross domestic product per capita? Second in the world.
Innovation and entrepreneurship? The U.S. ranks first in the number of new businesses that were registered in 2005, according to the latest available data from the World Bank. The number of patents issued to U.S. residents in 2009 (93,727) was about the same as those issued to residents of all other countries combined (96,395), according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
One widely cited statistic during the health-care debate was how much the U.S. spends compared with how little it gets in return. That return was measured by life expectancy, which at 78.1 years put the U.S. 50th among 223 nations.
Yikes! Like many statistics, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Health and health care are two different animals. If you eat and drink too much and smoke, it reduces your life expectancy.
Once you suffer a heart attack or are diagnosed with cancer, your chances of survival are best in the U.S. Isn’t that why millionaires and monarchs seek treatment in the U.S.?
The U.S. ranks first in airports, tourist receipts and in the number of winners at the Miss Universe Contest. It ranks fourth of 41 nations in spending on research and development as a share of GDP and first when it comes to investment in information and communication technology.
As far as the number of people who have had sex in an alleyway, the U.S. was tied for a lowly 24th with such sexually progressive countries as Sweden and Finland.
The U.S. is third in the number of Spanish speakers, a stunning statistic when one considers the number of countries where Spanish is the first language; second in natural gas production; and is tied for first (with Switzerland) for Olympic Gold Medals in the women’s giant slalom.
Of course, there are some firsts of which the nation should be less proud. The U.S. leads the world in obesity, oil consumption, anxiety disorders and divorce rates. It has the highest corporate income tax rate among industrialized countries.
These weaknesses pale in comparison to the biggest problem faced by the U.S: promises made to future generations that the government can’t keep and politicians won’t touch. A burst housing bubble has devastated lives and livelihoods. Unemployment is still an elevated 9 percent 20 months after the official end of the recession, higher than in the U.K. and Germany. More than 6 million people have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, and economists are starting to question whether the reasons are cyclical (garden variety slow growth) or structural (a labor force unsuited to today’s jobs).
Attitude of Gratitude
For every number homegrown America-haters spit out to show our best days are behind us, there’s an offsetting statistic that points to our underlying strength. The solution isn’t a war of words or statistics. It’s the recognition that many of the characteristics that made the U.S. the envy of the world are still intact or begging to be resuscitated.
The naysayers don’t appreciate American exceptionalism and never will.
(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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