The United States is the 800 pound gorilla in our living room. And just about everyone else’s living room.
Not only is an 800 gorilla large and powerful enough to be unremovable, but it is also clumsy and may do more by way of damage than it adds to the pleasure of the others in the same living room.
The United States got to that status by being the last one standing at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union was also standing, but hardly erect due to the loss of some 20 million residents and massive damage and dislocation in its homeland.
In the 70 years since then, the United States has used its weight for good things and other things. Aid to help with the reconstruction of Europe and Japan were the best achievements, along with nudging Europe away from conflict and toward something like a new super country. Europe’s history and culture were the closest to those of the United States, and that helped with the relationship. Japan was a different story, but its history aided integration to the enlarging group of democracies.
Also to the credit of the United States was containing the expansion of the Soviet Union. It did a better job in Korea than Vietnam.
The story of the United States in the Middle East is far from over, and judgment to date is problematic. Its record in Latin America and Africa is mixed, but they are not on the top of on anyone’s agenda but their own.
The gorilla is clumsy, in part, because Americans do not know themselves.
Perhaps all nations are parochial to an extent. I am, after all, writing this from the political and spiritual center of God’s Chosen People.
What I know about history also tells me that it was worse for those having to endure the gorillas of earlier imperial powers. That is, the provinces and colonies ruled by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, one or another variety of Muslims, the Christians of Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, or the Communists of Russia.
Filipinos, Cubans, and a few others ruled by earlier generations of Americans, not to mention the Indians and the people brought over from Africa, suffered a lot worse than post-World War II Western Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, and Israelis.
The United States limited itself while being dominant among those creating the United Nations, with a veto shared in the Security Council with Russia, China, Britain, and France.
The best measure of the gorilla’s poundage is its economic resources.
The American GDP in total is 2.5 times larger than the second largest economy (China, followed by Japan, Germany, France and Britain).
Americans are not the richest on a per capita basis, but they do rank #11 among almost 226 countries and other places. Richer are the folks in some tiny energy producing locales, as well as those of Liechtenstein, Bermuda, Luxembourg, Singapore, Jersey, and Norway (also thanks to energy).
What I mean by Americans not understanding themselves is a lack of sense as to where they fit in comparison with others.
It may be part of being the imperial giant that Americans don’t bother to compare themselves to others. Boasts about their extremes come naturally to those living in the center of the world. Maps reinforce this. Those I remember from my schooldays put the Americas at the center, with an awkward division of the distant European-Asian landmass.
Maps used elsewhere keep the continents whole, with the Americas on one side of the Atlantic and the cluster of Europe-Asia and Africa on the other side.
Israelis use Atlantic-centered maps. We recognize the shortcomings of those that put Jerusalem at the center.
It’s appropriate to begin the discussion of Americans who do not know themselves with claims of being over taxed. Insofar as taxes pay for the whole range of what governments do, this claim is more central than others. It is also one that gains prominence in a political campaign where Republicans are competing with one another on dimensions of conservatism. And the claim of being overtaxed is one of the most bizarre, evident to any who look at the data.
The effective tax rate for all levels of government added together in the United States is 26.9 percent of GNP. There is no western democracy with a lower tax rate than that. Denmark''s rate is 49 percent, Israel''s is 36.8 percent, and the average of OECD members (most of them Western European) is 40 percent.
There are those who claim that low taxes is the hallmark of democracy and that the United States is the most democratic country, or—in some extreme formulations—the only true democracy. I can only urge people who believe that to open a text on comparative government.
Americans also moan about the high cost of gasoline, and fear its escalation if their country moves too forcefully against Iran.
Americans are now paying somewhere around than $3.75 a gallon. Israelis and most Europeans are paying more than $8 a gallon. A recent survey showed American fuel prices ranked #101 from the top in a list of 141 countries. (Americans who look at these data may be confused, insofar as the numbers are cost per liter, which is the conventional way of measurement outside the United States. For those who have trouble with metrics, a liter is about one fourth of an American gallon.)
American claims of excessive generosity often appear with complaints about high taxes and giving so much to foreign aid. Several of my internet friends have accused me of anti-Americanism, and ask how that fits with Israel being the largest recipient of American aid.
The United States is the world leader in total aid, but lags significantly in aid as a percentage of its economic resources.
One has to be wary of the numbers. Aid comes under different categories. On a measure of "development assistance" which may not include military aid, the United States ranks 19th out of 23 countries with respect to the amount given in relation to economic resources. By this measure, the countries most generous are Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Netherlands.
On a measure of countries receiving intergovernmental development aid as a percentage of their resources, Israel ranks way down the list, #97 out of 120 countries.
By some measures, the United States does give more aid to Israel than to any other country. Virtually all of it is military aid. By other measures, however, what we might call the "military aid" that the United States has allocated in recent years to Iraq and Afghanistan dwarfs that given to Israel.
One can also argue about the component of generosity in foreign aid, as opposed to the component of self-interest.
Most American aid is tied to purchases made within the United States that benefit American farmers, industries, and workers. Owners and workers in those sectors are among the supporters of foreign aid.
Another benefit that the aid provides to the United States is the willingness of recipients to coordinate their actions with American policy. The United States may not "dictate" to the countries that receive its aid, but there is pressure.
Health is another sensitive area of public policy. The United States is the world leader in total health expenditures per capita, and health expenditures as a percentage of GDP. On health expenditures per capita, it exceeds the second highest country (Norway) by almost 50 percent. On health expenditures as a percentage of GDP, it exceeds the second highest country (Netherlands) by about the same ratio.
What the American citizens receive from those expenditures is--on the whole--shameful when measured by conventional measures of public health. In average life expectancy, the United States ranks #36, below most European countries as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Macao, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Chile. On one measure of longevity, the United States is tied with Cuba. On infant mortality, the United States ranks in about the same place, #34.
America firsters shout at these statistics as unfair. They claim that Americans suffer on health indicators on account of certain population groups, poor diet, and other bad practices. They assert that Americans benefit from the world''s best medicine, that all can obtain at hospital emergency rooms.
Claims about the world''s best medicine may be partly true, but only for those with the best insurance. They do not explain the huge gap between national wealth and overall expenditures on health on the one hand, and abysmal life expectancy and infant mortality rankings on the other hand. Other countries, including Israel, also have minority populations that are outside the mainstream in knowledge or practices that contribute to health. What distinguishes the United States is the lack of comprehensive health insurance available to the entire population, and what that means for routine treatment, health education, preventive care, and follow up after a crisis that has brought one to an emergency room. President Obama’s health reform, assuming the Supreme Court cooperates, may fix some of these indicators over time. However, the heavy reliance on profit-making health insurers may limit those accomplishments.
A recent visit to Rome added to my understanding of American pretensions. Rome was arguably more powerful and dominant in its time than the United States has been since 1945.
All those monumental buildings and heroic statues look a lot like what Americans have built in Washington. Mussolini was responsible for some of what we see in Rome. We know how empty was his pomposity and how he ended. Some years ago during a visit to a village in Ethiopia we were the only Whites at a Saturday market, and a number of people greeted us with buon giorno. That may be all that remains of Il Duce''s Empire.
Some who claim the label of futurists say that we--or our children or grandchildren--ought to learn Chinese. A generation ago, the same people were talking about Japanese. Pessimists are talking about Arabic.
It is too early to speak with confidence about the end of the American era. The European Community is one of the most promising innovations of the past century. It is partly a product of American aid and prodding, and the closest it has to a lingua franca is English.
Bombast may be an inherent feature of empire, even an empire that does its work more with influence and pressure than with dictate.
Americans might be more attractive in their comments about themselves and others if they recognized the realities of their low taxes, low cost of fuel, shortcomings in public health, and problems in their claims about foreign aid. Yet being modest and truly cosmopolitan in outlook may never have been the hallmarks of empire.