Unflattering comparisons of the United States to other so-called “advanced democracies” like Denmark, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, and to such recent additions to the advanced democracy club as Taiwan and South Korea, show the U.S. to be performing shockingly badly in recent decades. The U.S. keeps coming up short in international comparisons of educational and healthcare outcomes, of prevalence of poverty and inequality, and of levels of incarceration and gun violence. We don't have to search beyond the OECD's Better Life Index or the Human Development Index (HDI) Ranking by United Nations to find evidence of the decline in America's standing in healthcare, education, jobs, and living standards. On healthcare, we have some of the world’s top hospitals, yet we stand out still more for the co-existence of shockingly high healthcare costs with disturbingly low and falling healthcare outcomes.
In education, the Carter administration's Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1980 reduced the Federal School Lunch and Child Nutrition Programs budget by approximately 8%. Former President Ronald Regan's administration infamously cut school lunch budgets and allowed ketchup and other condiments to count as vegetables.
One might have hoped that the depressing growth in wealth and income inequality that were super-charged by the 2017 tax cuts, the gut-wrenching videos of police brutally killing defenseless African Americans, the continuing epidemic of suicide, alcohol-induced liver disease and opioid deaths among lower-income White Americans, would have been enough to ignite a sense of crisis. But now, the abysmal response of the U.S. government to the Covid-19 pandemic has joined these problems as Exhibit A of the U.S.’s dysfunctionality when compared to other “advanced economies” (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, "Covid's Wake Up Call," 2020). Clearly, the United States has suffered a fall from the well-earned prestige it had enjoyed after its victory over the fascist Axis powers in World War II. “How have the mighty fallen?” asked the Biblical Prophet Samuel (2, 1:19). But to look to the future, rather than rend our clothes over where we’ve been for the past four years, let’s try to understand “Why” rather than “How” we’ve fallen.
Of course, we were never perfect. Our racial problems were far from resolved when our troops were battling Hitler and Mussolini, or during their subsequent and more dubious deployments in Vietnam and other conflicts. Inequality of income and wealth had already reached levels similar to today’s during the 1920s. And in the 1930s, we suffered an economic depression even more severe than the ones we’ve experienced in 2008 – 9 and this year. But Roosevelt’s New Deal and the impetus from the successful fight against fascism had catapulted the U.S. into a new age of prosperity with a substantial middle class, broad reductions in inequalities, and some promising steps to counter the Black/White gulf (including Truman’s integration of the Army in 1948 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Those decades also saw New Deal follow-ups like establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and steps towards equal rights for women and protections for people with disabilities.
What went wrong once memory of the Depression and World War II had faded? Whereas many countries in Western Europe, as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, continued to push forward to build effective mixed economies with governments that made sure they delivered a high quality of life to the large majority of their people, the U.S. saw a come-back of anti-government ideology from 1980 onwards. Drawing on a strand of American ideology that had always seen government as a potential source of tyranny and had worked to bolster citizens’ rights to resist government, the right successfully played on White resentment against government assistance to disadvantaged non-Whites, on fears of the growing size of U.S. Hispanic and Asian populations, on prejudices against immigrants from non-Christian societies, and on push-back against abortion rights, gay marriage, and other gains in social freedom, and successfully pushed through a conservative, anti-government agenda. It’s not hard to show that that agenda benefited almost exclusively the richest Americans and the power of large corporations, while causing the decline of welfare for the large majority relative to counterparts in more enlightened fellow democracies. Nor is there doubt that the backsliding of America’s one-time progress was helped along by our glaring deviations from democracy itself: our electoral college system, unrepresentative Senate, rampant gerrymandering, discouragement of voting by working people (e.g. through voting on work days), and the ruling of the Supreme Court (packed with conservatives thanks to the electoral college and Senate deviations from control by the majority of the country’s voters) that Corporations can spend what they please to influence our elections. The standard of living of average Americans is significantly lower than that of Danes, Germans, Canadians, and citizens of other “advanced democracies,” and more than half of Americans have lower standards of living today than their counterparts forty years ago, precisely because the right succeeded in making government the enemy of a large enough fraction of our population that it was able to gut government programs and push through trade liberalization without corresponding job retraining, expansion of educational opportunities, and recognition that expanded trade always has both winners and losers. The right effectively hobbled government agencies, stripping them of personnel and funding and installing their opponents at their helms, thereby ginning up evidence to support their claims that government action is always inferior to private sector solutions. The counting has barely begun of all the lives lost to this intentional gutting of government, including the hollowing out of the F.A.A. that contributed to the 747-Max crashes of 2018 and 2019, the inadequate government response to storms like Katrina, and government complicity in the climate change that’s contributing so noticeably to more severe storms, with still worse consequences on the way.
The United States has endured a quarter of a million Covid-19 deaths and far greater job loss and devastation of its economy than any other “advanced democracy” because we had the most inept and, frankly, criminal government outside of the “less developed” world during the first year of this pandemic. Beginning in January, the U.S. government could have kept the Covid-19 death toll as low as a few thousand, instead of 250,000, had we taken the kinds of measures that Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand took. The U.S. did nothing while the administration tried to keep the economy operating normally lest it affect the President’s election prospects and resort business. He played down the dangers posed by the virus, deterring the U.S. from developing a robust testing program of the kind that spared tens of thousands of lives in more pro-active countries.
Source: Ward Sutton, "Grave Consequences"
Rather than try to identify the few cases of the virus that may have crept into the country before its existence had been announced by China, and rather than then testing for the virus among those entering U.S. borders and investing heavily in a contact-tracing program like the pro-active countries did, the U.S. began simply prohibiting people from countries with non-White majorities from entering the U.S., pleasing the President’s political base. Trump was so sure that no one got this point that he bragged in both presidential debates about how quickly he had shut down Chinese immigration. With a thousand other debating points to keep in mind, Biden was unfortunately unable to call him out on that outrageous boast, outrageous because the action in question was in fact the criminal exposure of Americans to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths by choosing racism and xenophobia over science. White Italians, and thousands of Americans returning from visits to China, didn’t even get their temperatures taken at our airports as hundreds of cases flowed in, in February.
Although Taiwan sits right on China’s doorstep and usually experiences a huge flow of people back and forth between it and China, a temporary prohibition on travel, effective testing of all people entering Taiwan, effective contact tracing, availability of tests to the whole population, and limited reduction of a few types of gathering for a few weeks, allowed Taiwan to keep its total number of Covid-19 deaths to a literal handful. Deaths per million people were kept below 30 in Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, versus 800 per million—even before we count the carnage coming this winter—in the U.S. By April of 2020, people could safely gather in restaurants and homes with no thought of danger from the virus, in Taiwan, because the case rate was essentially zero. At the same time Taiwan was effectively battling the virus, Donald Trump was holding lengthy press conferences every evening boasting that ‘of course the U.S. has the best healthcare system in the world, by far,’ and predicting that the virus would disappear like magic. History will record that Trump never did shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue, but that more than a quarter of a million Americans who did not need to die lost their lives in 2020 because Americans had empowered a sick ego-maniac with no shred of respect for human life or human values to direct our country’s response to the deadliest pandemic in a hundred years.
Returning to my main theme: there’s an abundance of evidence to show that a high quality of life in our day and age calls for a synergistic relationship between private economic activity and markets, on the one hand, and a government that can provide the framework for that economy to function properly, on the other. Such a government provides a country’s population with the public goods that every economics textbook says the market fails to provide when left to itself. The idea that government can only harm the economy is nothing more than snake oil being sold to members of a poorly informed and poorly educated population by wealthy funders of conservative think tanks who’ve had whatever trace of conscience they were born with surgically removed. Leading figures in the Democratic Party were themselves captured by financial and commercial interests, with next to no awareness of how the majority of Americans live, a fact that helps explain why so many failed to show up at the polls to defeat Trump in 2016. As the economists Acemoglu and Robinson affirm in their powerful 2019 book The Narrow Corridor, government is crucial for a high quality of life, but it must be a government at the bidding of the citizenry, not a government in the pocket of an elite or faction, or run as the personal fiefdom of an oligarch. We can put their message succinctly with a tweak of Lincoln’s famous phrase: In today’s complex world, what we all need is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, lest we—the people—perish from the earth.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, The Narrow Corridor: States, Markets, and the Fate of Liberty. Penguin, 2019.
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It. Harper, 2020.