Turning on the radio and opening my browser early in the morning of January 1 in Jerusalem, the news from the world capital, where it was still yesterday, was that the White House and Congress were close, but not yet there with legislation that would keep the American economy--and most likely the rest of us--from suffering another problem. It was time to remember those irresponsible mortgages and a few other great American ideas that spread disaster outward from the imperial center.
Also in recent days, the looming of a fiscal cliff produced another telling of a story about David ben Gurion. Told that a drought was imminent, he asked, "Where?" Israel, was the response. That's okay, he said, as long as it is not in the United States.
The United States has been our capital, and the principal source of what has been good and bad more or less since World War II. With the collapse of its increasingly rickety competitor in the late 1980s, it has been even more prominent at the pinnacle of world affairs. Size, natural resources (especially agriculture), population, economic power, high quality science and industry, and the world's most powerful military cause all the rest of us to genuflect, or as least to pause in what we are doing and consider what will come from the United States.
Along with that, and causing us to ponder, scratch our heads, and ridicule while we worry, are a series of indicators that reflect conditions making the United States the most wretched place among what we can call the first world, western democracies, or civilized countries. You might think of this note as a reconsideration, but coming to similar conclusions as in a book I published in the 1970s, The United States: A Study of a Developing Country. I was led to that by having spent my first 17 years in Fall River, a city where adults had an average 8.2 years of schooling, where unemployment was 25 percent, and 30 per cent of my peers did not finished high school. Yet another experience that led me to that book were several years as a young academic at the University of Georgia and traveling widely for research throughout the deep south.
More recently I've taken another look at the data for Fall River. Now the average adult now has a bit over 9 years of education.
Other markers that indicate the wretched nature of the imperial capital--all of them compared to the cluster of well-to-do democracies:
•The lowest life expectancy
•The highest incidence of murder
•The highest incidence of private gun ownership
•The highest incidence of prison inmates
•The highest incidence of overweight individuals
•The poorest record of health care delivery
•The sharpest differentials between the incomes received by the well to do and poor
Along with these indications of domestic misery are some real accomplishments spread to the world.
Most important on my list is American pressure and assistance that has brought about the European Union. In place of chronic warfare has been 70 years of peace along with the accomplishment of better health and welfare than in the United States. If you want to visit well tended and safe cities with delightful places to walk, eat and drink, along with reliable public transportation within them and between them and other cities, the place to go is Western Europe. Pity Americans that it is a long and expensive flight, or a long and cheap flight in planes that have all the allure of an American intercity bus. Bring your own lunch and hope that you do not sit on the remains of the lunch left behind by the last occupant of your seat.
Also largely to the credit of American enterprise, science and technology are the medical advances keeping us alive longer than our parents, and the gadgets that make those lives more interesting, productive, and occasionally frustrating as we struggle to master what we cannot resist buying.
Also pity the Americans that the best of health care--while mostly available to the rest of us via public programs in every other well to do democracy--are available only to the most coddled of Americans able to afford the best insurance or still covered by the policies arranged by large or well-to-do employers. There is hope for improvement as more of Obamacare comes on line, but the readings I've seen from the 2,700 or so pages of the key legislation is that most Americans will still lag behind the rest of the civilized world in terms of what they are able to obtain.
Ignorance in high American places about the rest of the world along with certainty in the use of great power is our greatest danger. Many Americans may not care a great deal about how many Iraqis died as a result of George W. Bush's adventure (a couple of hundred thousand or more than a million, depending on one's sources), along with whatever has happened as a result of American blunders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, we dependent outsiders must worry about the next time such a gross combination of wild aspiration and limited information gets itself into the Oval Office.
Why Americans have the best and the worst remains a puzzle for social science. It has something to do with receiving the dregs of the Old World's population, and providing the resource and opportunities for individuals to overcome the barriers of family background and reach the peaks of personal achievement. Much of the population remains without personal achievement and can expect early death. Individualism has been important since the country's emergence from colonial status. There are opportunities associated with overall wealth, but individuals have to be alert, or lucky in having someone help them, and work hard in order to achieve success.
It's somewhat clearer how inexperienced individuals are able to reach the most powerful office in that country and the world. A combination of campaigning for presidential primaries spread over several years with unlimited resources for media advertising can push fresh, well-spoken, and media savvy individuals from the lowest to the highest office, without passing through positions of increasing responsibility that provide for learning and testing.
Whatever the reasons for the nature of American culture and leadership, we're stuck with the power of the United States, along with its benefits, a population fanatic about preserving a way of life that produces violence, with an intensity of partisanship that can keep its people and the rest of the world wondering if they will agree to a reasonable resolution of a problem, or lead themselves and us into another morass created by American stupidity.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem