America Is the Greatest! Pt 2: Opportunity.

America Is the Greatest! Pt 2: Opportunity. January 17, 2017

This is the second part to this small series. I will repost the intro for those who have not read the first one (on standard of living).

Over on another post, there are some raging threads about a number of topics from gun crime to how great America is. It is on this last topic that I want to dwell.

When I was at uni in the ’90s, I knew an American student who was over for a year. Nice guy, but he has that intuitive, psychological belief that so many of us do. Let me explain. One day, in the bar, we got to discussing the US, its foreign policies, and its place in the world. We were at the birth of the internet, where print press was wide and varied, and information was starting to get properly disseminated on a greater scale. We, the Brits in the uni bar, were skeptical of the greatness of the US, and were giving this guy a difficult time. He got more and more defensive until, finally, he declared what you could tell he really believed: “America is the greatest country at everything in the world!” He truly properly believed it.

It is, in fact, a common theme. Americans, seemingly, more often sing the ultimate praises of their own country than, say, Brits. We are a bitter, twisted, self-deprecating lot, who love a good moan. Pessimism, though, can lead to a jolt of realism. Unending optimism, on the other hand, can lead to self-delusion.

On this other thread, were some of the following claims:

Standard of living, opportunity, freedom, vitality, diversity… I don’t think any other country even comes close…. I think the U.S. easily surpasses Canada in all of them. The idea that Canada outperforms the U.S. on opportunity or diversity, for example, seems to me absurd.[source]

and

Japan is way higher in terms of standard of living and vitality (if you mean ‘health’ than the USA.

IMF figures for GDP per capita 2015, PPP:
U.S.: $56,000
Japan: $38,000

I think even that big difference understates the true difference in standard of living. For virtually all major classes of products and services (housing, food, transportation, entertainment, education, health care, etc.), the quality, quantity and variety seems to be substantially higher in the U.S. than in Japan.

‘Freedom’ is what you make of it, I guess.

I mean the word in its standard sense. Political freedom. Economic freedom. Social freedom.

Most Americans I met weren’t as free as I was.

If you live in another country, you probably have significantly less freedom. [Source]

This piece isn’t about needlessly denigrating the US. It is a great country for a number of reasons. But it is also a deeply, deeply flawed country for a number of reasons (lobbying, and its impact on an already-flawed democratic system being an obvious one! In 1970, there were five registered lobbyists working on behalf of wealthy corporations for every one of the 535 members of Congress. Today there are 22 lobbyists per congressperson.). Let’s look at these ideas.

Opportunity

Opportunity can mean a number of different things. The basic idea, for me, though, is if opportunity (in whatever form) is a good thing, then it should be available to everybody. So if there are barriers to equality of opportunity in the States that puts the US behind other countries, then this is another bogus claim.

As the New York Times states (Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, a professor at Columbia and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist for the World Bank, is the author of “The Price of Inequality.”):

Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity….

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia….

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.

Udaya R Wagle, Western Michigan University, School of Public Affairs and Administration, opines:

Healthcare, education, and social security are some essential ingredients to maintain equality of opportunity. For those who are one paycheck or illness away from bankruptcy, for example, equality of opportunity becomes an empty shell without an assurance that their basic needs will be fulfilled should they lose jobs or incomes. This notion of basic security must be guaranteed for the unemployed or underemployed while they prepare themselves for better. This also applies to the old, disabled, or otherwise incapable to participate in the labor market.

It is not that the government does not provide basic security…. But the coverage of these programs is marginal especially for the non-elderly population. The benefits are small and mostly time-limited forcing individuals to reenter the labor market without enough preparation. Social assistance is also stigmatized discouraging participation. Rather than serving as a vehicle for enhancing opportunities, these programs are aimed at mere survival of recipients. Rising healthcare costs confer deleterious effects on the middle class, threatening with an easy fallback and a difficult leg up to equal opportunity.

Don Watkins at The Blaze (gah!) at least admits this, in “Equality of Opportunity Doesn’t Exist in America – and That’s a Good Thing”. He says:

What they mean is that we should all enjoy an equal chance of success. According to today’s leading critics of economic inequality, if a child born to loving, affluent, educated parents is more likely to achieve economic success than someone born without such advantages, that is an injustice that the government has to fight.

But is that a fight we really want the government to wage?

before firing off the usual tropes against any type of wealth redistribution. Equality of opportunity is definitely a myth in US schooling, as according to “Equality of Educational Opportunity: Myth or Reality in U.S. Schooling” by WH Schmidt.

Though we wish it weren’t so, the United States cannot be considered a country of educational equality, providing equal educational opportunities to all students…. For all students – the lucky few and the unlucky many – educational opportunity depends on factors that cannot be wholly overcome vy student ability or effort.

It’s a pretty damning read.

Lane Kenworthy, a notable figure in these fields, wrote in the magazine Foreign Affairs an article entitled “It’s Hard to Make It in America: How the United States Stopped Being the Land of Opportunity“. Inequality of opportunity has increased over recent decades:

Third, in a sharp reversal of historical trends, there is now less equality of opportunity in the United States than in most other wealthy democratic nations. Data exist for ten of the United States’ peer countries (rich long-standing democracies). The United States has less relative intergenerational mobility than eight of them; Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all do better. The United States is on par with France and Italy.

A lot of the issues are wrapped up with the education system, and this seems to be a recurring problem amongst academics and commentators on this subject. (If you want to see internal, state-wide opportunity data, check out the Opportunity Index here).

Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution shows that the US lags behind many other nations in economic mobility (relative mobility):

Americans have more faith than do people in other countries that they will receive economic rewards for individual effort, intelligence, and skills…. Widespread belief in one’s ability to get ahead may explain why Americans are more accepting of economic inequality than are people in other countries. While there are large gaps between rich and poor in the United States, and a majority of Americans (62 percent) agree with the statement that income differences in this country are too large, in other countries much greater majorities hold this belief: 85 percent is the median response and 96 percent is the maximum response. Another strong cultural difference is that Americans are less likely than others to believe that the government should take responsibility for reducing income disparities; only one-third of Americans (33 percent) hold this view, compared to percentages ranging from 46 percent (in Canada) to 89 percent (in Portugal) in the other countries.

While Americans have an optimistic faith in the ability of individuals to get ahead within a lifetime or from one generation to the next, there is growing evidence of less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries, at least according to the relative mobility measures commonly used in economic research.

…a growing number of economic studies have found that the United States stands out as having less, not more, intergenerational mobility than do Canada and several European countries. American children are more likely than other children to end up in the same place on the income distribution as their parents. Moreover, there is emerging evidence that mobility is particularly low for Americans born into families at the bottom of the earnings or income distribution.

It’s okay, the UK sucked big time too.

Now I could go on about race and gender equality (all entangled with the above points too) more overtly, but I do not have the time or space. Suffice to say that America isn’t the greatest (no surprise) in these respects. Heck, I’m presently watching 13th on Netflix, and that’s a real eye-opener, concerning race and the inequality or lack of opportunity in that domain. Here are a few nuggets to keep you going:

  1. After being arrested, African-Americans are 33% more likely than whites to be detained while facing a felony trial in New York.
  2. In 2010, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that African Americans receive 10% longer sentences than whites through the federal system for the same crimes.
  3. In 2009 African-Americans are 21% more likely than whites to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
  4. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail in his lifetime, while a Latino male has a 17% chance, and a white male only has a 6% chance.
  5. Upward mobility from the bottom of the income distribution is much less likely for black than white Americans: 51% of the black Americans born into the lowest fifth of the earnings distribution remain there at age 40.
  6. Most black middle-class kids are downwardly mobile.
  7. Race gaps in wealth – already wide – widened further during the Great Recession. The median wealth of white households is now 13 times greater than for black households –the largest gap in a quarter century, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. Black median wealth almost halved during the recession, falling from $19,200 in 2007 to $11,000 in 2013.
  8. Black students attend worse schools. [Sources for these claims are here and here.]

So on and so forth. For more, see here and here. I am not slating America for the hell of it (and the UK is often no better), but just pointing out some delusions that I so often hear.

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