America world’s Number One? Think again

By Bernd Debusmann
October 28, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The United States is the greatest country on earth, different from others and better than the rest in all respects. Or so the great majority of its citizens believe, in good times and bad. Two new reports might dent that self-image.

One is the World Bank’s annual ranking of how easy (or not) it is to do business in 183 countries. The other is from the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank, and examines social justice in the 31 of the 34 countries of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD), often dubbed the rich-country club.

On the World Bank list, the United States came fourth behind Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. In the Bertelsmann study the United States ranked a dismal 27th.

It shows the United States as the country with the biggest rich-poor gap of those examined, except for Mexico and Chile. On providing health care, it ranks 23rd; on access to education 20th. Five Scandinavian countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – topped the list, prompting the conclusion that social justice and economic performance are not mutually exclusive.

(This is not a concept embraced by most of the Republican presidential hopefuls. Herman Cain, a front-runner, made headlines with a punchy comment on the growing anti-inequality Occupy Wall Street movement: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself.”)

The World Bank’s ranking shows that the United States is better at Doing Business (the report’s title) than it is at social justice but even on the business front, it is no longer the best overall. It doesn’t fare well in a number of categories, from “ease of starting a business” (13th) and “trading across borders” (20th) to “ease of registering property” (16th).

The five top scorers in the social justice study also rank among the top 15 rated by the World Bank, evidence that American-style inequality is not a prerequisite for flourishing capitalist enterprise.

How do such statistics mesh with the perception of most Americans that their country is the best? They don’t.

According to a Fox News poll in April, 84 percent of American adults think the United States is the greatest country in the world. Almost 70 percent said they would not leave the United States to live anywhere else. Just 19 percent they would, for financial security or greater physical safety. While two thirds considered the United States weaker than it was five years ago, they still thought it the best.


That firm belief in America’s standing as the world’s number one became a political issue early in the presidency of Barack Obama who said, in reply to a news conference question in France four months after taking office: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Ever since, Republican critics of the president have accused him of lacking patriotism and the conviction that American values and the American way of life are superior. That criticism is likely to bubble up again in the 2012 presidential election campaign and the offending sentence will be recycled without the rest of the quote.

That included references to the American constitution, democratic practices, free speech, equality, an exceptional set of core values “and if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability.”

True enough. The United States spends almost as much on military power than the rest of the world combined and even if that expenditure were cut in half, it would still be more than its current and potential adversaries. The current defense budget is higher than at any time since World War II and could be cut substantially without risking the country’s security, according to Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. Defense spending now takes up more than a fifth of the total budget.

Is there a link between that kind of military spending and America’s poor showing in the social justice study? It’s a question that merits debate.


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As a Bay Area graduate, 1960s, I must agree with your analysis. But there is more to fit than meets the eye, as I channel thrugh C-SPAN and its think-tank seminars and whatnots – ie. American Exceptionalism!

Neocons under GWB coined this nationalistic concept to justify their illegal invasion and occupation of Irag – Babylonian civilization! Now it has become the creed of the printed and electronic media. No one seems to exactly understand what it means. Or how jingoistic it sounds, etc.

My problem with inequality of wealth in America is that a super power going through decline and fall in its pretense of *power* may succum to nasty nationalist programs which may ultimately damage American credibility in a globalized world of emerging markets -i.e. challeng to US hegemony!

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

Apples to Oranges comparison without any consideration given to population, ethnic diversification, land mass, etc. For example … Sweden is about 173,732 contiguous square miles while the US is 3.79 million non-contiguous square miles. Sweden has 86,000 miles of public roads whereas the US has 3,900,000 miles of public roads. Sweden has a population of 9.3 million while the US has a population of 307 million. Which country would have a bigger challenge to maintain an equivalent level of public services, social services, military, public education, etc to the other? Duh.

Posted by An_Independent | Report as abusive

It is no surprise how the US the US ranks with respect to social, health, education or business indicators.

Spending on “all things security” — add it up some time and include non-military stuff like prisons, homeland, paramilitary police — all of it. It certainly exceeds 10% of GDP, if not more.

This sort of thing bankrupted the USSR and the same thing is happening to the US.

The many jingoists that comment here otherwise have their heads buried in the sand.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Out of all the statistics, the writer came up with bunch of lame ones??? YES, America is NO 1… why? Here’s why… we spend 6 times MORE in our prison system then education!!! The result…… 18% of Americans believe that “the sun revolves around the earth”… I rest my case.

Posted by Nishachor | Report as abusive

Can people please try to put things in a reasonable perspective ? Just claiming that the USA is bigger than for example sweden or Denmark and use that as an excuse to say that that’s the reason for it is misguided.

To be frank you actually have more people living per square Km than we have in Sweden. So you hence also have more taxpayers to actually pay for that infrastructure and healthcare.

I am not going th go in and start arguing about which system is the best as it is completely subjective to ones point of views. But it might be good for you to actually consider how well we actually live here and that it applies not only to a small portion of the populace but a quite large one. Healthcare is for everyone and is payed by everyone.

Posted by Laiquelleion | Report as abusive

I don’t like these listing, who is Nr. 1 or 2 or worse. It creates what brought on WWI and WWII and many other wars. Just think of Iceland being #1 and then think at what price, who paid for all? And think how many people the U.S. has taken in during the last 50-60 years and sorry to say, in the last 20 years more people from other countries have come here and can offer little but being cheap labor and by now they are not cheap enough anymore but many of their homelands. But all the immigrants, legal or not, have been a burden to many of our systems, schools, cities, housing and also ethics. And Mr. Debusmann probably has traveled with a German or Swiss passport which gave him some access in countries where we are not so much welcome. Sometimes I am surprised about it because we and the Brits were the ones getting the oil out of the ground or even helping countries to be freed from the rule of the Colonial powers. Often there is very little logic to all nor to the thinking of Mr. Debusmann, who “missed de Bus in his thinking, Mann!”…

Posted by goldenbear | Report as abusive

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