The Curse of 'American Exceptionalism'

Published on
by
Common Dreams

The Curse of 'American Exceptionalism'

(Image: flick/cc/August Kelm)

Conservatives – and too often, what passes for liberals here in the USA – have been using the notion of 'American exceptionalism' to justify a wide range of criminal and near criminal activity.  We’re exceptional, alright, but not in the way we think.  Here’s 8 ways we’re exceptional – exceptionally bad.

Among the Most Expensive, Least Effective Health Care in the Developed World.  The US health care system is designed to create wealth, not provide health.  We have the most expensive system in the developed world, not the most effective.  When measured on five key criteria, the US measures last or next to last when compared to seven other developed nations:  Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. These countries have single payer systems, with substantial government involvement.   So when the US tries to change its system, what does it do?  Why, bolster the role of a rapacious insurance industry, of course.  Yeah, that’s exceptional.

Highest Income Disparity: The US has the largest gap between rich and poor of any developed nation.  In fact, globally, we rank right near Uganda.  Yeah, that’s right, Uganda.  Since 1979, the top 1% increased its income by 275%,  while the bottom 90% has gone up slowly, if at all.  The middle class is shrinking, and the number of households in poverty is increasing.  And if one looks at wealth, not income, it’s even worse. Nearly 75% of all growth in wealth since 1979 has gone to the top 5% of households.

Least Mobility Between Generations: Oh, but the US is the land of Horatio Alger and the American Dream, right?  Not so much.  Horatio Alger is dead, and the US economy is one of the most rigid in the developed world.  In five recent studies the US ranks last or second to last in income mobility – a study of European nations found that only Great Britain had less intergenerational economic mobility than the US, and some analysts put us behind Britain.  Increasingly, if you’re born poor in the US, you die poor.  Once again, we are exceptional – but not in a good way.

Most Hours Worked:  We work more hours than other developed nations.  Heck, we work more hours than hunter gatherers did, several millennia ago.  Exceptional?  Sure, in the way the class dunce is.

Least Vacation Days: Within the Organization of Developed Nations (OECD) every nation but three requires companies to provide at least 20 days of leave a year.  The three are Canada, which requires 18 days off; Japan, which requires 10; and of course, the US, which requires exactly 0 … that’s zed, nada, zilch, nothin’.  Pretty exceptional, eh?

Happiness Ranking not in the top 10:  According to the World Happiness Report, the most definitive look at happiness out there, the US, despite our great wealth, isn’t even in the top 10 countries.  How’s that for exceptional?   

Biggest discrepancy between CEO pay and their workers  – CEOs in the US get about 475 times what the average worker makes.  Truly exceptional.  But we have to pay that much, right?  Plutocrats and politicians tell us it’s the only way we can get the best and most qualified business leaders. Well, no. Look at the rest of the developed world.  In Japan, CEOs earn about 11 times the average worker; in Germany, about 12 times as much; in Canada, about 20 times as much and so on, yet their corporations are doing just fine, thank you. 

Biggest Defense Budget: The US spends six times as much on Defense as the next nation, China, and nearly as much as the rest of the world combined.  We have troops stationed in over 150 nations around the world.  We have become an Imperial Power, fighting wars of occupation.  Astoundingly, we recently negotiated with Afghanistan to keep troops there.  Why?  No one seems to be able to tell us, but it seems to have something to do with US exceptionalism.

When de Tocqueville coined the term in 1835, we might have had some small claim to actually being exceptional. The US was unique among western nations in that it was not founded on a theocratic or monarchistic system.  Ironically, the conservatives who blather the loudest about our “exceptionalism” are destroying whatever claim we might have had, by turning us into a two-bit imperialistic plutocracy. 

So there you have it.  We have an economic system with the all the characteristics of a banana republic.  We work harder and longer than citizens of any other developed nation, and we’re not as happy.  We have more expensive, less effective health care.  We send our young men and women overseas in a bewildering and expensive quest for what?  Security?  Imperialism and corporate welfare for Defense contractors is more like it. And we are less happy than our “socialist” brethren.

And the result is a kind of exceptionalism that is destroying our economic, environmental and moral fabric.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.

Share This Article