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American Exceptionalism

Turned Upside Down

By Daniel Rossides
xceptionalist ideology (America's basis in
individual freedom makes it different and better
than ethnically based societies) is so powerful
that few Americans are aware that their society
leads the developed world in virtually all social
pathologies and inefficiencies
in many cases by a wide margin
and in many cases lagging behind
developing nations. Because of its
unbalanced power structure, the
United States leads in income and
wealth inequality, inequalities that
exist both before and after taxes
and after taking demography and
government transfers into account.
America has the developed world's
highest rates of elderly, adult, child,
and deep poverty, the poorest
record in worker rights, and has a
longer work week. Twenty percent
of working age males are out of the labor force and yet
corporate profits are the highest on record. How is that
possible you ask the answer is the weakness of American
democracy? America leads in worker accidents and deaths
and lags behind other developed nations in protecting
against noise damage. In a recent study it was last in social
mobihty it is not the land of opportunity but like many
others, simply a land of opportunity (and far from being a
leader). Official records indicate that the United States has
a moderately competitive productivity rate but because
the productivity rate is derived from the GDP, which
counts America's outsized pathologies and inefficiencies
as economic growth, a real picture of productivity would
put the United States last. And for the first time in its
history, and unlike other developed societies, economic/
productivity growth has been disconnected from the large
majority of the population. That means that the standard
of living has stagnated for most, and the tattered safety net
is faihng the poor in economic downturns and no longer
benefits them in upturns. It means that the United States,
alone of the developed nations, is funneling all economic
surplus upward, unshared with workers or the general
public. It also means that the reason given for the massive
upward transfer (productivity and economic growth would
flourish if producers are favored) is false.
America's family homicide, wife beating, and child
abuse rates are far higher than the rest of the developed
world. In any given year, 25,000 Americans are killed in
America's family
homicide, wife
beating, and child
abuse rates are
far higher than
the rest of the
developed world.
family arguments. One million children (in one estimate)
run away from home every year. The streets, parks, and
shelters of America's cities are filled with homeless people,
many of them young adult males and families, many
employed. Child maltreatment deaths in the United States
are the highest in the developed
world. The female homicide rate
is five times higher than all the
developed countries combined.
America leads the world in teen
pregnancies, divorce, and in suicides
(including teen suicides and has
seen a spurt in middle age suicide).
A significant amount of husband
abuse occurs, and there is sibling
abuse and even parent abuse by
teenage children.' Recent decades
have seen an explosive growth of
single-parent households, most
of them headed by females and
living in poverty (a chronic fifteen to twenty percent of
America's children live in poverty). America's prenatal
births and infant mortality data are the highest in the
developed world and its rank has slipped badly since
1960. It ranked twenty-eighth as the best place to be a
new mother." Its contraception skills lag behind Europe's,
and (consequentially?) its abortion rates are much higher.
Personal bankruptcy rates are much higher than Europe's.
The Work, Family, and Equity Index (2007) yields more
insights into the plight of the American family. Unlike
large numbers of developed and developing nations, the
United States (as distinct from some of the states) has no
mandated paid maternity/paternity leave, no required :
paid annual vacation, no required day off per week, no
maximum length of the work week, no limit on mandatory
overtime, no premium for evening or night work, and
no paid leave for sickness (adult or child) or for major
family events. America's mothers have no right to breast
feed. It lags behind many countries in early child care
and education, and its school year is shorter than fifty-
four countries. Labor protection laws on the books are
not enforced. At least two milhon elder Americans are
maltreated by their families and care givers or cheated
by relatives, lawyers, or con artists every year. There has
been a twelvefold increase in households with unmarried
parents since 1970. The increase is largely among working
and lower middle class families. Out-of-wedlock births
have increased significantly even among white high school
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graduates to become a majority of all births. Not only are
children in these households likely to do poorly in school,
but such households are now part of an emerging two-
tiered family system.'" Eederal investigators report that in
2003 all fifty states failed to meet federal safety standards
to protect children and see to it that
abused and neglected children find safe
and permanent homes, most failing by a
wide margin.'"
The United States also leads the
developed world in crime, the cost of
which is enormous (thirteen percent
of GDP probably one third more
on average than other developed
societies). An international corruption
perception index saw the United
States slip from a poor sixteenth place
to a terrible twenty-fourth place.'' It
is the only developed nation to put
juveniles in prison for life without
parole (most ban the practice). It is the only developed
country to deny the vote to felons. Incarceration is now so
high and such a normal part of American life that its impact
on the family and communities deserves a special note. The
United States had a low incarceration rate until the 1970s.
Coincident with the fiowering of market fundamentalism,
the ugly economic conditions of the seventies for all, the
ugly ones for the lower classes ever since, and spurred on
by Right-liberal ideology (focused on abstract morality and
empty universalisms that divert attention from social class
as causal reality), the rate of incarceration rose fourfold
and the policy of rehabilitation through indeterminate
sentencing was abandoned. In consequence, large numbers
of poor whites and a disproportionate number of blacks
were removed from nonperforming liberal institutions
(labor and other markets) it's almost as if imprisonment
had been planned to hide America's failure to supply work
for all. The large number imprisoned (an average of two
milhon with 600,000 being released annually, most to
return) has a devastating effect on spouses, children, and
communities, including the informal networks that link
people to opportunities and which provide important
forms of social control. There are also substantial monetary
penalties (in relation to expected income) attached to other
punishments, further reducing opportunities for escaping
the penal system."' Needless to say, the experience of what
is essentially a poHcy of unjustifiable retribution harms
prisoners, makes it very difficult for them to find work
when released (even if qualified), undermines what social
supports they have, and deprives them of the vote (all in all,
leaves them powerless to behave as we want them to and
powerless to resist the world they are forced to live in)."'
Is the logic to all this under market fundamentalism the
need to establish a hell worse than America's spreading
scourge of poverty wages?
Americans at all ages and all income levels have the
worse health in the developed world.' The reformed
American health care system will still be the worst in the
developed world. More than half of Americans with serious
America no longer has
the tallesti people (at
all income levels) in the
developed v^orld and it is
the most overweight (its
rising diabetes rate is the
world's highest for men
and second highest
for women).
illnesses skip their pills and doctor visits because of cost.
American health care now costs far more for at best the
same results (eighteen percent of GDP probably one
iJiird more on average than other developed societies. The
best guess is that the reforms of 2010, leaving it a profit
producing sector, will lower costs
but only somewhat. The United
States ranks forty-second in life
expectancy (the gap between
the lower and upper classes has
also increased over the past four
decades). America no longer has
the tallest people (at all income
levels) in the developed world and
it is the most overweight (its rising
diabetes rate is the world's highest
for men and second highest for
women). It leads the entire world
in mental illness and mental
retardation. Infection rates, deaths
and suffering from medical errors, medical fraud, and
unnecessary operations are much higher than in Europe.
In a comparison of health care for the chronically sick with
eight other developed nations, the United States came
out last. In a comparison with seven developed countries
with universal health care, the United States had more
chronically ill people who did without recommended
care than the others. America's patients were also less
likely to receive coordinated care. Americans are more
likely to experience medical errors and a reasonable
estimate says that 200,000 Americans die each year
because of them.'" The United States has the developed
world's highest car accident and death rates and has far
more fires than Europe and Japan. One hundred countries
have lower limits of alcohol for driving. It lags badly in
environmental protection ranking twenty-eighth in one
world study. It is the least energy efficient in the developed
world and the world's highest subsidizer of energy." Its
litigation rates are the world's highest while its vaunted
commitment to the rule of law is a myth the majority of
the population is imable to exercise its legal rights, many
are wrongfully convicted, laws are made by fifty-one semi-
democratic legislatures, and presidents openly enforce the
law as they see fit. It has the developed world's highest
school dropout and illiteracy rates and has lost its edge in
higher education (once first in college graduates, it is now
twelfth). The United States leads all developed and many
undeveloped nations in denying human evolution. It has
more food insecurity (hunger) and homelessness and less
affordable housing than other developed countries. It lags
behind Europe and Japan in Internet access. It lags behind
both and China in high-speed rail transit. It received a
low grade of C for its overall public and private retirement
system on the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index.
Ominously, the Miringoff Index of sixteen measures of
American life revealed an absolute decline in America's
well-being from 1970 to 2005 (undoubtedly continuing
The American political system is plutocratic and the
24 I Sociai Poiicy | Winter | 2013
least democratic in the developed world. The United
States' rising levels of distrust of government and other
institutions is higher than other developed nations.""
Its de facto property-based polity reflects, reinforces, and
increases its already deep economic inequalities. Overall
public spending is redistributive
but in a widening not an equalizing
manner. Twenty-one of twenty-
five developed countries impose
higher taxes on their corporations
than the United States without
losing their competitive edge.
America's constitution was
explicitly structured to thwart
the will of the people and to
make sure that democracy doesn't
emerge there are corporations
(and other private groups) with
free speech, the gerrymander,
proof of citizenship and photo IDs
for voters, voter suppression in a dozen forms, "right to
work" laws, irrational budget caps and debt ceilings, less
time to register and vote, the outsourcing of education
and other public services, muzzling labor groups from
bargaining, manufactured anti-tax fervor, supermajorities,
balanced budget nonsense, and lax, corrupt electoral
boards. America's dense network of Right-liberal policy
organizations, combined with choice-poor elections,
plutocratic political parties, and an anything-goes
electoral system (well-short of international standards'"')
understandably generate the developed world's lowest rate
of political participation (Switzerland not withstanding).
It uniquely and irrationally has no national capital budget
or annual social welfare report. The United States has the
fewest women in elected office, the least foreign aid, and
the least state support for the arts in the developed world.
America's pathologies and inefficiencies are clearly
structural in nature, that is, they stem from American
institutions and their supporting norms and values. Instead
of seeing the financial and economic debacle of 2007-09
as normal, that is, as the predictable outcome of American
norms, values, and institutions, America's elites (both in
public life and intellectual life) attributed it to mistakes
by government and personal shortcomings. America is
far from understanding that its dysfunctional institutions
cannot be fixed as long as public discourse is framed in the
archaic universalistic ideas of eighteenth-century Anglo-
liberalism. Its relative standing will not improve and could
get worse if it continues to wallow in the stultifying, self-
congratulatory world of exceptionalism. Americans must
come to realize that exceptionalist ideology (we are all
free, equal, and rational by definition "Adamic citizens"
unencumbered by the myths and superstitions of the past)
gets more hollow by the day.
There is no evidence (as American Right liberals claim)
that state programs to minimize market, age, and health
risks adversely affect work incentives or productivity.
Research has established that societies with cooperative
institutions have a more equal distribution of income.
The American
mindset shows little
ability to profit from
experience or to
incorporate scientific
knowledge into
its policy making
which in turn, curbs pathologies of all kinds. The United
States is poor in cooperative institutions (and in lesser
degree so are countries with similar styles of Anglo-
capitalism: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand,
and the UK). Northern European countries rank high in
cooperative institutions (beyond
the continent, Norway and Sweden
are especially characterized by
cooperative institutions).*^'" A similar
classification revolves aroimd type
of polity, for example, majoritarian
(the United States and others) vs.
consensual, and here again the
consensual comes out ahead in regard
to democratic practice, equality,
favorable treatment of women, curbs
on corruption, and protecting the
environment. "''The Bertelmann
Foundation's 2011 report. Social
Justice in the OFCD How do the
Member States Compare?, ranks the United States far below
the developed countries of Northern Europe (and Canada)
placing it among the most backward of thirty-one member
states on six indexes. As opposed to simply compensating
for injustice or projecting formal equality of opportunity,
says the report, social justice means "guaranteeing
each individual genuinely equal opportunities for self-
realization through targeted investment in the development
of individual capabilities, and is a prerequisite for the
consensus needed for a sustainable social market economy."
Harnessing the economy and professions to social
functions and routine comparisons of American institutions
with best practices elsewhere would do much to demolish
American parochialism and complacency. Comparison is
the essence of thought. Insularity in pohtics and public
policy has its costs alongside all the other negative, wasteful
American behavior. A pluralistic power structure is the
essence of a problem solving democracy (not constitutions,
markets, leadership, better education, nonpartisanship,
better thinking, citizens' initiatives, restoring the "vital
center," living up to ideals, spending/revenue caps, term
limits, "finding the inner citizen", etc.).
America's major attempt to deal with its problems,
its experiment with "market freedom" over the past four
decades, has been a gigantic and unacknowledged failure.
The American mindset shows little ability to profit from
experience or to incorporate scientific knowledge into its
policy making routinely. As with the classic Corporate
capitalism of the pre-New Deal era. Corporate World
Market capitahsm American-style has led to economic
concentration, wealth concentration, damaging and
destabilizing income inequality, and high and unnecessary
levels of insecurity, deprivation, and poverty. Most
importantly, American-style capitalism constitutes a
serious undercutting of democracy. The first new nation
has been unable to achieve a stable, productive economy
or to distribute economic gains fairly. It has never figured
out how to provide jobs for all, a serious deficiency in a
culture that places a high value on work. The private-
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profit companies that are used to assemble and distribute
capital are inefficient, dishonest, and beyond reform. A
history of half measures and neglected reforms was covered
up from the 1970s on by the make-believe world of market
frindamentahsm: use the state to help only business and
reduce help for the general populace.
The results were predictably dire.
America still exploits labor and
nature to realize its obsolete and self-
defeating way to economic growth.
It may have more knowledge about
how an economy works (for example,
consumer spending and confidence
levels, the multiplier effect, inventory
data) and more devices to stabilize the
economy (for example, interest rate
changes, deposit and unemployment
insurance, public works) but these are
not only inadequate, but there is serious
resistance to using them on the part of
obsolete but still powerful sectors of both the Republican
and Democratic Parties. The American economy is tightly
tied to and dependent on the state, but powerful groups
(the Republican Party, much of the Democratic Party, the
mainstream economics profession) refuse to acknowledge
it, aware no doubt that to do so would undermine the basic
premise of their world view.
Critical studies by Lefr liberals have emerged,
of course, and reforms proposed from across the
estabhshment. All routinely lament America's failure to live
up to its institutions and ideals with few realizing that it is
those very institutions, norms, and values that should be
on trial and that America's various problems (pathologies,
inefficiencies, booms and busts, recessions, foreign
policy disasters) are normal, that is, they stem directly
and predictably from America's alleged transhistorical
norms, values, and institutions. Lefr and Right-liberal
analysts have recommended ways to mend America but all
uniformly fail to raise the issue of power and the possibility
that the United States has evolved into a two-tiered, two-
party oligarchy whose growing self-sustainability will soon
make it invulnerable to structural change. Predictably,
most reformers recommend government programs to
help those left out to join American society (their favorite
nostrum is education) without ever asking why so many
Americans are routinely lefr out. Ominously, the American
political economy is now structured so that the upper fifth
remains prosperous while large numbers struggle and
significant numbers of working-age Americans, including
college graduates, are being left behind. A recent study
reported record high levels of profit and record low
levels of worker income as a percent of GDP.""America
and the American economy remain non-problematic
all that is needed is rededication to America's ideals,
some government help to the unfortunate, and a few
nonstructural reforms to make America work. No one says
there is no naturally functioning world for people to join
no one to point out that many of America's problems
stem from deeply institutionalized mistakes (all ferociously
A recent study
reported record
high levels of profit
and record low
levels of worker
incorne as
a percent of GDP/'
defended by beneficiaries) not from temporary deviations
from basic principles.
Without structural reform, the two parties will
continue to neglect the wishes of the general public. The
cleavage between the few who acquire citizen skills and
participate in civic life and the
many rendered apathetic and
politically innocent will continue.
The cleavage between those who
utilize the law and the majority
who can't will also continue.
Education will continue to
reproduce the class system and
safeguard America's myths.
Journalism will continue to rely
on the makers of news for news
while giving full credence to both
political parties and textbook
principles. A highly developed
entertainment world and its
manufactured celebrities will continue to divert the masses
from their central concerns using the public's own money
(is it fair to say that the booming celebrity world upholds
individualist ideology while undermining communal
sentiments and ideas?). Popular culture will continue to
picture a social order threatened by inexplicable evil and
saved by heroic individuals wielding technology. Sports will
continue to amplify the myth that social inequality reflects
nature's hierarchy of abihty. Gated communities will
continue to multiply as the cleavage between stable families
and unstable, challenged households fully crystalhzes into
a two-tiered household system. Major corporations will
continue to adapt their offerings to the new hourglass
income structure which reflects the increased inequaHty
since 1970 and that their research indicates is here to stay.*"'
Severe economic inequality is now structural having been
aided in its creation and solidified by new power relations
in the polity, law, education, housing, and civic life all
under the cover of "market freedom."
State-supported American-style capitalism has spread
in all directions to take over many public functions, to
operate round the clock and on Sundays, to turn many
hoUdays into shopping days, to pressure the family
to consume and work (robbing it of parenting time),
transform education, housing, and other former public
services into profit centers as much as possible (at the
expense of decent public service wages and pensions),
to encroach on or jeopardize public lands, waterways,
and parks in the false name of competitive nationalism,
to intimidate journalists and public broadcasting in the
direction of Right liberalism using both government and a
variety of think tanks and foundations, and to commodify
and colonize personal life (sale of semen, human eggs,
and data on consumption habits and private life, induced
celebrity worship, credit checks, etc.).
The beliefs and values of American-style capitalism
blanket the social world, in effect, muting the voices
of reform, worker democracy, and alternate life styles.
Ironically, while all this is done in the name of efficiency.
26 I Sooiai Policy ] Winter | 2013
rent-anchored America has become ever more inefficient
if the costs of unemployment, underemplojrment,
environmental damage, polludon-caused disease, crime
(especially white collar and political corruption crime),
divorce, unnecessary lidgation, inefficient transportation,
excessive armaments, wasteful advertising, socially induced
physical and mental illness,
overpriced and incompetent health
care, and so on are counted against
the unmanaged, producer-favored
polidcal economy.
America's decline in overall
relative economic status (say
against China, India, and Brazil)
was inevitable but its reladve
decline against the developed world
after 1970 in social pathologies
and inefficiencies was not. Only
a deliberative democracy can
solve problems and provide social
direction, but polidcs are bad we
are told, and government cannot
prevent risks or solve problems, only markets can. Under
market fundamentalism, the United States is the only
developed society without a commitment to some kind of
socioeconomic planning (dramadcally illustrated by the
deliberate and damaging absence of a disdncdon between
investment and overhead spending in the federal budget).
Even the strikingly better records of the more fully
developed countries of Northern Europe cannot shake
America's complacency. Because America is uninterested
in and unskilled in comparative thinking, America's idea of
itself is hopelessly at odds with reahty. Its problem solving
occurs within the narrow spectrum of Anglo-Liberahsm.
Neither Right nor Left-liberal problem solving can work
because neither reaches crucial variables. Only a pluralistic
power system can generate social system thinking. Instead,
Right-liberal observers ritually invoke the American
spirit, its flair for innovadon, its entrepreneurial energy,
and other Chamber of Commerce nostrums. Left-liberals
ask for a variety of relief measures to help an assortment
Without a change
in power relations,
America's march
toward democracy
will remain stalled
indeed, American-style
capitalism exhibits a
clear pattern away from
democracy over the past
four decades.
of distressed groups, studiously ignoring the question,
why do we have so many in distress? The benevolence
of billionaires and the charitable acts of individuals are
routinely trumpeted. No one asks for the reform of a
problem-causing power structure.
Unless the issue of social power is addressed, unequal
economic power will continue to
result in unequal political power
resulting in public policies that :
maintain or worsen economic
inequality, inefficiencies, and
pathologies. Without a change in
power reladons, America's march
toward democracy will remain
stalled indeed, American-style
capitalism exhibits a clear pattern
away from democracy over the
past four decades. The powerful
condnue to divert attendon from
their failures by arguing that
we have never really tried free
enterprise, by referring to morality,
educadon, personal responsibility, competition and threats
from abroad, and the need for innovadon, free trade, and
economic growth in the abstract. It is time to bypass the
metaphysics and hypocrisy of market fundamentalism and
recognize that economic shortfalls are neither accidents
nor retribution for not following economic principles.
It is dme to stop putting fingers in leaky dikes. It is time
to acknowledge that the only way to cope with chronic
unemployment, stagnant incomes, deficits and debt,
extravagant living amidst poverty, and with the developed
world's highest levels of pathologies and inefficiencies is to
revamp underperforming institudons and to embrace the
idea that a rational, democratic society must be explicitly
constructed, not willed into being through empty bragging
and warmed-over myths.
Daniel W Rossides is a frequent cofitributor to Social
Policy and Professor of Sociology Fmeritus at Bowdoin College.
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