o, you think you’re exceptional? Take a number; so does everyone else. Each nation considers itself singular. The Germans stumbled along their Sonderweg during the 19th century, priding themselves on being such fine and unusual fellows until they were finally kicked into the European and global mainstreams after starting and losing two world wars. In their own estimation, the French are like none other, and their revolution still the wellspring of modernity. Those Scandinavians who find themselves abroad return home like swallows every summer. Nine months in the cesspool that is the world south of the Eider is as much as they can bear. And “How odd of God”, William Norman Ewer once mused, “to choose the Jews.”
Simple logic ordains that we can’t all be exceptional. But when Barack Obama, on a trip to the United Kingdom in April 2009, responded to a reporter’s question about what made America exceptional by saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”, it was as though he had committed some kind of civil-religious heresy.
The President wisely steered clear of that heresy during last year’s re-election campaign. Indeed, the late and unlamented campaign season bore witness to national ego-stroking the likes of which have never before been seen. A gaggle of would-be Presidents all but fell over themselves to assure us of our exceptionality. Even Obama’s toned-down rhetoric urged America to live up to its unique destiny. He assured all within earshot that America is the only place where his presidency could have happened.
Mitt Romney aimed to make the United States even more exceptional than it already is, notwithstanding the barriers of logic. He and his fellow Republicans want small government, but an even larger military and a more pronounced geopolitical swagger. (No matter that we already vastly outspend our allies and all potential adversaries.) But how can we starve the state, cut taxes and balance budgets while building up the military to the extent they propose? And how can we convince the electorate that its money is well spent protecting European allies who can’t be bothered to spend enough to ensure their own defense? The GOP convention in Tampa also celebrated Neil Armstrong as a hero of American initiative while ignoring his role as a civil servant whose accomplishments were funded by massive government spending (NASA received 4.5 percent of the Federal budget in 1966). There’s “exceptional” logic for you.
The loudest undertone in the campaigns was not about military spending, however, but about Europe as model or anti-model for America. Americans faced a choice between contrasting visions of the nation’s future: Should we have government do more in pursuit of some sort of streamlined European social democracy, or should we roll back government to the limited role of a night-watchman state? Nowhere else in the industrialized world are voters offered such a stark alternative. In that, at least, America is exceptional, even if in practice the choice seems always to end up being more rhetorical than real. In the European Union, especially the farther west one goes, the alternatives are a slight tick leftward or a moderate shift to the right from a largely centrist position that is planted firmly to the left of the American middle of the road. Whether Christian Socialist or Social Democrat, Tory or Labour, moderate left or moderate right, all European parties accept a primary social welfare role for the state, and voters accept the need for the requisite taxation to pay for it.
How different, really, are the United States and Europe? How exceptional is the United States, and in precisely what ways? These questions make sense because only to the extent that the United States is exceptional relative to its closest kin in political culture can it be said to be exceptional at all.
frequently cited distinction between the United States and Europe is religion: We are religious, and they are not. It seems a rather large difference at first, but there is less here than meets the eye.
True, we are a pious people compared to northern Europeans. But it is the secular Europeans who in fact stick out against the backdrop of a resolutely religious world. Between the packed mosques of the Middle East and the empty churches of northern Europe, the United States falls in the moderate center: broadly religious, but so tolerant that we refuse to take the content of theology seriously enough to make a fuss. We have become, in effect, a nation of Unitarians. Take the genuinely offensive basic premise of the Book of Mormon, last year’s musical hit among the coastal elites: All it takes to improve the lives of apparently delusional Africans is a bit of mumbo-jumbo improvised by some adolescent Mormons who were paying too little attention in Sunday school to recall the nonsensical dogma they were sent abroad to preach. Where are the PC police when, for once, you need them? The only ones over here on the American side of the pond to engage in serious theological disputes any longer are proselytizing atheists.
With religion’s supposed corollary, science, Americans are even more mainstream. Yes, creationism has more credence and evolution is more contested here than in other developed nations, but Americans’ scientific literacy is as high as or higher than that of most European countries, and our scientific production orders of magnitude greater. Besides, other cultures have their own scientific blind spots. Astrology is taken more seriously in several European nations than it is in the United States. Homeopathy effectively denies scientific causality and is thus arguably less scientific even than creationism, but it’s widely accepted in Europe; indeed, such quackery is often reimbursed by national health plans. Vaccination opponents undermine herd immunity with greater impunity in Europe than here. And the tomfoolery of believing that genetic modification is anything but the rational and efficient pursuit of what humans have been doing through chance, chemicals or radiation since the invention of agriculture has become an article of faith among the European middle classes.
More generally, all reputable public opinion surveys show that Americans excel in faith in science and its problem-solving powers. It is hard to take seriously the well-educated, Guardian-reading north London bourgeois who treats his toddlers’ earaches with distilled water, subjects them to measles, mumps or rubella, frets over the provenance of his soy, and then fulminates against the arrant unscientific nonsense of a silly museum of creationism in deepest Appalachia.
Into the nexus between religion and science intrudes abortion. We fight about abortion here in the United States, while others in the Western cultural world apparently do not. That makes us exceptional, but only in the sense of actually conducting a discussion over a controversial issue that other nations have shunned altogether. It is a myth that Americans hash out abortion because we are more religious while secular Europeans have achieved a consensus, because they have not. Insofar as Europeans have achieved any consensus, it is only within each nation, each of which has quite different policies. There is no Europe-wide agreement.
Moreover, U.S. abortion policy is, by European standards, quite liberal. Women have the right to abort largely at will for many months after conception. Outside the Scandinavian fringe where similar policies are in place, Europeans are much more restricted. German women have to prove various forms of hardship and gain their doctor’s permission. Ireland outlaws abortion almost entirely, and the Mediterranean nations have implemented the Romney position, allowing it only in cases of danger to the mother’s health, incest or rape. Recent attempts to liberalize Spain’s very restrictive policies have sparked huge demonstrations in support of the status quo. In other words, were U.S.-style abortion law rolled out across Europe, you can be sure that their debates would become at least as raucous as ours.
o speak of science is to beg a discussion of its social underpinning, education. Though we spend a lot of energy agonizing about it, we are unexceptional here too—neither much better nor much worse than our Atlantic peers. True, our system of higher education is on a roll: American institutions dominate the top of the international university ratings. Given the resources we pour into them, they ought to. For $35,000 per head annually in tuition, as well as vast infusions of Federal research money and endowment income, it would be sad if we could not produce something first-rate. Our universities are like our health care: world-class in those areas where cash buys quality but enormously expensive and unequally distributed. And like health care, they weigh us down with heavy costs, swallowing resources that might serve better ends.
As with health care, our total spending (public and private) on university education is about twice the European average. To some extent we get what we pay for in both instances: world-class services for those lucky enough to receive them. But while our health care extravagance is widely accepted as inefficient, we have only just begun pondering the cost of what we pay for in higher education.
After decades of pushing tuition rates far beyond inflation and encouraging students to pile on educational loans, the universities have made themselves complicit in the enormous accumulation of debt. The recent decades’ gold plating of higher education has been financed on the backs of a generation unfortunate enough to be exiting into an unwelcoming labor market. It’s bad enough that medical schools’ massive student loans (almost $250,000 per graduate in the worst cases) require our doctors to be paid more than their peers elsewhere (well over twice the rate for French doctors, for instance), helping drive health care costs skywards. But when freshly minted bachelor’s degree holders in comp lit owe enough to buy a house in Cleveland (median asking price, $130,000), something is askew. And since recent reforms have made it all but impossible to discharge student debt via bankruptcy, we are raising a generation of serfs.
In terms of BA-for-the-buck or cost per research citation, others get better outcomes. As Howard Hotson has argued, British universities get similar mileage on fewer resources. Much the same could be said for many European institutions.1 By all means, let our universities enjoy and exploit this fleeting moment in which the world comes to us, but it would be naive to suppose that it will last for very long. Already the tides are turning. Chinese graduate students and faculty are increasingly returning to well-funded institutions at home. If we can build infrastructure quickly, others can too. Founded a mere fifty years ago, UC San Diego today ranks 15th globally in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, compiled annually by the University of Shanghai. Do we really think the Chinese are incapable of achieving the same growth?
Below the university level, we are unexceptional in our mediocrity. Shanghai ranks highest on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment tests. This perhaps could have become our generation’s Sputnik moment, jolting us into action to improve education on a national scale. But on further examination there is nothing extraordinary to see here. A city-state in a country with internal passports, Shanghai has achieved results that are the outcome of selective factors we can only guess at. Of course we should pay attention, but we might as well worry about the nation as a whole failing to meet the Beverly Hills scores. That holds for the Finnish results too, the latest bugbear of the chattering classes. Finland’s performance is largely the happy outcome of a country with the most restrictive immigration policies in Western Europe and a correspondingly homogenous population. No Finnish-as-a-foreign-language lessons there.
We can get a sense of such effects from the latest (2007) Trends in International Science and Mathematics study, where Minnesota eighth graders bested everyone but the top-scoring Asian nations. As President Clinton might have put it, our Scandinavians beat their Scandinavians. If we want to worry about competitors, take Canada: A big multicultural nation with problems like ours that nonetheless bests us roundly. If we seek company for our misery, the French and the Germans, equally mediocre, are less worrisome. And, interestingly, the other Scandinavians, with more complex societies than the Finns, do worse than us. What is the mysterious fault line within Scandinavia, otherwise so seemingly uniform from the outside, whereby the Swedes and the Norwegians cannot educate their high school students while the Finns can?
hen there is economic policy, which to judge from recent results has nothing to do with either science or religion.
The Republicans complain of excessive regulation choking off growth. We are indeed fairly strict environmental regulators. That’s what makes the air in Los Angeles semi-breathable today and no longer toxic fog. Our cars used to set the emissions standards for the rest of the world. Mandating lead-free gasoline, we forced the Europeans and the Japanese to follow suit. Today, however, Europe and Japan are at least as much leaders as followers. Thus, if we hope to sell our goods abroad, we have to play by the rules set in the largest single consumer market, the European Union.
As for those regulations we can still decide entirely on our own, we already do less than most anywhere else in the developed world. The Republicans have gotten their way but seem not to realize it. The U.S. government is less involved in business life than in any European nation except Iceland. Our economic freedom ratings are at the top of the scale, equaled only by the British and the Swiss. Insofar as these things can be quantified, our employers are less tied down by labor regulation and have freer rein to fire than any of their European peers. When hiring, they are as unencumbered as any Europeans. Our minimum wages are low. (The Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese have an even lower minimum wage, but also a lower standard of living. Anyway, who holds them up as paragons any longer?) Our workers get less vacation and work longer hours than most Europeans. How much more an outlier in these respects do Republicans want us to be?
In the latest World Economic Forum competitiveness rankings, the United States has slipped to seventh place. Yet our betters are not just the lean and mean like Singapore but the supposedly over-coddled welfare states of Sweden and Finland, not to mention Germany and the Netherlands. Competitiveness rests not just on a stripped-down regulatory structure but on many other variables. One of these is investment in infrastructure for growth. That’s where we lag behind, a deficit that may be laid at the door of both Democrats and Republicans.
In broader socio-economic terms, we are no longer exceptional in ways we used to be justly proud of. We imagine ourselves offering wide avenues of social advancement, but however many Horatio Alger look-alike anecdotes are trotted out at the conventions, the statistics are less comforting. In this nation of failing public schools and six-figure student debt, of medical-bill bankruptcy, of infants born without prenatal care and raised without health care, the poor tend to stay poor more consistently than they do elsewhere. Social advancement is now more likely in the high-taxing, high-spending nations of northern Europe and Canada, with their widespread, affordable daycare, state-paid higher education, government-run apprenticeship programs, generous unemployment benefits and other interventions, all of which help their citizens break out of unfortunate circumstances.2
Our crowning achievement remains integrating new arrivals and ethnic minorities. As Paris and London explode in rioting, as Italians attack Roma encampments, as Turks ghettoize themselves in Berlin, we can take satisfaction in charting our progress since our last major moment of civil unrest in Los Angeles twenty years ago. While Europeans agonize over finally introducing some form of affirmative action to integrate outsiders, our own programs have gone a long way toward accomplishing their intent and are slowly approaching the end of their useful lifecycle.
Look no further than our prison population to see the difference. In Europe, prisons house mainly foreigners, while in the United States our immigrants are better behaved than native citizens and are actually underrepresented in jail. But it is here that the Republicans would actively make us less exceptional: They advocate a red-state clamp-down on illegal immigration.
Nor are we exceptional in other major aspects of domestic policy. Now that Obamacare is here to stay, the one social policy that used to separate us from the rest of the developed world, universal health insurance coverage, is about to vanish too. We pay twice as much per capita as any other nation for health care that grants world-class research and treatment to the best-served. But across-the-board public health results are only run-of-the-mill.
For other social policies, we may be miserly, but we are not off the charts. Our local and national pension schemes compare reasonably to public provision elsewhere. But unemployment benefits are brutish and short. Other than some minor tax deductions and Federal regulations on family leave, we have no public provision for maternity or childrearing. Arguably our healthy demographic forecasts (thanks mainly to immigration and first-generation Americans’ reproductive habits) spare us the problem such policies were meant to address. But inasmuch as our teen pregnancy rates have spiked to third-world levels, such inattention probably does not serve us well.
f we are much like other Western industrialized nations in many respects, with only a wiggle here and a twitch of difference there, where can we still thump the drum of exceptionalism? If exceptional means more than just being at one end of a fairly broad spectrum of divergence among developed nations, if it means a black and white difference, then there are only a few areas other than military spending where the United States is off the proverbial charts. But the record in these areas is nothing to be especially happy about.
First, we lock up more of our citizens than any other industrialized nation. This is mostly because of how we treat drug-related offenses. Second, Americans own more guns by far than anyone else in the developed world. Third, we kill each other much more often. We have high levels of gun ownership in part because of our relatively large rural population, which likes to hunt in the vast stretches of our country, but also in part because we have a marginalized and heavily armed underclass, abandoned by or immune to the usual engines of assimilation. Because of the threat posed by guns in the hands of gangs and criminals, some average citizens arm themselves, too. Thus lethal violence escalates to far higher rates than elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic world.
True, some other nations are also full of gun buffs, like the Swiss, the Finns and the Swedes. But the Swiss own them as part of their military service, and the Nordic peoples are also eager hunters in sparsely populated countries. Though many, their guns are the rifles and shotguns needed for sport, not the handguns and semi-automatic weapons that wreak havoc in American cities. The NRA would have us believe that gun ownership and murder rates are completely unconnected. Is it really a coincidence that Finns, Swedes and the Swiss also kill each other much more often than other Europeans? (The Norwegians, though big gun owners, are curiously not killers.)
Murder aside, nor is the United States uniquely crime-ridden or violent. Marion Barry, Washington, DC’s scandal-prone mayor, was mocked for insisting that Washington had a murder problem, not a crime problem. But he had a point that holds for the nation more generally. For largely all other crimes, the United States falls somewhere near the center of the European incidence distribution. We suffer high rates of certain crimes (some drug use and property crimes) but comparatively little from others (car theft, sexual assault). Our overall incidence of crime is firmly at the center of the European spread. With half as many policemen per capita as the Italians, and generally fewer than other European nations, we cannot thank policing alone for that. But the depressing possibility remains that we achieve our presentable non-murder crime results by locking up far more potential criminals than anyone else. Per capita, our prison rates are at least five times those of the closest European competitors, the British and the Spanish. While we pride ourselves on being a free nation, we are heavyweights in allowing the state to impose directly in this way on the lives of its citizens. When it comes to locking up our most disadvantaged young men, we are in a league of our own. Fixing our inane drug laws would solve much of this, but not all.
hat leaves one final example of America’s Transatlantic exceptionalism: Our tax system is not up to the demands we make of it. As it is in no other nation, raising taxes has become the third rail of American politics. Americans want the best health care money can buy, but don’t want to pay for it. That holds equally for most everything else the state does. For Republicans the contradiction is most obvious for defense: bigger, better, but also magically somehow cheaper. For Democrats, the contradiction afflicts their ambitions for more domestic spending, which is impossible without a major tax overhaul.
It’s certainly not for lack of trying. We are already pushing our available tax instruments to the limit. Property taxes are hard to avoid and boast a rough progressivity inasmuch as housing consumption tends to correlate with wealth. Mitt Romney’s car elevator in La Jolla will eventually translate into more money in Sacramento’s coffers. Proposition 13 and the movement against property taxes occurred early in the United States because ours are high. As a percentage of GDP, American property taxes raise well over three times what they do in Germany and twice as much as in high-tax Sweden.
Meanwhile, our inheritance and gift taxes fall in the middle of the European range, higher than Germany and the United Kingdom, and much higher than Sweden, where they have recently been abolished altogether. Corporate taxes are hard to measure since businesses shift profits around the world in ways forbidden to most mortals. In the United States they are in the middle of the European pack measured as a fraction of GDP, but at the top if judged by their average effective rate.
No doubt our income taxes could be simplified, plugging the loopholes and levying them at higher rates on higher salaries. But their overall incidence is quite comparable to the European average. Their progressivity is higher than the British and Dutch systems, and significantly above the Scandinavians. As a percentage of GDP, they come in above the Dutch, German and French levels, though of course below the Scandinavians. And even the actual amount paid by the average U.S. taxpayer is comparable to European levels: more than the Germans and the British, a bit less than the French.
Here is a curious paradox, however: Our total tax take is low by European standards. As a percentage of GDP, it is above only the Greeks, whom we now know to be inveterate tax avoiders. At the same time, our overall tax system is quite progressive. However counterintuitive this may seem, the richest 10 percent pay a larger share of total taxes in the United States than in any West European nation. How is this possible?
The dirty little secret of the American fiscus is our refusal thus far to harness the workhorse of most other tax systems: indirect and consumption levies. Of our low tax take, much is raised from progressive sources: income, property, corporate tax. In Europe, the lower middle and working classes participate heavily in financing the social benefits they receive, thanks in large part to pervasive value-added taxes (VAT). Consider that the poorest half of all American households pay no income tax whatsoever, and the overall redistributive effect of the U.S. tax system becomes even more evident. In other rising economies the generally regressive nature of the tax system is even more pronounced, Brazil being an excellent example.
We in the United States are locked into a highly redistributive tax system, while in Europe the movement of monies better resembles Brownian motion, circulating as much within classes as between them. Generous social benefits are heavily clawed back by taxes. The single Swedish mom who receives a child benefit pays income tax on it and then a 25 percent VAT when she buys a stroller. She knows what she gets for her taxes and is tied into the system both as recipient and payer. When her child grows up, she in turn will help finance similar benefits for those who are now in similar situations. Since they receive no obvious direct benefits, the American middle and upper classes resist further expansion of income taxes. Indirect taxes, in turn, are resisted from all sides. Having never met a tax it likes, the Right rejects them on principle. The Left cannot warm to them because they are undeniably regressive.
One major reason we cannot break our current stalemate is the implicit bargain at the core of the U.S. tax system. Taxes are part of our welfare state by the back door, and fiscal policy is caught up in larger dilemmas. However desirable fiscally, and however useful to reward energy efficiency, we cannot raise gas taxes or readily move to a system of user fees because there are few alternatives to the car. Because we cannot offer the working classes effective mass transit in most places in the United States, we cannot make driving a middle-class luxury, as it remains in Europe. And because we are denied the revenues from higher gas taxes, we cannot build mass transit.
Our transportation dilemma is emblematic of larger problems. Though we are approaching the limits of what is politically possible to extract via other tax instruments, we cannot shift to consumption taxes. Since wages at the bottom of the scale are low and our social benefits paltry, we must find other ways of channeling resources to the poor. The first demand to our tax system is therefore that it should be Hippocratic: above all, do no harm. America is increasingly divided into those who pay no direct taxes and those who pay the lion’s share. In Europe, where more citizens both pay and receive, the political battle lines are less clearly etched.
merica was once exceptional, but it is no longer. In the 19th century, for example, we were the copyright rogues of the world. Denying foreign authors rights to their works, we reprinted them cheaply and spread them widely to improve our literacy and educational levels. At Hollywood’s behest, we are today the world’s copyright policemen. We prevent the Indians from producing generic drugs, slap adolescent downloaders with massive fines and shut down Google’s attempts to digitize the world’s books.
The same holds for many other policies. For better or worse, we belong to the developed world and have to play by its rules. The Republicans lost in 2012 not only because they moved to the fringes of domestic politics, but also because they are out of touch with global realities. They seek to position America as a stark outlier in a world where in fact we increasingly fit in. With the exception of integrating foreigners, where we can be justly proud of our record, we are ever more like other developed nations. The well-worn Venus/Mars bit about how different we and the Europeans are was never really true, and these days it’s less so than ever. In those fields where we remain exceptional we should ask ourselves whether we like the company we keep: South Africa and Colombia for our murder rate, China for the death penalty, and towering over even Russia for our levels of imprisonment. Like everyone, Americans enjoy feeling unusual, but not all distinctions are created equal. After all, it’s one thing to achieve genuine greatness, but another to be just a freak.
1Hotson, “Don’t Look to the Ivy League”, Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 2011.
2See Jo Blanden et al., “Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America”, Centre for Economic Performance, Sutton Trust (April 2005).