What’s really exceptional about the U.S.

septiembre 4, 2012 7:33 pm 24 comments

Paul Ryan has been the shining Republican star at the convention just ended. He has been called the new Reagan. His mentor was the late Jack Kemp, a former football player who become one of the economic brains in the Republican Party and once entertained the idea of being president. Ryan is playing with the idea of achieving that end, first as Romney’s vice president, later on his own.

From Kemp, from Ryan, and from an old national political tradition, Ryan upholds the idea of American “exceptionalism.” He doesn’t want the United States to resemble Europe. The basic position is that the country should not become a Benefactor State, raising public expenditure and taxes, as the Europeans allegedly do; but perhaps it’s too late.

The government of the United States consumes 40 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, while the more prosperous countries of Europe spend about 50 percent — except for Switzerland, one of the more successful, which invests only 33 percent. It is true that Americans pay fewer taxes, but they also receive fewer services.

The idea of a decadent Europe is a monumental error of perception. There are aspects of European life that notably surpass the United States. No doubt, the U.S. has the world’s best army, its best universities lead the planet, its scientists and technicians are almost insuperable, and its productive apparatus is the most dense and sophisticated of all others in history.

When CNBC asked some experts for an objective classification of the world’s 30 most habitable cities, they were guided by nine relevant categories — health, income, climate, safety, etc. — and found that almost all were European, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander. Only two American cities were on the list, at the very end: Honolulu in 29th place, San Francisco in 30th. The five best were Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Münich and Düsseldorf.

The great magazine The Economist did the same exercise and its research led it to place the United States in the 13th spot. The quality of life was better (in this order) in Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Singapore, Finland and — finally — the United States. (In comparison, in the Index to Human Development published by the United Nations, only three countries precede the United States: Norway, Australia and Holland.)

If what is being measured is the honesty of its public sector, something similar occurs. Transparency International, in a scale where 10 points is the best score and 1 the worst, assigns more than 9 points to the four Scandinavian countries and more than 8 to Germany and Canada. The United States, with 7.1, doesn’t look bad but is not part of the platoon of nations that are most scrupulous with the money they take from their citizens.

In the educational sector, the results are mixed. In general, the United States has the best universities for post-graduate learning, but high school education is mediocre. When the OCDE – the organization of the world’s most developed nations – measures the knowledge of youngsters in mathematics, reading and sciences, it finds a dozen countries with better results than the United States. South Korea and Finland are the two best.

What I mean to say is that the United States has much to learn from some European and Asian countries, the same way that the rest of the world has a lot to learn from the American way to research, work and live.

Is there some aspect of coexistence where the United States clearly surpasses the rest of the world? In my opinion, in the opportunities that the poorest people have to prosper. The so-called “American dream” remains in effect, a tacit pact (so far observed) that says that if someone works hard and obeys the law, he or she can go as far as his or her talent or luck will permit and at least access the vast sectors of the mid-levels of society where 85 percent of the nation’s inhabitants abide.

That’s the true difference. And it’s sufficient.

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