Are We Asking The Wrong Question?

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The opening scene of the first episode of “Newsroom” has stuck with me since I first saw it a couple of years ago. Jeff Daniels portrays news anchor Will McAvoy, the star of the Atlantis television network. McAvoy is seated at a panel discussion in a university auditorium. A student asks the panel, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

Others on the panel respond with the usual patter about freedom and the American way, while McAvoy tries to avoid answering the question. But the moderator keeps pressuring him to respond, and he finally does. It is a tough scene to watch. McAvoy profanely eviscerates both the student and his fellow panel members after replying, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor. That’s my answer.”

And he proceeds to enumerate why he thinks so. Rather than rely on fictional television, I decided to search online. Mark Rice is chair of American Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, and maintains a site called Ranking America. Here is what he found:

  • The United States ranks 14th in education, behind South Korea, Japan, Canada, Ireland, Poland and others, according to Pearson. The ranking comes from measuring “cognitive skills and educational attainment.”
  • According to Bloomberg.com, this country ranks 44th in health care efficiency out of 51 countries ranked.
  • America ranks 49th in life expectancy at birth at 78.11 years, out of 224 countries ranked by the CIA World Factbook. With a life expectancy of 84.36 years, Macau ranks first.
  • The United States ranks fourth in child poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with 20.6 percent of our children considered poor. The only nations with higher child poverty rates are Poland, Mexico and Turkey.
  • With a total poverty rate of 17 percent, according to the OECD, the United States ranks third in the world overall. Mexico ranks first with a rate of 18.5 percent.
  • Thirteen countries have a higher rate of college graduates than the United States, including Australia, Iceland, New Zealand and Italy. We do have the highest number of foreign students attending American colleges.
  • The United States ranks 16th for Internet broadband access, according to the OECD, at 30.2 percent of the population as of last June. Switzerland at 47.3 percent ranks first.

We do rank first in a number of categories. At $619 billion, the United States spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which measures annual military spending. China ranks second, far behind this country with defense expenditures of $171.4 billion.

  • We rank number one in incarceration rates, according to prisonpolicy.org, putting 716 people per 100,000 population. The United Kingdom at 147 prisoners per 100,000 population trails far behind in second place. In raw numbers, the United States has more than 2.2 million prisoners, outpacing China with 1.7 million prisoners.
  • The World Health Organization’s “World Mental Health Survey” found 9.5 percent of Americans experienced a “clinical anxiety disorder” in a given year, giving the United States top ranking for mood disorders.
  • And we have the most airports of any nation in the world, which might account for the plentitude of mood disorders.

So, is America the greatest country in the world? Clearly, we lag behind others in a number of key categories, if that is how one measures which country is the greatest. I cannot think of any other country where I would rather live, but that is probably true of most folks both here and in, say, Ecuador. (By the way, that country is a favored destination of American retirees looking for a nice climate and low cost of living.) It is a sure bet that citizens of France or New Zealand do not consider the United States to be the greatest country in the world. Mexico may be a different story.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of candidates all mouthing the same platitudes about this being the greatest country, we should ask what could be done to make this a better country for all of its citizens. How can we become a nation where people are not gunned down in church or at the movie theater, where one in five children do not live in poverty, and we do not incarcerate more people than China with four times the population?

The Fourth of July might be a good time to ask those questions.

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