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It is often said that the United States is the richest and most powerful country on earth, and this is probably true. But some thoughtful critics nevertheless consider the U.S. a failure. If we evaluate our country by the life it provides to most of its citizens, it might well be considered a failure.

The United States may be the richest and most powerful country on earth, but it also manifests extreme social and economic inequality. And this inequality has devastating consequences.

The fall issue of the excellent socialist journal Jacobin (with motto “Reason in Revolt”) investigates ways in which the United States fails. The editors of Jacobin compare the U.S. to 36 other capitalist countries that are members of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The comparisons are organized around four general themes: (1) workers’ rights, (2) trust in public institutions, (3) social safety net, and (4) quality of life.

Indicators of workers’ rights

  • Percent of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements: 90% of Austrian workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. The U.S., with 10% of workers covered, ranks 18th among OECD countries.
  • Percent of workers earning less than two-thirds of median income: In Belgium only 8% of workers earn less than two-thirds of median income. The U.S. ranks 17th among OECD countries with over 22% of workers earning less than this modest income standard.
  • Gini coefficient of income inequality (higher Gini scores indicate more inequality): Slovenia has the lowest income inequality (among OECD countries). The U.S. ranks 20th.

Indicators of trust in public institutions

  • Percent with little or no confidence in Congress:  70% of Norwegians express confidence in their legislature.  Over 80% of Americans express little or no confidence in Congress (18th rank).
  • Percent with little or no confidence in civil service:  Almost 70% of Americans express little or no confidence in our civil service. Citizens in 14 other OECD countries express more confidence in their civil service.
  • Percent preferring military rule over democracy: (Here is a real shocker.)  Almost 20% of Americans express a preference for military rule over democracy. This is a far higher preference for military rule than found in Germany, Japan, Italy, or 15 other OECD countries.

Indicators of the social safety net

  • Percent of GDP spent on family benefits: Sweden spends eight times more on family benefits than the U.S., which ranks 26th among OECD countries on this indicator.
  • Percent of GDP spent on job support programs: Denmark spends 12 times more on job support programs than we do. The U.S. ranks 22nd on job support expenditures.
  • Percent of median income provided to the jobless: Unemployed people in the U.S. receive about 10% of median income (we rank 22nd).  Unemployed workers in Japan get more than six times as much. 

Indicators of quality of life

  • Percent of population living in poverty: Over 17% of Americans live in poverty, which is 10% higher than in the Czech Republic and puts us in 19th place among OECD countries.
  • Infant mortality — deaths per hundred births:  Almost six infants die for 100 live births in the U.S. Less than two per 100 die in Slovenia and Iceland. We languish in 26th place.
  • Percent of women who have experienced violence: 36% of American women report having experienced violence (24th place). Less than 10% of Swiss women report experiencing violence.
  • Percent of population that is overweight: Over 70% of Americans (above 15 years old) are considered overweight or obese.  Less than 30% of Japanese people are overweight.
  • Life expectancy: Life expectancy in the U.S. is currently about 77 years. Japanese and Swiss people can expect to live over seven years longer. People in 25 other OECD countries — including Israel, Korea, Slovenia and Chile — have longer life expectancy than Americans.

Given these highly unflattering comparisons, it is certainly not unreasonable to consider the richest and most powerful country on earth a failure.

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