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How great is the U.S., really?

Updated: Jan 6

According to YouGov polling, 41% of people in the United States think that it is the greatest country in the world. Others see the U.S. as a place full of arrogance, violence, and inequality. So, what's the truth? 

The truth is that there isn't a single notion of what makes something the "best." To explore how great (or not) America is, we'll start by looking at the question from multiple angles. We'll see how the U.S. stacks up according to a number of important factors before we decide how great it really is:

 1. Technology 

The U.S. is among the best countries in the world for technology and business innovation. It currently ranks 3rd in the United Nations' Global Innovation Index. It has the most startups worth over $1 billion (the 3rd most startups per capita) and is the originator of many technologies used globally. It is also considered by many to be the best place to create a tech startup. 

2. Violence

The U.S. is a violent place, given its level of wealth, with the 2nd highest number of gun-related deaths in the world and the 2nd highest rate of firearm-related suicides per capita. Among high-income countries with at least 10 million people, it has the highest number of homicides per capita.

️3. Prisons

The U.S. is a country of many prisoners, with the most people in prison of any country in the world and the 6th highest incarceration rate in the world (and the single highest rate among wealthy countries).

Violent crime charges are the number 1 reason people are locked up in the U.S. (though in some cases, the definitions for "violent" can include actions that don't cause immediate physical harm, such as purse snatching and drug manufacturing). 

4. Wealth

It's an extremely wealthy place with the highest nominal GDP in the world, as well as the highest GDP per capita (both nominal and PPP) of any country with over 10 million people. California’s economy alone is large enough that, if California were a country, it would rank 6th in the world by some metrics. And by some metrics, Texas’s economy is larger than Russia’s and would rank 8th.

About 9% of U.S. adults are millionaires, and 39% of ALL millionaires are in or from the U.S. 

5. Inequality

The U.S. is a fairly unequal place in terms of wealth and income, with inequality higher than 63% of countries (the Gini coefficient is 39 vs. a world average of 38). It's the 5th most unequal among the 37 OECD countries, and the average income of the top 20% of earners is 9.4 times the bottom 20% (though note that inequality figures can be dependent on how taxes and social benefits are handled in the calculations).

The wealth gap in the U.S. is especially pronounced across racial lines, with the median Black household having $24,000 in savings vs. the median white household with $189,000 in savings (almost 8x more). 

6. Science

The U.S. is a very scientifically innovative place, with the most Nobel prizes of any country (the 15th highest per capita). It also has the 2nd highest annual patent applications (which is the 4th highest per capita), many of the world's top universities, and the most clinical trials worldwide. 

7. Health

The U.S. is an unhealthy place relative to its level of wealth. It has the 10th highest prevalence of obesity (the highest of any wealthy country) and the highest rate of death from illicit drugs of any country where such data is known. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years, which places it 47th highest out of 193 countries (so, it's roughly in the top 25th percentile). 

8. Entertainment

The U.S. is arguably the most influential country in the world in terms of entertainment production, with the most movies made each year of any country, as well as the largest box office sales and the largest music market size

9. Healthcare

Many Americans feel let down by U.S. healthcare despite the U.S. spending the most per capita on healthcare of anywhere in the world. Roughly 48% of Americans rate the healthcare system as excellent or good, 31% as fair, and 21% as poor, which are worse ratings than surveys found in the 2010s.

The U.S. has exceptional top hospitals but bad price transparency (so it's hard to know what you will end up paying) and inflated prices relative to a lot of the rest of the world. 

10. Desirability

The U.S. is rated the single most desirable place to move to for people worldwide looking to emigrate, though its ratings have declined somewhat. In terms of Americans wanting to leave, during the Bush and Obama eras, about 10% of Americans said they'd like to move to another country, and this jumped to 16% in the Trump era. 

11. Military

The U.S. spends a shocking amount on its military, with about 39% of ALL worldwide defense spending being by the U.S. At times its military power has been a stabilizing force worldwide (e.g., against the Nazis). On the other hand, the U.S. has also initiated a number of disastrous wars. 

12. Happiness

The U.S. is a pretty happy place. When Americans are asked to rate their "general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10", the average score is a 7 (compared to an OECD average score of 6.7), which places the U.S. 14th highest among 41 OECD countries.

When asked to imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 to 10 at the top, with the top representing the best possible life for you and the bottom the worst possible one,

Americans place themselves at 6.9 on average, which is 16th highest out of 167 countries (i.e., 10th percentile). According to the World Happiness Index, which attempts to evaluate countries’ happiness by combining factors like GPD per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, the U.S. is 16th out of 142 countries (i.e., 11th percentile). ️

13. Ideals

The U.S. has high ideals, some of which are reflected in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It sometimes lives up to these (e.g., through its strong personal freedoms), and sometimes has dramatically failed to live up to them (e.g., in its use of slavery and treatment of Indigenous Americans). 

Reaching a verdict: How great is the U.S., really?

So, is the U.S. one of the greatest countries? One approach to this question is to simply say that it can't be answered because different countries differ in too many ways to make such comparisons possible. Another approach is to say that just one of the factors above trumps all the others.

Our preferred view, however, is to think of it in terms of your values: depending on what your values are, you will weigh the factors above differently. By some sets of values, the U.S. may arguably be the best country, whereas, by others, it doesn't even come close.

At our organization, Clearer Thinking, we conducted research to figure out what it is that people value intrinsically (that is, what people value for its own sake - not as a means to other things). We've organized the results of that research into 22 different categories of common values:

list of intrinsic values

Once you have a list of your own intrinsic values (which you can find out with our Intrinsic Values Test), then you can start to answer the question of how great the U.S. is.

For instance, if you have strong values related to protecting those who are less fortunate, you may give the U.S. lower marks due to its relatively high levels of inequality, whereas if you place more value on achievement, the U.S. may get higher marks due to being highly innovative in technology, business, and science.

It can be easy to base your judgments, including those about how good the U.S. is, on group identity rather than based on careful consideration of the facts and what you value. As political scientists Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover have said:

“The behavior of partisans resembles that of sports team members acting to preserve the status of their teams rather than thoughtful citizens participating in the political process for the broader good.” 

Employing a framework like the one outlined above, where you:

  1. first attempt to impartially consider the facts,

  2. then consider your values, 

  3. and use the facts to inform how good or bad the thing is according to your values, can help you ensure that you’re deriving your conclusions thoughtfully and carefully, rather than simply deriving them from a desire (conscious or not) to conform to the expectations of group identities.

Ultimately, whether you conclude that the U.S. is great or not, we suggest basing your judgment on an evaluation of the facts plus careful consideration of your own values, not based on other people’s expectations.


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