Column: Is the U.S. still No. 1?

Hal Sundin
As I See It column sig
Hal Sundin

Before I address this question, I want to make something perfectly clear. In my mind the United States is the greatest nation the world has ever seen — conceived by a fortuitous assemblage of some of the keenest minds in our history in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. We are all blessed to be living in this country under the constitution they created — the country we all love and want to be the best in the world. We also love our children and want them to grow up to be the best persons they can be. To that end we encourage them, and when we think it necessary, try to redirect them when we sense they may be headed in the wrong direction. But that doesn’t mean that we love them any less. And so it should be with our country.

So is the U.S. still No. 1? There is no question that it was for most of the 20th century, and we are still No. 1 in innovation, technology, productivity and wealth. However, we have slipped significantly in some measures by which a country’s greatness is judged, and sad to say, are No. 1 in some measures that reflect unfavorably on our country, such as gun ownership and the death rate from firearms, where we have undisputed leadership among peer nations. Areas where we have fallen below most of the other industrialized countries are education, health care, and disparity of income and wealth.

In education, students in the U.S. are currently 35th in mathematics, 27th in science and 24th in reading ability, rating behind Russia, Vietnam and Poland. This is more the result of improvements in education in the other countries than any decline in our education system, but shows that we are falling behind as the number of countries ahead of us has been steadily increasing. The only place where the U.S. exceeds is in the cost of education. The cost of a college education (which does not guarantee, but is essential to, a financially rewarding future) has risen way above what most families can afford, forcing many students to take on an overwhelming debt. Nearly all other developed countries provide their young people a free college education, seeing it as a necessity for their economy to succeed in a highly competitive world.

Our nation’s health care system is a disgrace. The cost of health care in the U.S. is the highest in the world due to the added costs of huge profits, a burgeoning bureaucracy, highly paid executives, and large stockholder dividends, which raise our health care cost 30 percent. But it is nowhere near the best, primarily because only the wealthy (who can afford it) get the best care. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not provide universal health care. As a result, the U.S. has the highest rate of deaths from preventable and treatable medical conditions. Thirty-one nations have higher life expectancies and 25 have lower infant mortality rates.

Among 34 peer nations, the U.S. has the fourth highest income and wealth disparity, exceeded only by Chile, Mexico and Turkey. That disparity is high and rising due to the power of the wealthy to minimize the taxes they pay. Taxes in the U.S. are 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), versus an average of 34 percent in the other 33 countries. Income disparity leads to more social resentment and violence, mental illness, drug use, suicides, lower life expectancy, and higher infant mortality. It is also the cause of the disgrace of poor nourishment for 16 million children in the U.S. In Colorado, 15 percent of children live in poverty, and nearly 25,000 students are homeless — a number that has doubled since 2008.

The U.S. will not deserve to be called the greatest nation on earth, nor will we be true to our moral principles, until everyone has health care, every student is afforded equal higher education (just as a high school education has been for generations), no children go to bed hungry and cold, and even lacking a roof over their heads, and none of our elderly live in poverty making them forgo medical needs to pay for food and housing. As the wealthiest nation in the world, there is enough money to be able to provide the basic necessities for all of our people. All of these can be accomplished by reducing the huge income disparity between the wealthy and the rest of us.

Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.

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