Uncommon Common Sense
What’s Wrong with the United States?
Don’t get me wrong. I love my country of birth. I am proud of all the wonderful things the United States has accomplished. I am proud that so many people around the world have traditionally looked at the US as a land of freedom, opportunity, and innovation. I also understand that there are many events in US history of which we should not be proud. The treatment of Native Americans, our legacy of slavery, our annexation of a large portion of Mexico, and our use of the military and the intelligence community to violently preserve our economic interests come to mind. Of course, we are not the only country to have a checkered past.
Yet today, it seems increasingly clear to me that the United States is moving in a distinctly different direction from the rest of the so-called “Western Democracies.” Although, for the time being at least, we still have the largest economy and the most powerful military capability, there are some disquieting trends emerging.
Perhaps the most obvious is the US Congress’ complete inability to govern. Because of the separation of powers into three branches, which is often cited as a brilliant design, the President and the two branches of Congress regularly come to a complete partisan stalemate on important issues. This problem regularly affects the financial markets and social policy.
Yes, we have elected the first African-American president, yet the level of hatred among those on the Far Right for him is alarming. One of the great strengths of the United States has always been its cultural diversity. Yet, as the demographic balance of the country is changing, many feel threatened by this diversity and are becoming more xenophobic. This is reflected in our post-9/11 immigration restrictions which keep many potentially productive immigrants from settling in the US.
The American health care system is in crisis. Although the United States spends twice as much as many industrialized nations, most notably Canada, it has measurably worse health outcomes in areas such as life expectancy and infant mortality, and leaves 50 million of its citizens to fend for themselves. So much for the erroneous canard that the US has “the best health care in the world!” The virulent opposition, among many, to the Affordable Care Act, a very modest attempt to address these problems does not bode well for reform.
And then there’s guns. Where do I begin? We seem absolutely incapable of establishing even a moderate policy of gun restrictions which could reduce the easy accessibility of firearms. This relates to the very strong culture of pioneer individualism among US citizens who see their right to firearms as a libertarian ideal. If we could not pass reasonable restrictions on guns after twenty kindergarteners were massacred in Connecticut a year ago, then I doubt it will ever happen. Of course this also points to the weakness in caring for Americans with severe mental health problems.
These problems are not intractable. The US has the resources to address them. The Economist has pointed out on numerous occasions that many of the problems in the United States are self-inflicted. With so many advantages in terms of resources and sheer brain-power, we ought to be able to do better. Let’s hope.