Learning from Other Countries?
“We live in the greatest country on Earth!” So said a caller on Bill Maher’s Real Time on the eve of the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Maher asked the caller how he knew this. “Because I have lived in the U.S. my entire life.”
Maher tried to explain the illogic of this, if the caller has no experience with other countries. When the call was over, it was clear that the caller was sure that Maher was an idiot.
In that moment I had a realization of how to destroy a country: Just do a public relations campaign where you get everyone in that country to repeat that phrase: “We live in the greatest country on Earth!”
Why is this so destructive? Because if we live in the greatest country on Earth, it means we have nothing to learn from anyone else.
“Sick Around the World” was a 2008 Frontline PBS special on how other countries handle health care. They went beyond the usual countries we hear about and looked at countries like Japan and Taiwan.
They interviewed Hongjen Chang, MD, former President of the Taiwanese National Health Insurance Bureau. Taiwan had been a poor country, but in the 1980s they realized they were wealthy enough to afford a good universal healthcare system. They looked at about a dozen countries around the world to see what had worked well and to combine the best of these pieces from each country.
The PBS interviewer asked if they had looked at the U.S. In a diplomatic way, Dr. Chang indicated that the U.S. had nothing worth looking at to copy.
Back in 2010 I was staying with friends in Italy on the Swiss border, then continued by rail up to Geneva. I was impressed to learn that I was passing through the longest tunnel in the world (Gotthard). I thought back on my youth in the 1960s when most of the positive superlatives belonged to the U.S. Fastest trains, biggest particle accelerators, tallest buildings, longest bridges, and tunnels. What happened?
Is it possible that Americans stopped looking beyond their borders to even know what anyone else was doing? Is it also possible that Americans measured “success” and “power” in very narrow ways?
The U.S. does have the highest spending in the world on its military at $778 billion. More than the next nine countries combined. Does that make us strong?
The U.S. has the biggest trade deficit in the world. When I was a child, we imported raw materials and exported manufactured goods. Today, it is largely the opposite. By some definitions, that is the definition of a Third World country.
The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the world, with 80% of these being unwanted and a third ending in abortion. While the U.S. passes “Don’t Say Gay” laws, civilized countries have age-appropriate sex education beginning as young as age four. They have far fewer unwanted pregnancies and abortions as a result.
The U.S. is the world leader in incarceration, both in sheer numbers and per capita. Perhaps this is related to the U.S. being a leader in childhood poverty among industrialized countries? With a rate higher than Mexico. Perhaps this is related to the U.S. being the world leader in guns per capita, with more guns than people?
Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway all had a culture of gun ownership with few restrictions. All created severe restrictions after a single mass shooting and all have successfully reduced gun ownership and violence.
One third of Americans cannot drive, yet our public transit systems are so bad that the U.S. is dead last in use of public transit in a National Geographic study. Perhaps this is because the U.S. is the world leader in subsidizing private motor vehicle use at the rate of two trillion dollars each year?
Tiny Belgium spends twice as much on passenger rail as the entire U.S.
Where to Invade Next is a wonderful film (whose title is a joke) that shows how other countries have solved problems that the U.S. doesn’t even know that it has. It is very positive and inspiring and I highly recommend it. I may revisit it in a future article.
I am reminded of a bumper sticker that was briefly popular: “I Love My Country, But We Should See Other People.” No one country on its own has all of the answers. Can we learn from others?