During last fall’s election season and January’s inauguration events, flag waving was, understandably, a popular activity. Our collective pride in “the greatest nation in the world” was heartfelt, to be sure, but flirted with thoughtless sloganeering. The president’s State of the Union address offered a time for reflection on our nation’s priorities and, for those of us preparing for the world outside, on how we can best make an impact.
Having grown up with a steady ear to current events, I’m weary of the empty rhetoric of American exceptionalism espoused by our leaders and endorsed by the public. Blind repetition does not make it true. A few statistics: Our health care system, though it may improve with Obamacare, is ranked 37th in the world. We rank 10th in the industrialized world in social mobility; it has become harder than ever to climb the income ladder, rendering the American Dream, well, just a dream. Our sputtering education system now ranks 17th in the world. We incarcerate far more citizens than any other country. And finally, a recent poll showed that the American people are only the 33rd happiest people in the world.
It’s time we commit to leading by example and acknowledge our imperfections. It’s time we stop talking like patriots and actually act like them. No longer reflecting our people’s aspirations for equality and opportunity, for community and liberty, American exceptionalism has morphed into an offensive slogan that ill becomes us; it reflects an arrogance that prevents us from acknowledging our pitfalls and being willing to learn from other countries.
Consider health care: Settling for our complex and overlapping system, we refuse to adopt key measures broadly practiced in advanced countries. Our for-profit medical insurance system, the only in the world, is largely responsible for our staggering and unparalleled administrative costs. It embraces misaligned incentives, whereby insurers, beholden to their investors’ dividends, seek profits at the expense of patients’ claims. Conversely, the objective of non-profit insurance providers (private or public) is preventive care in order to keep patients healthy for life. Britain’s notorious “cradle-to-grave” government insurance serves solely to keep its citizens healthy and out of the hospital, successfully aligning financial incentives with health outcomes. In America, our superfluous for-profit insurers have little incentive for ensuring long-term health, as the average subscriber lasts roughly six years on one insurance plan before switching to another.
Unlike America, advanced nations minimize the cost of care by maximizing bargaining clout. Even in nations with more privatized health care (e.g. France, Japan, Switzerland, Germany), the government, or the heavily-regulated insurance industry, negotiates costs with providers, effectually acting as the much maligned “single payer.” This imperative cost-control mechanism is one that American health reform does not grasp; in fact, the opposite was incorporated into Medicare in 2004, when the Bush Administration – corrupted by Big Pharma – outlawed the negotiation of drug prices, sending them to unnecessary new heights.
Most widespread, however, is the proud, moral decision made by all industrialized nations except ours: When a citizen falls ill, irrespective of wealth, he is treated with the same care as the next guy. When a worker with insurance through his employer is fired, his fellow citizens cover the tab while he searches for a new job. With an estimated 23 million people still uninsured even after universal health care – due in large part to political gamesmanship of conservative governors rejecting the Medicaid expansion – Americans cannot say the same.
Consider, as well, our nation’s outlook on education. While higher-ranked countries vary in educational style, certain themes permeate them all: a respect for teaching and a deep belief in the values of education. As a graduate of a public high school, I am indebted to the teachers, mentors and coaches who taught and inspired me. I also will never forget the overflowing classes that have continued to swell in size since my departure. If our schools are to be exceptional, they must have the resources to provide excellent teaching and guidance for all students. Academic success must not hinge on a student’s support at home. We need to invest, socially and financially, to renew our once robust public education system – buttressed by respect and prestige for our teachers – in pursuit of true equal opportunity. Academic achievement must no longer be predictable by race and parental income.
Here at Williams, when recruiters from banks and certain consulting firms arrive on campus, the immediate earning potential is surely seductive for all of us. Yet would we be ultimately satisfied with such a career path when we know that public service so desperately needs us? Does society benefit when those of us seeking degrees in law or medicine do so for the salary and not the service? Our consistently high magazine rankings ostensibly make us among the brightest students in the nation. Yes, we are incredibly privileged, however humble our beginnings. Our education allows us to find work not just for a paycheck, but for true satisfaction. That is, we can combine our intellectual passions with our duty to serve those who weren’t taught or given what we were. Simply, it’s our responsibility.
The greatest country ever? Who knows. Instead of pontificating, we must lead by example. Our generation should ditch the slogan of “American exceptionalism,” which masquerades as true patriotism and concern ourselves with the grave domestic challenges that we face. Let’s get to work.
Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 is a political science and biology major from Eugene, Ore. He lives in West.