U.S. Trails World in Coronavirus Response


U.S. Trails World in Coronavirus Response and Almost Everything Else
By David Swanson

Data from around the world on how nations are handling Coronavirus makes clear that, as in most things (this claim is documented below), the United States is exceptionally awful. Among wealthy countries, only Sweden, which has chosen to intentionally allow the disease to spread, has done worse. A handful of countries in Latin America and the Middle East are doing worse than the United States, though some are doing better. As in many world rankings, as documented below, the United States looks fair to middling as a third-world country, but off-the-charts terrible as a wealthy country — much less as a country that endlessly (albeit falsely; see below) calls itself the wealthiest country on earth ever.

The United States’ handling of Coronavirus is not a fluke. It’s not an exception. It’s not a case of a country that’s generally competent and well-run screwing up. It’s completely in line with U.S. conduct on everything else, which is why it was quite easy to predict, which is why I predicted it. To make this case, below is an excerpt from Curing Exceptionalism.

The United States in geographic size is much smaller than Russia, a little smaller than Europe if Europe is treated as one whole, and by most calculations slightly smaller than Canada or China. The United States is significantly bigger than Brazil or Australia, and dramatically bigger than each of some 200 other countries, including each separate country of Europe.[i]

The United States in population size is dramatically smaller than China or India but significantly larger than every other country on earth. [ii]

Because the United States is larger in both area and population than most countries, it’s important to look not just at straightforward comparisons but also at per-square-mile and per-capita comparisons whenever relevant and possible.

The U.S. ranks as the top publisher of rankings, hands down. So it’s important to look at both U.S. and any non-U.S. sources of rankings that can be found.

Although many in the United States like to think of it as holding first place in many admirable categories, it’s hard to actually find a category where this is true. Perhaps the most popular claim is on behalf of “freedom.” The United States is said to be the most “free.” But virtually no study, from any political perspective, actually makes that finding.

The British-based Legatum Institute, which ranks the United States 18th in overall “prosperity,” ranks it 28th in “personal freedom.”[iii] The U.S.-based Cato Institute ranks the United States 24th in “personal freedom” and 11th in “economic freedom.”[iv] The Canadian-based World Freedom Index ranks the United States 27th in a combined consideration of “economic,” “political,” and “press” freedoms.[v] The U.S.-government-funded Freedom House ranks the United States 16th in “civil liberties.”[vi] The French-based Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States 43rd in “press freedom.”[vii] The U.S.-based Heritage Foundation ranks the United States 18th in “economic freedom.”[viii] The Spanish-based World Index of Moral Freedom ranks the United States 7th.[ix] The British-based Economist Magazine‘s Democracy Index has the United States in a three-way tie for 20th place.[x] The CIA-funded Polity Data Series gives the U.S. democracy a score of 8 out of 10, but gives 58 other countries a higher score.[xi]

Some of these sources’ conceptions of freedom are at odds with each other, as well as with my own conception of a good society. The point is that virtually nobody, on the left or the right or anywhere else, ranks the United States as the leader in liberty, by any definition — not even in the “economic liberty” of capitalism. Related, albeit inversely, to freedom is incarceration, where the United States does rank first in overall number of prisoners, and in per-capita rate of imprisonment (with the possible exception of the Seychelles Islands).[xii]

Among those who have looked seriously into such matters and still claimed first place for the United States in some admirable category, the most common category is probably “top-ranked” or “research” universities. It is perhaps not as grand a claim as “Land of the Free,” but “land of the good universities” is still a nice title.

The United States is indeed often ranked as having the most overall, and the most top-ranked universities in the world. But both claims are false if a per-capita comparison is used. The United States has also been ranked as producing the most doctoral degrees (PhDs), though that, too, isn’t true per capita.[xiii] All such numerical comparisons are of limited value, of course. For example, we’d probably be better off if certain for-profit, non-educational, debt-trap universities did not exist. And a majority of supporters of the Republican Party tell the Pew Research Center that higher education as a whole has a negative impact.[xiv] Providing a hint at divisions within, the United States may have both the most PhDs and the most people who believe college is bad for you.

Nonetheless, numbers are a place to start, and there do seem to exist some credible numbers related to universities declared by various sources to be “top-ranked.” Rankings from the United States[xv], United Kingdom[xvi], and China[xvii] all place the U.S. first in most universities in the top 100, but ninth or tenth in the same measurement per capita. Countries that lead the U.S. in at least one study in most universities in the top 100 per capita are Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Having the most top universities is certainly significant, and even ranking ninth or tenth in having the most top universities per capita is pretty darn good. Of course, these calculations do not tell us the quality of the lower-ranked universities that most students attend. Nor do they consider the sizes of the universities or the moral character of what is taught in them. They certainly do not consider the cost of the universities or the debt that typical students find themselves in after attending. The United States leads the world in student debt,[xviii] while dozens of countries offer free university educations. And the United States has slipped from first place to now trail several other countries in per-capita college graduation rate.[xix] So one can cheer for the rankings won by top U.S. universities, but a U.S. student is less likely to actually attend any university, and more likely — if he or she does attend — to emerge burdened with tremendous debt.


Of course, it would be odd for a country near the top in population and area not to rank #1 in some things, and having the most top-ranked universities is a pretty good one. But it does matter to the quality of life in the United States that it is not in first place in a per capita comparison. One way to judge the quality of much of the university education in the United States, and the education of those millions of students who do not attend universities, is to look at primary and secondary education, where the United States ranks mediocre at best. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks U.S. students 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in both science and reading.[xx] The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) ranks U.S. students in tenth place or lower in every category (both math and science in both fourth and eighth grades) out of 50 some countries looked at in each case.[xxi]

So, perhaps the United States is not a clear-cut world leader in freedom or education, but surely there must be something else admirable that it leads in, right? Well, there’s the Olympic medal count, although it doesn’t hold up under a per capita comparison or a geographic area comparison,[xxii] and it may be slipping away. In the 2018 winter olympics, three nations, all with much smaller populations, picked up more medals than did the United States.[xxiii]

There’s also the sheer pile of money. The United States has the largest nominal gross domestic product (GDP).[xxiv] In GDP based on purchasing power parity (PPP), however, the United States trails China and the European Union.[xxv] (PPP is a means of calculating exchange rates between currencies that controls for variations in cost of living and pricing.) In neither measure of wealth is the United States a leader per capita.[xxvi] And, even if it were, that wouldn’t mean what it sounds like for most people in the United States, because this country with the biggest bucket of cash also has it distributed the most unequally of any wealthy nation, giving the United States both the biggest collection of billionaires[xxvii] on earth and the highest or nearly highest rates of poverty and child-poverty among wealthy nations.[xxviii] The United States ranks 111th out of 150 countries for income equality, according to the CIA[xxix], or 100th out of 158, according to the World Bank[xxx], while for equitable distribution of wealth (a very different measure from income), according to one calculation[xxxi], the United States ranks 147th out of 152 countries.

In December 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty issued a report on the United States that included these lines:[xxxii]

  • US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.
  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
  • US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.
  • Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.
  • The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly five times the OECD average. [OECD means the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization that has 35 member countries.]
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14 percent across the OECD.
  • The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labor markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries, and 18th amongst the top 21.
  • In the OECD the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.
  • According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini rate (measuring inequality) of all Western Countries.
  • The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league.” US child poverty rates are the highest amongst the six richest countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.

So, perhaps wealth is not the ideal topic to focus on, any more than freedom or education. We could focus on worker productivity except that the long hours with less vacation enjoyed by U.S. workers do not actually make them the most productive, per hour or per year. That honor goes to the workers of Luxembourg, who put in an average of 29 hours a week, but produce the most GDP per hour and per year. Luxembourg is followed by Ireland, Norway, and Belgium in GDP per hour.[xxxiii] The Irish work almost as many hours as U.S. workers, making them also more productive per year.

What about opportunity or social mobility? Isn’t the “freedom” of the United States in fact bound up with the idea that, while most people are not the wealthiest, any of them could become the wealthiest with enough hard work? In reality, while there are always exceptions, there are less upward mobility and more firmly entrenched economic classes in the United States than in other wealthy countries.[xxxiv]

OK, what about innovation, invention, intellectual creation? Obviously this is an even harder category than others to quantify, but we can try. Patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office now come more from abroad than from within the United States.[xxxv] But among patents filed anywhere on earth, the United States still applies for and receives a larger number than any other single country, staying slightly ahead of both China and Japan, at least in patents granted. Some reports have China filing more applications than the United States in some recent years. But the U.S. lead evaporates when the comparison is either per-capita or per-GDP. In the former case, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, and Germany jump ahead. In the latter, South Korea, Japan, China, Germany, Switzerland, and France do.[xxxvi] When it comes to new industrial designs, the United States is not at the top by any calculation.[xxxvii] And of course these numbers do not tell us the actual creative value or societal impact of all these patents, or how the number of patents filed compares to a society’s litigiousness. The United States is, in fact, a world leader in number of lawyers per capita[xxxviii], possibly trailing only Israel[xxxix] or Greece[xl].

I do give the U.S. some credit for its role (along with the roles of others) in developing the internet, the incredible tool that has allowed me to pull together all of the international comparisons found in this book in a matter of a few days of web surfing.

Then there is popular culture. Published lists of the top money-earning films[xli] and music[xlii] contain almost exclusively U.S. productions. And, while the British — along with the French, Chinese, Spanish, and others — dominate the lists of best selling books of all time,[xliii] U.S. books and other cultural products also have a global impact, especially — of course — when turned into films. Out of its many categories for comparing nations, U.S. News and World Report ranks the United States first in only one thing: most influential.[xliv] A U.S.-based ranking of nations’ “soft power” places the United States in the top 10.[xlv] One has to wonder what the world would be like if the countries that were the best at something were also the most influential in regards to the same.

U.S. film distribution, while not strictly limited by language, also benefits from and contributes to the fact that English is, for largely historical reasons beginning with British imperialism, the third most common first language and first most common second language on earth.[xlvi] The prevalence of English, combined with the size of the United States, likely contributes to the relatively low knowledge of any foreign languages by U.S. adults.[xlvii] And that state of affairs likely contributes to and is further encouraged by the sense of exceptionalism discussed in this book.

Much of the popularity of U.S. films is almost certainly due to the super-expensive high- production quality of those films. But it’s reasonable to assume that part of the popularity also stems from the affection many people have in various parts of the world for the stories presented in those films. That people view U.S. movies is, in fact, a common argument for the relative merits of the United States: if it weren’t a preferable place, then why do people watch its movies, wear its t-shirts, and try to immigrate to live here?

The United States, it is claimed, accepts more immigrants than any other country. That’s actually true,[xlviii] though it’s not even close to true on a per-capita or a per-square-mile or a per-GDP basis.[xlix] It’s also not close to true when talking about refugees,[l] only when talking about all types of immigrants combined. U.S. immigration policies favor those with job skills and those from Europe.[li] The United States is also not ranked anywhere near the top of nations that are helpful to immigrants once they arrive, not even according to U.S. studies.[lii]

Still, a great many people are willing to abandon their former lives and start anew in the United States, both with legal permission and at risk of legal apprehension. Why? One reason is that, while the average life in the United States, as we will see below, is not the longest, happiest, or healthiest on earth, it’s very far from the shortest, most miserable, or most dangerous. The United States may not have Finland’s schools or France’s paid vacations or Germany’s clean energy, but most of its neighborhoods are safer than many places south of its border, for example.

This fact is not, of course, in conflict with the fact that the U.S. government has, in many cases, contributed to the misery from which people who come to the United States are fleeing.[liii] That the U.S. government has supported a military coup or trained and armed brutal death squads in a country can be condemned,[liv] even while urging that the people fleeing that country be admitted to a chance of a better life in the United States. Neither opposing U.S. militarism nor urging that immigrants be welcomed makes the United States 100 percent Evil or 100 percent Good.

At some point, the attempts to declare the United States Number One in some desirable category take on a quality of desperation. I would so characterize claims of global environmental leadership and claims of global generosity. Let’s look at these two concepts, one at a time.

A columnist listing things the United States is #1 in has included marine protected areas and CO2 emissions reductions.[lv] Regarding marine protected areas, the claim turns out to be that the U.S. has the largest area protected under any of six types of protection ranging from strictly protected to “sustainably used.” It is a claim not made on a per-square-mile basis.

If it is true that the United States has reduced CO2 emissions, it certainly needed to, because the United States still trails, at most, only China in this climate-destroying pollution, even considering Europe as one whole; and in CO2 emissions per capita the United States trails only six countries: Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Australia.[lvi] In fact, the U.S. military alone, if it were a country, would rank high on the list of the world’s countries for CO2 emissions.[lvii] The comparisons are similar for methane and other greenhouse gases. Another study ranks the United States first in CO2 emissions, first in fertilizer use, second in water pollution, third in marine captures, ninth in species threatened, and second overall (behind Brazil) in environmental destruction[lviii], although the same study ranks the United States only 55th most destructive out of 179 countries when the level of destruction is adjusted in proportion to the resources each country has available.

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