Last week a friend emailed me a response he wrote to an email he had received. The original email was a very abbreviated version of an article by David Sirota entitled, “A Reconsideration of American Exceptionalism.” I wrote back to him and copied all the recipients. My comments were quickly written and were basically a knee jerk reaction to my scan of the email. I read the piece as another rant against our evil capitalistic system and the horrible things our economy was doing to our people and the rest of the world. Another person on the email thread sent me a link to the full article (in The Oregonian newspaper from Portland, OR). As it turns out, the full article (and a full reading of it – not just a scan) was better than my first look indicated. My first reaction was not altogether fair or accurate.
My second take on the article is that it is little more than an identification of some major problems with our society today and some imagined ones. However, it does list a number of problems that our society needs to address.
Here is the article and a few comments (italicized). Read it and let me know what you think.
A reconsideration of American exceptionalism: David Sirota
“American exceptionalism” is perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in politics. If, like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we define “exceptionalism” as “the condition of being different from the norm” — then it’s certainly true that America is exceptional. But we rarely stop to ask: Should we always want to be exceptional?
The assumption in our culture is yes — but it’s not always so clear-cut when you consider the key ways we are exceptional in comparison to other industrialized countries.
America, for instance, has an exceptional economy. GDP-wise, it is the largest in the world, making it the planet’s most powerful engine of technological innovation and wealth creation. At the same time, the economy is exceptional for creating the industrialized world’s most financially unequal society; producing one of the industrialized world’s highest rates of childhood poverty; and mandating the industrialized world’s least amount of off time (paid sick days, maternity leave, etc.). - This attributes all these exceptional things, good and bad, to our economy. I seriously doubt we are the most financially unequal society. And, we still have a higher standard of living on average than most. Third, our trend, since we began the War on Poverty and leaning toward a Welfare State has been to a greater division between the wealthy and the poor. This in my view is more a result of governmental influence than the influence of the economy on our society. And “…mandating the industrialized world’s least amount of time off…,” suggests that more mandated time off, or more control by government how business is operated, is good thing. I don’t think it is, but that is a huge topic for another day.
In terms of health care, we have an exceptional system that stands out for spending more than any other nation’s. According to the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner, that gets us a system that “is at the top of the charts when it comes to surviving cancer (and) drives much of the innovation and research on health care worldwide.”
Then again, America’s health care system is also exceptional for being the only one in the industrialized world that doesn’t guarantee health care to every citizen. Results-wise, that contributes to a society that, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report, is far more unhealthy than 16 other developed nations.
“Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high-income countries,” the report noted. “Not only are their lives shorter, but Americans also have a longstanding pattern of poorer health that is strikingly consistent and pervasive over the life course.”
I would agree that we are less healthy than we should be. I would argue that this is a solvable problem that comes not from our people working too hard (not enough mandated time off), but at least partially from too few of our number actually working.
In terms of freedom, even with the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties, America remains exceptional for how our laws safeguard free speech. But we are also exceptional for having the industrialized world’s only president who asserts the right to execute citizens without due process. Similarly, we are exceptional in incarcerating more citizens than any other nation on Earth. I would not argue that either of these exceptions is not a bad thing nor would I argue that either is not true. Both are shameful.
In terms of military might, America is exceptional for having the planet’s most dominant fighting force. We are also exceptional for our spending — we devote more resources to military programs than the next 19 biggest-spending nations combined. This is a good point but appears exaggerated. As an aside, if you look at this as a percentage of GDP, there are 8 countries in the Middle East alone that spend more. It is also a safe guess that much of our spending is to protect European nations as if we were still in World War Two. Needless to say, most of the countries of Europe have been able to limit their military expenditures mostly because they see us as their ultimate defender. And compared to the rest of the industrialized world, we are exceptional in the number of ongoing wars we prosecute; the number of people we kill; and the number of casualties we regularly incur. I agree with Thomas Jefferson who said, “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” We are involved in the business of far too many others and should basically ‘butt out’ of much of our overseas involvement.
So, again, in many ways America is indeed quite exceptional. But that’s not always a positive thing, which raises the ultimate question: Can we remain exceptional in ways that benefit us while also being a bit less exceptional in the ways that harm us and others?
Can, for instance, we have an exceptional economy without the exceptionally crushing inequality and poverty? “Crushing inequality and poverty” is a stretch to say the least. Can we preserve the exceptional parts of our health care system, but also have a system that is less exceptional for how it denies access to all citizens and often delivers substandard health outcomes? I’m sure he meant to say “…denies access to many citizens….” Can we preserve exceptional freedoms while also being less exceptional in our incarceration policies? And can we preserve an exceptionally effective military but be a little less exceptional in how much we spend on the Pentagon, (I would argue that a HUGE driver of our Military (and all government) spending is our government purchasing system. It has built a very large bureaucracy that does little but add costs to suppliers who must raise prices to comply with all the red tape and unneeded redundancies.) … how many wars we initiate, how many casualties we incur and how many people we kill? This is a very worthy goal.
The pessimistic answer to these questions is no. But the true sign of American exceptionalism is an America that starts saying yes.”
- David Sirota
Let me know what you think of the piece. Some of it seems worthy of discussion.