An expert's point of view on a current event.

America the Mediocre

Americans think they’re No. 1. They’re wrong in so many ways.

Passengers wait to board delayed Amtrak trains at New York Penn Station on June 19.
Passengers wait to board delayed Amtrak trains at New York Penn Station on June 19. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For many Americans, the proposition that they live in the most powerful, richest, and most advanced society on Earth is something close to a statement of faith.

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans disagree only whether the United States is the best country in the world (29 percent) or one of the best (56 percent). Only 14 percent of Americans agree instead that there are other, better countries.

For many Americans, the proposition that they live in the most powerful, richest, and most advanced society on Earth is something close to a statement of faith.

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans disagree only whether the United States is the best country in the world (29 percent) or one of the best (56 percent). Only 14 percent of Americans agree instead that there are other, better countries.

Elites agree, too. Forget the current president’s flag-humping rhetoric—even the cool and cerebral Barack Obama said it was “objectively” true that the United States holds “the best cards of any country on Earth.”

That might be the case in a game of geopolitical Risk, where the cards that count are military strength and overall GDP. But in ordinary life, it’s harder to make the case for America as No. 1. The rest of the world is developing and adopting policies that can make everyday life in the United States, outside of a few coastal oases, seem … old. Even backward. And the U.S. reluctance, or inability, to learn from other countries is making life worse for its citizens than it has to be—not just in the big ways, such as the disasters of American health care and student debt, but in the little, everyday ones, too.

By many measures, the United States looks like a decidedly middle-of-the pack country or even one at the bottom of the set of rich countries. Consider the classic three American goals: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On measures indicating the quality of life, the United States often ranks poorly. The U.N. Human Development Index, which counts not just economic performance but life expectancy and schooling, ranks the United States at 13th, lagging other industrialized democracies like Australia, Germany, and Canada. The United States ranks 45th in infant mortality, 46th in maternal mortality, and 36th in life expectancy.

What about liberty? Reporters Without Borders places the United States at 48th for protecting press freedom. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks the United States as only the 22nd least corrupt country in the world, behind Canada, Germany, and France. Freedom House’s experts score the United States 33rd for political freedom, while the Varieties of Democracy project puts the quality of U.S. democracy higher—at 27th.

As for happiness: The World Happiness Report places America at 19th, just below Belgium. Belgium!

Less formal impressions reinforce the conclusion that Americans’ view of their own exceptional accomplishments aren’t shared quite as widely as they believe. On Twitter, I asked people who have spent time in both the United States and other countries to tell me about everyday ways in which they found the United States to be less advanced than other countries.

I received more than 2,000 replies in a day.

The overwhelming tone of the responses was bemusement and surprise at just how poorly so many parts of American life worked. To be sure, some responses reflected preferences, not policy. Europeans think American bread is too sweet, I learned, and others think Americans dress too informally. But most users narrowed in on real failings of U.S. public policy.

One Twitter user, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, summed up common complaints well: bad roads; maternity and paternity leave; K-12 education; most Americans’ stubborn monolingualism; and, unsurprisingly from the former president of a country sometimes nicknamed “E-stonia,” “digitization of virtually all public services.” And many of the commenters brought up the everyday failings of American life, such as its dismal transportation infrastructure (“seems on the verge of falling apart”), lack of sidewalks, anemic public transportation systems, and lack of public toilets.

This is admittedly an unscientific sample, but the litany and consistency of the complaints suggest that outsiders—and Americans who’ve spent time abroad—see a lot of room for improvement in the United States.

OK, so Americans have an inflated view of their country’s greatness. What’s the harm?

One danger is that this myopic belief makes it harder to adopt other countries’ successful policies that could help fix some of the problems that statistics show America faces. The management scholars David Antons and Frank Piller, for instance, argue that organizations may reject a good idea that comes from outside the organization because it’s “not invented here” and adopting it may challenge the organization’s self-image.

That might explain one reason why the United States proves so resistant to learning from other countries. Using terms that officials since have echoed repeatedly, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described the United States and its role by saying, “We are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future.”

The statistics, of course, suggest that there’s much the tall-standing, further-seeing nation could learn from others. And at times Americans do make these comparisons. As R. Daniel Kelemen, a Rutgers University professor of political science and law, put it in an interview, two major debates in the United States routinely employ international comparisons of policy: health care and gun control.

But these comparisons often get sidetracked by Americans’ domestic divisions, Kelemen observed. “For conservatives, the success of social democratic countries and their political-economic model is profoundly threatening to the core of their ideology,” he said, which helps explain why they are unwilling to learn from those models.

Even on the left, where “the discussion is a bit more informed,” Kelemen said, “there is a bit of a tendency to have rose-tinted glasses,” with left-leaning Americans harboring “a tendency or desire to view some of these countries as kind of social democratic utopias—‘If only we could be like Sweden!’”—while ignoring “the problematic sides of these models.”

Wholehearted rejection on the right and cherry-picking on the left may explain why international comparisons have had so little influence in shifting policymaking on those two hot-button issues—in addition, of course, to the major obstacles any policy changes in those domains would face. Still, Kelemen, who teaches a course on what Americans can learn from other countries’ public policies, thinks that there is immense benefit in learning from other countries.

One advantage Kelemen highlights is that the exercise can demonstrate that what seem to be “ingrained traits of a country’s culture” turn out to be “the product of very conscious shifts in public policy.” Looking for policy lessons from other countries could therefore help break the mindset that attributes U.S. policy failures to nebulous concepts like “culture.” And when it comes to learning how to make the United States a better place to live, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.

One concrete and immediate way that Americans’ lives could be better is in paying for things. Foreigners visiting the United States look aghast at the country’s primitive payments infrastructure. One respondent to my Twitter question mentioned that the United States seems less advanced in “[s]wiping a credit card,” “[s]igning a receipt,” and “[l]iterally everything to do with banking.”

The poster child for American backwardness is the paper check. The Bank for International Settlements—the central bankers’ central bank—writes that “in most advanced countries, cheques have disappeared or are dying a slow death.” In the United States, checks remain common for large transactions and are disappearing only slowly.

But other parts of American commerce have long seemed backward, too. Throughout Europe and Canada, the adoption of chip-and-pin cards, coupled with mobile processing units, has allowed for easier and more secure customer transactions for decades. The United States has only recently adopted similar, less secure chip-and-signature cards, even as much of the rest of the world has already begun to move past chip-and-pin cards toward universal acceptance of contactless, tap-and-go payment as the standard.

In places like Sweden, the move away from cash is so far advanced that many businesses won’t accept it, freeing businesses—and consumers—from the burden of carrying, counting, and keeping cash secure. Canada hasn’t gone that far, but it did at least take another step the United States has long resisted: abolishing the penny, just as Australia and New Zealand did.

Despite being the birthplace of the internet, the United States also lags its peers in internet access speed and penetration. Data by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) shows that the United States ranks only 20th in its population share of fixed broadband subscriptions, behind not just easily wired city-states like Monaco and Andorra but also France, Germany, and Canada. It falls to 29th in the percentage of residents using the internet, at 87 percent. ITU data also shows that U.S. consumers pay nearly twice as much for their broadband access as other developed countries on average. And American mobile broadband speeds place at 37th in the internet firm Speedtest’s rankings, two-and-a-half times slower than the global leader, South Korea.

Kelemen argues that these sorts of examples can help establish that “we can learn from other countries that big change in policy is possible.” In Lessons From Europe?: What Americans Can Learn From European Public Policies, which Kelemen edited, policy experts establish several concrete ways that Americans could benefit from the good (and bad) lessons of public policy at the national and local level in Europe.

One chapter concerns how Germany transformed its transit sector to encourage more public transit relative to car travel. With high levels of car ownership, a substantial land area, and a complex federal system, Germany is in many ways similar to the United States. Despite these similarities over the past several decades, Germany’s approach to transit differs dramatically. The country has used policy choices to shift significant volumes of trips to public and other non-car forms of transit.

As natural as Germany’s green shift seems now, it wasn’t the result of a deep-seated German commitment to public transportation. In the 1960s, the home of the autobahn looked to be committed to a car-centric approach. Germany’s example suggests that U.S. policymakers have ample scope to move the United States away from its car culture (perhaps by raising its gasoline taxes, which ranked 39th of 42 countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Many other examples exist. The United States could do away with the annual ritual of tax preparation for most of its citizens by adopting the globally widespread practice of having prefilled tax returns. Even where the United States performs well, such as food safety, it could still improve in important ways (by taking a more transparent approach to food traceability).

None of this is to minimize the challenges any policy changes in the United States would face, from political polarization to the influence of special interest groups to anti-democratic institutions like the electoral college and the U.S. Senate.

But politics ultimately rests on ideas. A discourse that normalized the practice of learning from other countries would go a long way toward puncturing the myth that everything the United States does is the best. Saying it might be sacrilege, but making America better will probably mean making it more like everybody else.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.