The picture is depressingly similar in other areas that have an even more intimate connection to quality of life and to America’s capacity to compete internationally.
In education, for example, a major 2006 survey relying on data from the previous few years found that the relatively strong performance of American children in elementary school fell off sharply later. Compared with those of about 30 other industrialized nations, 15-year-old Americans performed significantly worse than average in math and science, and only average in reading.
Then there is the ongoing outrage that is the American health care system. One does not have to be a fan of the demagogic Michael Moore to note the importance of one statistic highlighted in his recent movie, Sicko—that the U.S. ranked a lowly 37th in a World Health Organization comparative survey of health care systems, well below the likes of Colombia, Portugal and Chile.
At least the Democrats argue that something serious must be done about health care. Among the Republicans, knee-jerk jingoism remains the order of the day. Lambasting Democrats’ proposals on health care last week, Rudy Giuliani said:
“We’ve got to do it the American way. The American way is not single-payer, government-controlled anything. That’s a European way of doing something.”
This is not patriotism in the true sense. It is a combination of stubbornness and prejudice. People like Mr. Giuliani insist that the American way is, automatically and eternally, best. Among the many problems with that view is that it forestalls the possibility of borrowing ideas that work elsewhere and using them to improve American lives.
America has an abundance to be proud of in its history. It owned the century just gone. But, contrary to what super-patriots and religious zealots believe, its pre-eminence has never been the result of some celestial blessing; it was the consequence of wise judgments by those in whom the people had vested political power.
American dominance can be ended by bad decisions as rapidly as it was engineered by good ones. Its current trajectory is downward.
Bold policies are required if the trend is to be reversed. But the popular appetite for tough decisions is dulled by endless, star-spangled bluster that underplays the challenges ahead.