November 04, 2012
The USA is a great nation for entrepreneurship and innovation, it has the best science in the world, the most creativity in the arts, it is the number one economy in the world, it has an energy unrivaled by other nations and we have chosen to move to this great nation with our family. So everything that follows must be seen as friendly criticism from a person who loves this country.
Now most of my friends in the USA agree on what is great about this nation. But when I speak to some American friends they seem to be unaware of the shortcomings of the USA compared to others, and this is what I would like to focus on. Here are some quick examples.
The USA ranks 38th in life expectancy which is shocking considering that it has the best medical science in the world. And this generation is the first one that will live less than the previous generation. The average American is expected to live two years less than, say, the average Spaniard. This is partly because the USA has a medical system that leaves 50 million people uninsured and many others under-insured or worried about losing their insurance (my wife Nina, for example, can’t get medical insurance to have our next baby because pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition and we moved to USA when she was already pregnant). It is also partly because the USA is the nation with the highest percentage of its population obese, over 30%. The WHO studied overall level of health and concluded that Americans rank 72 in the world. Family structure is also weak as the USA has the highest divorce rates in the world. Moreover inequality is on the rise: as this Wikipedia article argues, the top earning 1 percent of households gained about 275% over a period between 1979 and 2007, compared to a gain of just under 40% for the 60 percent in the middle of America’s income distribution.
The USA has a legal system that is extremely expensive and unreliable and tends to favor those with resources to pay for it. The USA spends almost half of what the whole world spends in the military and since WWII (in which the USA did an amazing job), other military interventions have been of dubious value for such a huge investment, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA leads all developed countries in executions by death penalty, it has a love for guns that makes its murder rate unusually high for a developed nation, it has the highest incarceration rates of the developed world mostly focused on one ethnic group, African Americans. The USA has more people in jail or parole than Madrid has people. And while the USA has most of the best ranked universities in the world, according to PISA scores the USA ranks very poorly compared to other developed nations. The USA is also the largest polluter in the world together with China but a leader on a per capita basis. The American lifestyle is great but not scalable to the world as a whole. Replicating this lifestyle on a global basis will lead to extreme competition over resources and high environmental damage.
Yes, the USA is great nation. I am happy to be here teaching at Columbia– this country probably has the most educated elite in the entire world. It has incredible business creativity and it is home to the Apples and Googles of this world and in this sense, they are an example for the whole world to follow. It also has individuals who are among the most driven in the world and who want to succeed and do as much as they can. But it has a number of very important issues to address, many of which were not part of the recent presidential debates (climate change for example) and which seem to rarely be part of the conversation with many of my American friends.