Posts Tagged ‘crossnational’

We’re # Last!

If you ask young Americans how good their health is, they’ll tell you it’s great. The U.S. ranks #1 among 17 affluent, western countries in that regard, in the percentage of people aged 5 to 34 who rate their health as good. Unfortunately, when doctors look at people’s actual health, at indicators such as obesity, diabetes, and simply the chance that someone will die before his or her next birthday, the U.S. ranks last: young Americans are #17 out of 17 in real health.

The National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine – the nation’s go-to sources for the best scientific assessments we have – recently issued a report entitled U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Although the press conveyed the punch line – “Younger Americans die earlier and live in poorer health than their counterparts in other developed countries” – your humble correspondent has looked through much of the 350+ pages and is here to report: It’s even worse than that.

The study’s findings signal how much the U.S. has slipped behind the rest of the advanced world in the last 40 years. And it exposes the disconnection between Americans’ pride and Americans’ reality.



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Competitive Intelligence

Statistician Howard Steven Friedman has put together a book that ought to be useful to policymakers, The Measure of a Nation. Whether it is used will say something about our “competitive intelligence.”

(source: webapps.lsa.umich.edu)

Friedman systematically presents indicators of quality of life for the U.S. and 13 comparable nations – that is, populous nations in our wealth class, such as the UK, Netherlands, South Korea, and Australia. (I conducted a similar but miniature version of this exercise in this post.)

Friedman also directly addresses the resistance many Americans have to making such comparisons, a resistance based on our notion that U.S. is so different – so “exceptional” (see this post) – that it is literally “incomparable” and shouldn’t be compared.

This attitude, combined with Americans’ conviction that the we are Number 1 in everything (this earlier post), is self-defeating. In the corporate world, Friedman points out, companies engage in “competitive intelligence”: Find out what the other guys are doing; see what works for them; adopt it yourself. He cites IBM as a company that came back to strength just that way.

It seems obvious that comparing ourselves to our peers is a sensible way to measure how well we are doing and, more important, to pick up on “best practices.” Yet, it is striking how little such analyses appear in our public discussions. Efforts to make comparisons are often slapped down by charges that the speaker is trying to “Europeanize” the U.S. (post here). But Friedman shows us, with many easy-to-read graphs, some of the things we can learn from our competitors.


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Social scientists trying to understand what makes Americans tick often turn to cross-national surveys to compare Americans’ opinions to those of people in other countries. Such surveys show us, for example, that Americans are generally more religious, more patriotic, and more suspicious of government than are people most elsewhere.

Patrick Vinck_UC Berkeley

A recent conference devoted to designing such international surveys made concrete an important point that I had perhaps appreciated too abstractly: There are deeper differences underneath the different answers Americans give. The very assumptions behind the questions that are asked, whether the questions even mean the same things, differ profoundly from nation to nation.


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Still Under God

James Bryce, who would later be the British ambassador to the United States, wrote a major work on American society in the 1880s. The American Commonwealth was a re-do, about 50 years later, of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One of Bryce’s acute observations was about Americans’ religiosity: “Christianity influences conduct . . . probably more than it does in any other modern country, and far more than it did in the so-called ages of faith.” The common expectation has been that modern times have been eroding Americans’ faith ever since, but as best as historians of religion can estimate, Americans today are roughly as religious as they were in Bryce’s generation. (See this earlier post.)

How well does Bryce’s impression that faith in the U.S. is greater than in other modern nations hold up about 120 years later? The latest data are in and Bryce is confirmed. Americans of the 21st century remain strikingly more religious than people in other nations, especially western ones. It is part of what makes America “exceptional.”


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How Bad is “European”?

L.A. Times

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been, as have other GOP candidates, castigating President Obama for presumably wanting to “Europeanize” the United States. On January 6, 2012, for example, Romney asserted that the President was “dragging ‘the soul of America’ toward a ‘European-style welfare state’.” Romney and others have accused the President of loving America too little and loving Europe too much. One question that this line of criticism raises (whether it does or it does not correctly reflect Obama’s views) is: What’s so bad about Europe?

In this post, I compare life for Americans to life for Europeans on a variety of dimensions. To simplify matters, let us look just at the U.S., Sweden (the country that most represents to Americans the European welfare state), and a large nation that conservatives also dislike, France. And then, let’s ask how the three nations stack up. Perhaps there are some things European that America might actually want to emulate. (I drafted this post before recent columns on the Europe question by Nicholas Kristof and by E.J. Dionne — both worth reading.)


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Unequal Denial

That economic inequality is great and growing in the United States is now hard to deny. An earlier post reviewed how average Americans see and understand economic inequality. But one of the side stories is the expert debate about this inequality. Having followed the public and academic arguments about inequality for a few decades, I have a sense of how the terms of the debate have shifted and how defenders of post-1960s policies have responded. It’s an interesting dance of denial.

After a brief recap of the basic evidence, I’ll turn to that dance.


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No Longer the Tall American

An Earlier Celts-Lakers Game (source: vedia via flickr)

From the earliest days of American settlement, Europeans typically imagined the colonists of North America as strapping specimens: tall, strong, and bold (even arrogant). And there was truth in that image: white Americans around, say, 1800 were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than their European cousins. But no more.

It is not that Americans grew shorter – or less healthy – since then. Over the last two centuries, western people in general grew taller, healthier, and longer-lived. But the western Europeans passed us by.


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