This is an Olympics year and we will soon be chanting as a nation, “we are number one,” with all the pride we can muster. But when we chant we are number one, are we cheering for our athletes as well as the belief that America is the best? It is also a presidential election year and how do we compare in a world full of challengers?
As Americans, we need to ask — as we are watching global strife, our politics evolving into angry populism, and our purchasing power eroding — is our pride obscuring our ability to see reality? The challenge we face is, how do we know if our place in the world is worthy of the “we are number one” chant?
We are number one in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), military spending, and consumption of the world’s resources per capita. Forbes, the keeper of the billionaires list will let you know that we are number one with 735, and China is number two with 539. Yes, communist China has figured out how to challenge the world for economic leadership with internal monopolies run by party oligarchs with the dream of competing for number one on the world stage.
Seeing a communist authoritarian regime competing for the top spot is playing with our nation’s psyche. It is hard to compete with cheap labor, factory production with minimal environmental controls, safety protocols, and import tariffs when as a nation we want a free market structure with favorable global access.
Are we getting the best from our services, products, governance, health care and more? Do we even care as long as we can afford it? Does our quality of life measure up to being commiserate with our number one GDP ranking?
American corporations offshored many of our manufacturing jobs and invested heavily in cheap labor in other countries, and other factors to increase their bottom line. Made in China is often seen on the goods we buy for those reasons. It is always about money and power first, avoiding culture change second, supporting the needs of people a distant whatever, and who cares as long as the shareholders are happy, the CEOs get their bonuses and political lobbyists grease the wheels.
If you want your personal GDP per capita to be number one, you will have to move to Luxembourg for an annual income of $132,370. We come in seventh place with a GDP per capita income of $80,030. Sounds good until you look at the U.S. Census quick facts and learn that actual per-capita income is closer to $42,000 when not taken as a correlation to the GDP.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Sweden ranks number one for the most well-developed education system. That does not mean they are number one in terms of results for reading, math, and science proficiency. That honor goes to Singapore, in 2022 according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The United States ranks sixteenth.
We are number one in the following not so good categories: incarceration and prison rate, car thefts, obesity, soda consumption, hours of television watched, credit card fraud, divorce rate, teenage pregnancy, school shootings, fast food restaurants, illicit drug use, consumption of prescription drugs, advertising for prescription drugs, mortgage debt, the most lawyers and laws, complexity of tax code, trade deficit and more.
Being number one in healthcare expenditures gets us last place in the world for medical outcomes. Norway is number one based on cost ratio to expenditure. Somehow our lifestyle of fast food, supersizing everything, and denial of insurance care is working against us being healthy.
Our daily dose of news fearmongering lets us know that we are not safe from each other within our nation. The nation that is considered the safest is Switzerland, and we come in at 46th per U.S. News and World Report.
One would think that being number one in gun ownership would make us safer than everyone else. At a per capita ownership rate of 120 guns per 100 people, we might as well assume everyone is armed and ready for battle. Number two in that category is the Falkland Islands with 62 firearms per 100 people. I guess they are prepared for the next invasion.
How we see ourselves and how others see us is multifaceted, complex, cultural, and interesting to think about. Will we quit chanting “we are number one?” Not likely. It is part of our pride and cultural psyche, but for all of our wealth, resources, and world-class capability we are not considered the best place to live. That honor goes to Switzerland according to the United Nations, the Human Development Index. We come in at 21st place out of 189 nations.
Trying to be the best country is complicated, and may not bring us happiness. Number one in happiness goes to Finland and we are ranked fifteenth. We are number one in many things, and we might be number one in conning ourselves into not seeing who we are.
I believe we are at our best when we focus on making our culture inclusive, and respectful, creating a level playing field for accountability, opportunity, education, investing in public infrastructure, and making government work for all. Populist political phrases play well to party bases that feel lost within our system as they buy more guns, drink more sodas, get less from their health care, and wonder why the promise of America is not working for them.
We need to make government work for “us.” Caring for one another honestly and establishing a competitive but fair culture will keep us at the top.
I will be cheering for the nation’s athletes as they prepare and participate in the Olympics. It is where we see the best of the human spirit in competition and capability. And, in our hyper-political presidential election, I will cheer for facts and civility over partisanship — because anger and lies should never win.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at email@example.com