In some areas the United States may truly be exceptional. But our health care and criminal justice systems suck, big time. We should learn from other countries who do a much better job keeping their citizens healthy and safe.
In health care, we spend twice as much as other industrialized nations, yet our health status indicators are below average and forty or fifty million Americans are uninsured. Crazy.
The Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction. A single payer health care system, a.k.a. Medicare for All, would be a leap in the right direction.
Our criminal justice system doesn't get as much media and political air time, but it should. Fareed Zakaria helps bring our attention to our equally crazy incarceration rate in his column in this week's TIME magazine, "Incarceration Nation."
Here's some excerpts which point out that the United States prison system has way too many people locked up, and some reasons why this is.
"Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today," writes the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik. "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America--more than 6 million--than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."
Is this hyperbole? Here are the facts. The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That's not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain--with a rate among the highest--has 153.
Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show, The 700 Club, "We here in America make up 5% of the world's population but we make up 25% of the [world's] jailed prisoners."
...This wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.'s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.
That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America's federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.
...Bipartisan forces have created the trend that we see. Conservatives and liberals love to sound tough on crime, and both sides agreed in the 1990s to a wide range of new federal infractions, many of them carrying mandatory sentences for time in state or federal prison.
And as always in American politics, there is the money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.