Mike Kueber's Blog

June 25, 2012

Is America the greatest country in the world?

Filed under: Culture,Education,History,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:11 pm
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HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, premiered last night.  In its opening scene at a college lecture, a jaded, politically-correct anchorman (the show’s hero, Jeff Daniels) and two caricatured talking heads (one liberal and one conservative), are asked by a ditzy co-ed to describe “in one sentence or less” why America is the greatest country in the world.  The liberal answers, “diversity and opportunity,” and the conservative responds with “freedom and freedom.”  When the moderator refuses to accept the anchorman’s cynically trite responses, the anchorman eventually explodes with a long speech that first provides statistics that strongly suggest America is not the greatest country in the world and that finishes by nostalgically describing how America acted in the past when it was the greatest nation in the world.

Interestingly, the anchorman does not use the same standards for the past-great America (doing the right thing, doing the big things) and the current-mediocre America (low student scoring, income inequality, high infant mortality).  And the show never gets around to elaborating on what should be the criteria in determining the quality of a country.   Thus, if The Newsroom prompts a viewer to think about what the right answer is, that viewer will have to first need to select the appropriate criteria.

To get some other perspective, I surfed the internet and found a variety of opinions.

  • A composite indexNewsweek in a 2010 article proposed the following for identifying the “best” countries in the world – “Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life.”  Based on those metrics, Finland is #1, followed by Switzerland as #2 and Sweden as #3.  America was ranked #11.  A wit commented as follows about the Newsweek rankings – “The world’s “best countries” seem to have this in common: they avoid war, they live in the dark, and they maintain a steady state of depressive and productive activity.
  • Happiness.  The people at World Database of Happiness take into account a number of different things such as average life expectancy and most importantly the answer to the following multiple choice question ‘How happy are you?’”  Based on that criteria, it found Denmark as #1, followed by Switzerland and Austria.  Finland was #5, Sweden was #7, and America was in the rear at #17.  But other worldly powers were even worse – Great Britain – #22; France – #39; China – #44; India – #45; and Japan #46.
  • Another composite index.  The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic used to rank countries by level of “human development,” taken as a synonym of the older terms (the standard of living and/or quality of life).  The HDI is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living of a country.  Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands lead the list, but America is 4th.  The next powerful country on the list is Germany at #9 and Japan at #12.  Milquetoasts Finland is #22, Switzerland is #11, and Sweden is #10.

What do I think makes a country great?  My first reaction is to think that a country is great to the extent that its people are able to flourish.  That pretty much eliminates consideration of America’s unparalleled economic and military power.  (It might be more accurate to revise the question to ask for the best county, not the greatest country.)  Unlike the anchorman on The Newsroom, I don’t think the greatest nation necessarily has the smartest students or longest life expectancy. 

Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart argues the self-reliance and freedom are essential for an individual to flourish and that rings true to me.  That also sounds a lot like a combination of the caricatured liberal (opportunity) and conservative (freedom) in the opening scene of The Newsroom. 

So maybe Jeff Daniels wasn’t the smartest man in the room at that college lecture, but, based on freedom and opportunity, is America the greatest country in the world.  Anchorman Daniels doesn’t think so.  In fact, during his outburst, he specifically stated that America doesn’t have a monopoly on freedom – i.e., more than 180 of the 210 sovereign countries are free.  That sounds like a remarkable broad, almost indefensible statement.  There are certainly variations of freedom.  In fact, there are composite indexes that focus solely on freedom that I will save for another posting.  But the following is an example:

  • None of the well-regarded rankings seem to concur with Clinton and Kern about America’s standing. One widely cited annual study, the Freedom of the World report, encompasses 194 countries and 14 territories, each of which gets a score on a scale from 1 (Free) to 7 (Not Free), based on the prevalence of political rights (e.g. fair elections) and civil liberties (e.g. freedom of association). For 2010, the United States was one of 48 nations to receive a 1 in both the political rights (PR) and civil liberties (CL) categories. But within that elite cohort, it fell behind countries such as Barbados, Portugal, and Uruguay. Failure to root out government corruption, technical glitches in voting machinery, and a reliance on congressional gerrymandering damaged our showing. We also got docked for having a higher incarceration rate than any other democracy—and because our justice system is broadly perceived as racist in practice, since a disproportionate number of black and Latino males fill our jails. Freedom House’s winners? Norway, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Finland, and Sweden.”

I am concerned, however, that in America opportunity is decreasing and economic inequality is increasing and that these trends threaten America to its core.  It is shocking to hear that there is more economic-social mobility for individuals in some European countries like France than in America.  Unfortunately, there are not any known levers for reversing these trends without doing even more damage to freedom in America.

Like Charles Murray, who spoke about these trends in his book, I am cautiously optimistic that Americans will not be satisfied until we have a meritocracy where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. 





  1. I think the show “Newsroom” is off to a great start. I also liked the response that Daniels made. It is the kind of response the people in this country needs to hear. Personally, I think the primary problem in this country is GREED. It is all about the money and the after thought is about the good of the people.

    Comment by Tom Willson — June 25, 2012 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve always found the incarceration rate in the U.S. being held as an indictment interesting. In the alleged words of Willie Sutton when asked why he robs banks; “because that’s where the money is”. The primary reason our prisons hold a large number of African-Americans is socio-economic. The primary reason our prisons hold a large number of Latino’s/Hispanic’s is the same but you must also add the proximity to latin American countries and the relative ease an individual enjoy’s getting into the Bank/USA. Thanks for a good read.

    Comment by Mike — June 25, 2012 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

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