America is not the Greatest Country in the World Anymore
December 2019: An Update
I originally published this article in June of 2015. Things have changed since then. As a result, I wanted to go back into this article, update things, clean up the text and the narrative a bit, and see where I could improve upon the article. I hope I have succeeded!
When the HBO show The Newsroom was first announced, I managed to catch a video (seen below) which told me that this should be the greatest television show to come to the small screen since ... well, anything. In that clip, we hear Will McAvoy (the main character of the show) say this:
There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
I do hope you will take the time to watch the clip; better yet, I hope you take the time to watch Season One (the other seasons took a great show and killed it). Out of context, this set of claims is pretty powerful. In context, it is arguably one of the most important eight minutes or so of video that has ever appeared on television.
The Newsroom: Opening Scene
Where America Leads the World
This clip claims that America leads in only three categories: Incarcerations per capita, Religious Delusions, and Military Spending. Let's take a closer look at those...
Point #1: Incarcerated Citizens
Back when I first wrote this article, the United States of America rated as the #2 nation for incarceration (the island nation of Seychelles ranked in at #1). However, since then, the United States has gone from 707 people incarcerated per 100,000 people to a peak of 755 per 100,000 in 2008. It has since began to go down a bit, and has reached 693 per 100,000 in 2014 (the latest data available at prisonstudies.org).
Wikipedia currently shows a rate of 655 per 100,000 -- but this figure does not include those held in facilities within U.S. Territories (e.g., Guam, Virgin Islands, etc.); it does not include those held in facilities within U.S. Commonwealths (e.g., Puerto Rico, Mariana Islands, etc.); it does not include those held in non-adult facilities (i.e., juvenile detention facilities); it does not include those held in other facilities outside the U.S. proper (e.g., Guantanamo Bay, etc.).
All of that said, as a democratic republic we incarcerate our citizens at a rate double that of the communist dominated nation of the Russian Federation—number 29 on the list! In fact, if you look at the Top 10 places on the list, the United States and its various territories account for the #1, #4, and #8 spots.
Top 10 Incarceration Rates
United States of America
Virgin Islands (USA)
Northern Mariana Islands (USA)
Virgin Islands (UK)
This is a disturbing rate. When compared to other democratic nations, the United States of America's rate of incarceration rate is frighteningly high. The Wikipedia page that has these incarceration rates lists:
- #113 - England = 140
- #125 - Spain = 126
- #146 - France = 104
- #209 - Japan = 41
Granted, France has a few territories that are not included in that number. But the fact remains that the United States is ridiculous when it comes to locking people up. In fact, when you look at the incarceration rates of nations that most Americans would think would be rather oppressive, this statistic becomes even more alarming:
- #36 - Iran = 284
- #115 - Vietnam = 137
- #134 - China = 118
- #207 - Pakistan = 43
Think about the numbers here.
As of 2016, the population of China was ~1,382 million people (or about 1.4 billion people). At that same time, the population of the United States of America was ~325 million. This means that China had a population that was about 4.25 times that of the United States. However, even with more than four times the population, China had only 1,649,804 prisoners compared to 2,121,600 (adult) prisoners in the United States -- a difference of 471,796 people. The United States has some 29% more prisoners than a dictatorial communist nation with more than four times its population.
Granted, this is one data point, but when you think about this data point in the context of the Patriot Act, the NSA domestic spying, police violence against minority populations, and so on... you have to ask yourself:
If you live in a country that is willing to imprison such a significant portion of its population, are you really living in the land of the free?
Point #2: Angels are Real
This is not something that is easily verified. According to a 2011 CBS Poll, 77% of American adults believe Angels are real. I have no idea how many other nations have conducted such polls, and so I have no way of knowing if America is a world leader in this particular metric. But I think this statistic, even without thinking about it in terms of world leadership, is disturbing.
The Angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition are, for all intent and purpose, the minor gods of the religion. Where Greek Mythology had a god for this, a goddess for that, and a demi-god for the other thing, Judeo-Christian Mythology claimed monotheism: one god. One all-mighty (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-encompassing (omnipresent) and singularly True-God. In place of the multitudes of gods to inhabit the heavens, Judeo-Christian tradition includes the Angels.
If you do not think Angels and Gods are comparable, then you are not paying attention.
- The Greeks had Vulcan as their God of Fire; the Heavenly Host of Judeo-Christian myth had Gabriel fill that role.
- The Hindu God of War is Kartikeya; the Heavenly Host has Michael serve that purpose.
- And so on...
In most religious pantheons, there exists a degree of infighting such that you have the blessed gods (e.g., in the bright over-world of Mt. Olympus) and cursed gods (e.g., cast into the dark underworld of Hades); in Judeo-Christian myth, one-third of the Heavenly Host rebelled against God and were cast out of the light of Heaven and condemned to the darkness of Hell.
But let us put that aside for a moment. The Bronze Age (and earlier) scriptures which purport the existence of Angels were written in a time when many other things were thought to have existed. Suppose we were to replace the word Angel with something else that was believed to exist at that time, but science has made obsolete?
Would you be comfortable with the idea that 77% of the adults in America believe in the existence of Ghosts? How about unicorns? Fairies?
The point is this: if you believe in a literal view of Biblical teaching—a school of thought which requires that you see the Bible as the inerrant world of an omniscient being—and in that belief you see Angels not as symbols of allegory, but as real extant beings that continue to view and monitor the world today, then you are someone that has decided that a Bronze Age text should take precedence over all forms of rational thought, science, and reason.
You have to ask yourself:
If you live in a country where 77% of the adults you pass on the street each day are willing to suspend rational thought in favor of an ancient fairy tale, is this something you can honestly say is a quality that would exist in a truly great country?
As a side note, I want to say this: I am an atheist, this is true. But I do not think that just because you are a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or what-have-you, that you are automatically cursed with thinking that is incompatible with rational thought. Far from it.
I do, however, think that it you look at the texts of your religion and see them as literal truth rather than allegory, morality tales, or other forms of fable... then, yes, you are probably not a rational person in my view. Knowing that, you can take from this second point what you will.
Point 3: Military Spending
The idea that America should go without a military - that America should spend no money on National Defense - is ludicrous.
The idea that America should spend more on its military than any other nation in the world is not irrational. As a world leader, it is arguably prudent for us to spend more than most other nations do. After all, we can afford it where many of the nations we work with cannot.
This is my opinion. Feel free to tell me that I am wrong in the comments.
However, the degree to which we spend money on National Defense has gone far past rational, zoomed by prudent, kicked sand in the face of irrational, and has settled into a realm that can only be described as cartoon-ish.
Consider that the world has (as of 2016) an estimated population of about 7.5 billion people. At that time, the United States had a population of approximately 325 million people. This means that the United States accounts for about 4.3% of the world's population.
As the chart above shows, the United States outspends everyone. By a large margin. In fact, if you add up all the numbers on this pie chart, you will find that the United States accounts for about 39% of the entire world's military expenditures.
If this is not disturbing you, then you are not thinking about this clearly.
Honestly, go do some research.
The United States accounts for more than a third of what the world spends on its various militaries. Since we account for 4.3% of the world's population, this means that on a per-capita basis, we outspend the rest of the world almost 9:1.
You have to ask yourself:
If you live in a country so afraid of the rest of the world that it needs to spend a third of the global military output, dollar-for-dollar (or 9:1 on a per-person basis), what did that country do that makes the whole world hate them so much? Why are they so scared?
The United States of America is not the greatest country in the world any more.
Maybe it was at some point in the not-too-distant past; maybe is wasn't. But as with all peoples, and all nations, we - as Americans - should ever strive to become the best people, the best nation, we can be. We should want to be the best.
But can we be the best we can be while we are jailing a huge portion of our population, putting Bronze Age mythology above reason, and trying to use military might to impose our will upon the world?
In my opinion, no, we cannot.
But we cannot fix these things, nor can we address the many other issues that face this nation, while we still harbor deep rooted hatred of our own countrymen (e.g., sexism, racism, etc.), and an inability to care about anything but sound-bite level platitudes. We might, one day, get out of this. It will require, as the Newsroom so beautifully illustrates, some Greater Fools.
The Newsroom: The Greater Fool
The greater fool is actually an economic term. It’s a patsy. For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool— someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their lives trying not to be the greater fool; we toss him the hot potato, we dive for his seat when the music stops.
The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.
This whole country was made by greater fools.
Long live the Greater Fool.