Sunday, August 4, 2013

Has America Failed?

Sociologist Morris Berman wrote a book a few years ago entitled "Why America Failed." Normally, a book with Berman's subject matter, even if it managed to be published, would be called something like "Why America is Falling Behind and How We Can Turn It Around," or "Why America is Failing, and What We Can Do About It."

Berman, however, offers no such succor. America is not failing, he claims it has failed. Moreover, it has failed because of it's inherent culture, not because of any specific set of temporary circumstances that can be fixed. The title of the book is intentionally provocative, of course. Putting America's failure in the past-tense signifies it as a fait-accompli, and furthermore, claiming that the United States- the world's wealthiest nation-is a failed state was also something that would raise eyebrows, particularly in a country where the vast majority citizens take the fact that they live in "the greatest country on earth" as a simple historical fact. The uncompromising title, Berman jokes, ensures that no one will read it, particularly since it offers none of the requisite "solutions" as implied by the imaginary alternative titles listed above.

But has America really failed? That's a big statement, and even people critical of current circumstances might have a hard time swallowing that. Well, I'm not going to claim either way, but I've seen a number of arresting data recently, so I'll let you be the judge:
The United States remains among the richest countries in the world. National income per person trails only that of Norway, Luxembourg, Singapore, Switzerland and Hong Kong. Yet despite its riches, in many areas the United States looks surprisingly, depressingly backward.

Infant and maternal mortality are the highest among advanced nations. So is the mortality rate of children under the age of 20. Life expectancy — at birth and at age 60 — is among the lowest.

Teenage pregnancy rates are not only higher than in other rich nations, they are higher than in Kazakhstan and Burundi. The United States has the highest rate of children living with a single parent among the industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Within the organization, only in Turkey, Mexico and Poland do more children live in poor homes.

America’s gaping inequality shows up everywhere, beyond the statistics for income. Rich families invest more in their children’s education. Educational opportunities are stacked against the poor and middle class: 60 percent of disadvantaged children go to disadvantaged schools with fewer and lower quality resources, according to a report on educational disparities.

Unsurprisingly, literacy is more lopsided than in most other industrial nations, according to international tests of 15-year-olds carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The gap between the top American scorers — at the 90th percentile of the distribution — and those in the middle is about as big as the gap between the average score in the United States and Azerbaijan.

In a globalized, high-tech world in which education has become a central determinant of economic success, it is hardly surprising that the prosperity of American children is more dependent on the prosperity of their parents than that of children in most other advanced countries.

 How concerned is the American political system about these gaps? One way to look at it is by the effect of government actions on social outcomes. Take poverty. The United States has the 17th-highest poverty rate in the O.E.C.D., measured as the share of people who make do with less than half the median income, ranking around the middle of the pack.

If the same variable is measured after taking into account the effect of taxes and government spending programs, the American poverty rate jumps to fifth-worst.

And despite the president’s fiscal stimulus law, which lifted government spending in 2009 and 2010, the United States ranks among the bottom third of nations in the O.E.C.D. in terms of outlays on social programs — unemployment insurance, day care and the like — to help families deal with economic stress.

You would think Americans must be tiring of their lack of progress. The disposable income of families in the middle of the income distribution shrank by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to data compiled by the O.E.C.D. In Australia, by contrast, it increased 40 percent. Middle-income Germans, Dutch, French, Danes, Norwegians and even Mexicans gained more ground.
Inequality in America: The Data Is Sobering (New York Times)
Americans die younger and experience more injury and illness than people in other rich nations, despite spending almost twice as much per person on health care. That was the startling conclusion of a major report released earlier this year by the U.S. National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

It received widespread attention. The New York Times concluded: "It is now shockingly clear that poor health is a much broader and deeper problem than past studies have suggested."

What it revealed was the extent of the United States' large and growing "health disadvantage," which shows up as higher rates of disease and injury from birth to age 75 for men and women, rich and poor, across all races and ethnicities. The comparison countries—Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—generally do much better, although the United Kingdom isn't far behind the United States.

The poorer outcomes in the United States are reflected in measures as varied as infant mortality, the rate of teen pregnancy, traffic fatalities, and heart disease. Even those with health insurance, high incomes, college educations, and healthy lifestyles appear to be sicker than their counterparts in other wealthy countries. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, described the report as "a catalog of horrors."

Findings that prompted this reaction include the fact that the rate of premature births in the United States is the highest among the comparison countries and more closely resembles those of sub-Saharan Africa. Premature birth is the most frequent cause of infant death in the United States, and the cost to the health care system is estimated to top $26 billion a year.

As distressing as all this is, much less attention has been given to the obvious question: Why is the United States so unwell? The answer, it turns out, is simple and yet deceptively complex: It's almost everything.
Why Is the United States So Sick? The director of a massive new study says: “It’s almost everything.” (Slate)
In almost every high income country, the share of 25-34 year-olds with higher education is higher than that for the age 25-64 population as a whole--about 7 percentage points higher. This is the pattern one would expect to see if a country is expanding access to higher education. But the U.S. is an exception, where the share of 25-34 year-olds with with a tertiary education degree is lower than for the age 25-64 population.

Although the U.S. used to lead the world share of adults with tertiary education few decades back, the figure shows that this is no longer the case. There's no reason to expect this to change in the next few years. When it comes to graduation rates from upper secondary school, the U.S. now falls below the OECD average.

Similarly, if you look at the share of students who are going to enter tertiary education and emerge with a degree, the U.S. falls below the OECD average.

The issue here doesn't seem to be primarily one of underspending. The U.S. has above-average spending per student by OECD standards--but this is expected, because the U.S. also has higher income levels, and so paying salaries to teachers will cost more.
U.S. Higher Education Enrollments, Falling Behind (Conversable Economist)
Severe, disabling mental illness has dramatically increased in the Untied States. Marcia Angell, in her 2011 New York Review of Books piece, summarizes: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”

Angell also reports that a large survey of adults conducted between 2001 and 2003 sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health found that at some point in their lives, 46% of Americans met the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.

In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”

In 2011, the  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. By 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.

The CDC, on May 3, 2013, reported that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010).
Why Life In America Can Literally Drive You Insane (Alternet)
2. Obesity. The U.S. has been ranked as the most obese country in the world, though a recent report by the U.N. says that Mexico is pulling ahead of us. Not surprisingly, obesity is considered a national health crisis and contributes to an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7 percent of American adults are obese, and 17 percent of American children. More than two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese.

4. Small arms ownership.The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva ranks the U.S. number one in both the total number of civilian firearms and in per capita ownership of small firearms, beating out recent war zones like Yemen, Serbia and Iraq.

5. Most people behind bars.Incarceration rates in the U.S. blow right past the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, the U.S. locks up 716 out of every 100,000 people. Norway, in contrast, only puts 71 out of 100,000 in the clink. Japan jails 54 and Iceland locks up only 47 out of 100,000.

6. Energy use per person.The U.S. is the global leader in the amount of energy use per person. We get top billing in electricity consumption, we’re miles ahead of everybody in oil consumption, and when it comes to coal consumption, we’re number two, right behind China.

8. Cocaine use.When it comes to cocaine use, we’ve got a tie with Spain. In both countries, according to the 2008 World Drug Report released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, three percent of adults and teens say they’ve given it a try.

Interesting factoid: Cocaine has a nasty link to industrial capitalism. It first became popular with laborers as a way of increasing productivity, and employers often supplied the drug.
8 Appalling Ways America Leads the World (Salon)
Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to The Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend.

As nonwhites approach a numerical majority in the U.S., one question is how public programs to lift the disadvantaged should be best focused – on the affirmative action that historically has tried to eliminate the racial barriers seen as the major impediment to economic equality, or simply on improving socioeconomic status for all, regardless of race.

Hardship is particularly growing among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families' economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy "poor."
80 Percent Of U.S. Adults Face Near-Poverty, Unemployment: Survey (Huffington Post)
“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.

Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs (New York Times)
Every developed country aspires to provide a better life for its people. The United States, among the richest of all, fails in important ways. It has the highest poverty and the highest infant mortality among developed nations. We provide among the least generous unemployment benefits in the industrial world. Not long ago one of the most educated countries in the world, the United States is slipping behind.

The reason is not difficult to figure out: rich though we are, we can’t afford the policies needed to improve our record. The politicians in Washington all know that we face a long-term fiscal crisis. By 2020, 70 million Americans are expected to be on Social Security, up from 45 million in 2000. The ranks on Medicare will swell to 64 million, up from 40 million in 2000. Virtually every economist knows that just maintaining Medicare and Medicaid benefits will require raising taxes on the middle class.

But though the nation’s fiscal challenge has taken center stage in the presidential election campaign, raising more taxes from American families remains stubbornly off the table.

President Obama is willing to accept higher taxes on families earning over $250,000 a year. But he is going nowhere near higher taxes on the middle class. And Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential pick, Paul Ryan, are moving decidedly in the opposite direction. Not only do they want to extend indefinitely the tax cuts passed by President George W. Bush, but they are also calling for a piƱata of additional ones, and would cut social spending in return.

Citizens of most industrial countries have demanded more public services as they have become richer. And they have been by and large willing to pay more taxes to finance them. Since 1965, tax revenue raised by governments in the developed world have risen to 34 percent of their gross domestic product from 25 percent, on average.

The big exception has been the United States. In 1965, taxes collected by federal, state and municipal governments amounted to 24.7 percent of the nation’s output. In 2010, they amounted to 24.8 percent. Excluding Chile and Mexico, the United States raises less tax revenue, as a share of the economy, than every other industrial country.

No wonder we can’t afford to keep more children alive. In 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, the United States government spent about 16 percent of its output on social programs — things like public health, food and housing for the poor. In Italy, that figure was 25 percent.
Slipping Behind Because of an Aversion to Taxes (New York Times)


  1. “Within the organization, only in Turkey, Mexico and Poland do more children live in poor homes.”

    Bullshit. Many people in these countries still live in SIMPLE homes, the kind modernity agitates against: minimum plumbing, dry toilets, earth ovens, self-built cob/adobe homes, and make little cash but derive their wealth from subsistence economy. I hate this sort of propaganda. I usually precedes moves to destroy said subsistence.

    “Small arms ownership.The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva ranks the U.S. number one in both the total number of civilian firearms and in per capita ownership of small firearms, beating out recent war zones like Yemen, Serbia and Iraq.”

    Except for Switzerland, of course, where last I checked, every adult male owned a gun. I guess it’s not counted as “civilian” when the government sponsors it?

    “Cocaine has a nasty link to industrial capitalism.”

    Well, it was the Incas that popularized it, if memory serves, to get people to run and work in the Andes. In the form of coca leaf. It would be good to get over the obsession with certain drugs. Tsk tsk. Alcohol and tobacco are the ones that kill.

    “No wonder we can’t afford to keep more children alive.”

    Erm. Propaganda for taxation. Ugh. There are better ways to finance governance.

  2. All good points. Is it really "poverty" or is it a failure of social organization? I've posted this a few times about the poorest community in America:

    The poorest place in the United States is not a dusty Texas border town, a hollow in Appalachia, a remote Indian reservation or a blighted urban neighborhood. It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.

    And, yet, officially, at least, none of the nation’s 3,700 villages, towns or cities with more than 10,000 people has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of mostly garden apartments and town houses 50 miles northwest of New York City in suburban Orange County.


    One lawmaker, Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, a Republican who represents an adjacent district in Orange County, has demanded an investigation by state officials into why Kiryas Joel received grants for the center. “They may be truly poor on paper,” Ms. Calhoun said. “They are not truly poor in reality.”

    The village does aggressively pursue economic opportunities. A kosher poultry slaughterhouse, which processes 40,000 chickens a day, is community owned and considered a nonprofit organization. A bakery that produces 800 pounds of matzo daily is owned by one of the village’s synagogues.

    Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

    Statistically, no place comes close to Kiryas Joel. In Athens, Ohio, which ranks second in poverty, 56 percent of the residents are classified as poor.

    I'd bet a lot of Amish communities are "poor" too, after all, no fast-food outlets or even electricity! It's like those statistics on living on less than a dollar a day. What does that even mean? In the past people lived and died living on no currency whatsoever. The president of Uruguay lives on a farm with no security and drives an old pickup truck. Are we better off because our president lives like a modern Caesar?

    Still, the social statistics compared to other countries of comparable wealth are pretty damning. Your comment actually proves the point (and Berman's too) - it's the social organization, not the "wealth" that matters.

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  4. Escape, I lived a few miles from Kiryas Joel. They are not well liked in the area because they get all the money from the govt they can, so they can lead lives of religious study. And then scorn the rest of their fellow citizens (upon whom they depend for their livelihood). Very separatist.

    But yes, they are not really poor. They are rich in the wealth they choose: a tight-knit community, intense religious life, good-enough amenities (walking distance to their own little shopping center and to the synagogue), and mostly enough to get by on... and if not, the community will help out. It's sort of a warren of cheap apartments, they don't care about eco or pretty, much. But it's definitely not a slum, or even close to it.

    If America has failed, what is the criterion to judge by? I was not clear from the article.

    I'd say this: for all its wealth, America is not a very pleasant place to live. Sort of a mix of first world glitz and third world ramshackle garishness and insecurity.

  5. Funny - I just ordered Berman's book from the library on Friday. I will let you know what I think.

    I think he underestimates the number of holdouts there are here, who reject what the US has become. There are counter-movements of sustainability, local agriculture, and disengagement from the system.

    1. He tends to disparage what he calls "the alternative tradition" in America and says that it could never be more than exhortatory. By that standard, the same is true for every country on earth. I think America's alternative tradition, from Thoreau to Mumford to Chomsky has contrinuted greatly to the world.


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