I’m not German, but I do spend a lot of time there (I’ll be there next week, in fact). I think it’s safe to say that German culture is pretty rational. If you’re going to succeed, you’ll need to be systematic and provide some hard facts. I’ve brought some together for you.
First, we need to establish what exactly we mean by “best”, otherwise we don’t know what data to provide. As I see it, our idea as Americans has tended to be that we’re the richest, most powerful, freest country in the world, the place where it’s best to live. So let’s focus there.
Let’s get right to it: we’re the richest. The United States has the highest GNP at over $20 trillion. China is second.
However, that might not be the best to lead with, because it’s more a question of GDP per capita. Unfortunately, the USA is only 20th by that measure. The top country is Liechtenstein. In fact, even Ireland is higher.
But then, it’s not just about wealth, it’s about the ability to better your situation. The United States was always about the “Cinderella story”, the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This is known as social mobility, and obviously the United States is tops in that, right?
’Fraid not. In fact, it comes out as 16th, after Argentina. Most of Europe, including the “socialist” Scandinavian countries provide better environments for “making it from nothing”.
But certainly, it’s not just that, it’s also about not being poor. So let’s consider the percent of people living in poverty. Unfortunately, the USA comes in at 42nd, right below Morocco.
But there’s freedom. The USA is definitely number one in freedom! Except that it isn’t. According to the Cato institute it comes in at 17th, which is all the same one better than Albania. Ah, but there’s the United States’ vaunted economic freedom. The USA doesn’t regulate companies to death like so many other nations. Well, there it comes in at 11th, tied with Canada, and behind most other English speaking nations (UK, Ireland, New Zealand).
But we’re healthy! We have access to the world’s best healthcare, right? Actually, the USA lags in just about every health indicator, including life expectancy (45th), where once again, we are just ahead of Albania, who we absolutely trounce when it comes to infant mortality… although we do only rank 56th, well behind pretty much all of Europe (and of course Cuba, which beats the US in most health measures).
But we can of course be proud of our history. The United States made the greatest sacrifice at the beginning of the 20th century and saved the world from tyranny in the second world war. 420,000 Americans gave their lives in that war. Their valor will honestly never be forgotten. It must, however, be put into context… the USSR lost between 20 and 27 million people in that war, China lost 15 to 20 million. In fact, among the allied nations, the United States came in 12th in casualties. Both the UK and France lost more people, and of course much higher percentages of their populations.
OK, but happiness. Down to earth happiness: where is the best place to live? Turns out it’s Finland. The United States comes in 18th.
There is one measure, though, that the United States definitely leads every single other country by: guns per capita. 1.01 guns per inhabitant. The number two country, Serbia, doesn’t come close, with only 0.58. So, if your German friend is really into guns then that might sway him.
Or, you can perhaps just understand that the United States is a great country for people who like American culture. Some people would only feel comfortable there, nowhere else. Most people who were not raised there, though, would find very few objective measures by which the country is better than theirs, assuming they come from the developed world, therefore by definition it can not be “the greatest country” by any objective measure.
I would point out that pretty much every one of those measures shows the much derided, “socialist” Scandinavian countries outperforming the United States. Interestingly, Ireland does as well. So if you happen to be of Irish or Scandinavian descent, maybe you can take solace in that.
So, after about twelve hours up, this has received many comments and views, and a couple of things were pointed out, so I thought I’d add an addendum.
First, thank you to all the people who seem to have appreciated the post. I have in the past received rather scathing comments on a number of posts and support is always appreciated.
For those who stated that I cherry-picked, all I can say is that as a researcher I try very hard not to do that. I was aware of many of these stats before I looked for them, but I tried as hard as possible to find unobjectionable sources (the CIA is in there for many) and I always post the first, best source regardless of whether it is in line with my pre-established ideas. Perhaps the most contentious stat was people below the poverty line because yes, it is relative, but frankly, I’ve travelled to over sixty countries and it is very true that you can live a hell of a lot better on ten dollars a day in Cameroon than in Switzerland, that’s why I took that measure. If, though, you want to look at percent of the population living with less than $5.50 a day then the United States still comes out at 20th, behind pretty much all of Western Europe, Australia, etc.
A number of people pointed out that I didn’t say anything about safety, and that was an oversight. The United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other country save one, the Seychelles. The USA has 666 people per 100,000 in prison, the next highest country, El Salvador, has only 586. As for the Seychelles, it’s not really that the country is all that keen on throwing its citizens in prison, it’s just that it’s a tiny country with a slew of Somali pirates in jail, since it’s the closest lawful country to where they tend to be captured, so the USA is pretty much alone in its incredible enthusiasm for jailing its citizens (typically on relatively minor drug charges). In comparison, France, where I live, has about 100 prisoners per 100,000 in people.
In terms of safety, the United States is far more violent than many other nations. The intentional homicide rate in the United States places it 99 out of 194 countries, once again, just edging out Albania! And, of course, every nation in Western Europe has much lower homicide rates.
As for those who pointed out that despite all that, it’s still the greatest country because “there aren’t long lines of people trying to get into Germany”…. well, nope. In fact, there are. It’s hard to get immigration figures, but asylum seekers are logged. Germany actually has more people asking for asylum than does the United States, many more, over 722,000 compared to 262,000. In fact, if you adjust for population, the United States comes in at 12th in terms of the most sought-after destination (i.e. asylum seekers per population) after Germany, Austria, Greece, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, France, Australia, the Netherlands, and Turkey, and just in front of Canada. In case you’re tempted to say this is because of Trump’s restrictions I’m afraid not, these are 2016 data, before he became president.
Lastly, please keep in mind that I’m not saying the USA is a bad place. I love my home country, but this quasi-religious need to consider it superior to everyplace else, even for someone who is not from the States (as implied by the OP) is unique to the United States. Really, I’ve spent my life travelling, I’ve been to well over sixty countries (I kind of lost count) and have worked in many… even created companies in at least six or seven – the United States is unique in its citizens having this need to consider the country objectively superior. The only two objective things you can say that make it “superior”, though, is that it has the largest absolute GDP and the most powerful military. However, I’m sure you wouldn’t say that the most worthy person in school is the strongest and richest of the lot. If you as an individual think it’s best for you, then great, I have no issue with that at all, but don’t think that it’s some kind of objective nirvana that every other country should emulate.
The facts aren’t with you.
Edit number two:
A gajillion views later and a lot of comments and I’d like to add one more thing…
A number of people have pointed out that the United States has the best universities. There are excellent schools in the United States, truly world-class. However, this comparison is a little difficult to make. For example, I have an undergraduate degree from an American university and two graduate degrees from Europe. The two systems are not comparable. When an American thinks “university” he or she thinks about applying to colleges, as well as the research carried out there. Many European systems are subtly (or not so subtly) different. For example, I teach part-time at the Sorbonne (and have a master’s degree from the school). Americans think “the Sorbonne is a great school” but in reality, it’s just a building, broadly shared by some of the many parts of the University of Paris (Paris I and Paris III really). Also, research is largely carried out outside of a strict university setting, particularly on the continent, where universities per se are more focused on teaching.
Anyway, to try to look at this, I thought I’d consider overall country rankings in terms of research, as well as institutional rankings. To do that I turned to the universally respected scientific journal “Nature”, which comes out with a rating known as the “Weighted Fractional Count” (WFC) to determine academic output. Researchers tend to measure success by how much they are published and cited in peer-reviewed journals, and the WFC is a measure of that.
Nature publishes a country and an institutional comparison of WFC. The United States indeed is number one in WFC, followed by China. For those who look at “greatness” as absolutes, then like GNP / GDP the USA is therefore on top. However, in terms of the greatness of a system I think this should be weighted for population to get an idea of innovativeness. After all, China is number two and it’s largely (to be frank) because there are so many Chinese. The Chinese system is not particularly conducive to scientific research (for the moment). As such, I looked at WFC as compared to population. In that case, the United States comes out number 4, after Switzerland, Singapore and Israel, and pretty much equal to the next four countries: Sweden, Denmark, the UK and Germany. Note that these are excellent results… but they do not support an idea of American exceptionalism.
In terms of institutions, here is the WFC list straight from Nature, of the top 10 in the world:
- Chinese academy of Sciences: 1366
- Harvard University: 774
- French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS): 702
- Max Planck Society (Germany): 657
- Stanford University: 537
- The University of Tokyo: 488
- MIT: 483
- Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres: 426
- University of Oxford (UK): 397
- University of Cambridge (UK): 395
Great, there are three American institutions in the top ten. That’s something to be proud of. It’s not dominant.
In order to double check this (and I promise I had no idea what I’d find before I did the analysis) and to make things a little simpler, I looked for pure number of citable papers. I found the Scimago journal article counts. Once again, the USA comes out on top. I then, again, looked at this as a function of population. The United States fares far worse in this case, coming in at 16 (behind, in order, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Australia, the UK, Belgium, Singapore, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Austria, Ireland and Germany).
I have enormous respect for American academic institutions, but I also have enormous respect for non-American academic institutions (and I’d point out that on top of my degree from the University of Paris, my MBA from INSEAD wasn’t bad either: until last year the school was cited by the FT for a number of years in a row as the best business school in the world – having been edged into number two by Stanford last year).
Oh, and by the way, my dear, sensitive, Irish friends: I honestly meant no disrespect in expressing any sort of surprise at Ireland’s very positive measures. However, if you’re still ruffled then I’ll post something next time I’m going to Dublin and I’ll take you all out for a Guinness at John Kehoe’s.
One very last edit, definitely too long to read…
Over the last few months, since it was posted, this answer has received unexpected attention. One of the remaining points that has perhaps received the greatest criticism was my paragraph about the second world war.
Many people have pointed out, and rightly so, that casualties do not victory bring. My point, though – and please remember this, it is quite clear if you read my words – was not that the American contribution to the war was negligible, but that Americans underestimate the sacrifices of others. I’d point out that my grandfather, who was my hero throughout my life, fought with the 26th infantry division in Europe and was wounded in January ’45 near Saareguemines.
However, let’s take a look all the same at the relative impact of the United States on the war in Europe.
For many Russians, the second world war was their conflict and the impact of the Western allies was negligible. While my comparison of casualty figures supports that view, as one commenter pointed out, Patton was right (when he said “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country”). So what were the causes of German military deaths?
Many sources have calculated that roughly 80% of German military casualties were inflicted by the Soviets, and I think this is a pretty safe figure. The Western allies were undoubtedly responsible for a much higher proportion of civilian casualties, due to the strategic bombing campaign, but I am thoroughly unconvinced of the impact of these civilian casualties and I doubt that even my detractors would make an argument for American greatness by pointing out that we killed more women and children. Of the remaining 20% of German military casualties that occurred outside of the Eastern front, these include all the battles before June, 1941, as well as losses in the Balkans and North Africa pre-Torch, in which the United States played no role. According to OKW numbers, Western front casualties from these campaigns in which the United States was not present represent roughly half of German killed and wounded in the West. Therefore the United States was present and contributing directly to casualties for only 10% of German casualties (i.e. North Africa post-Torch, Italy, and Western Europe post Overlord). If American forces were responsible for half of all casualties during those campaigns, a rather high estimate, then the United States produced 5% of German military casualties, compared to 80% for the Soviets.
What then, of the impact of the strategic bombing campaigns, and of lend-lease?
I’m not going to hazard a guess about the impact of strategic bombing. I’ve been an avid student of military history all my life and I have read a great many diametrically opposed views about the impact of the British and American bombing campaigns, ranging from “they won the war” to “they were utterly pointless”. It’s a fascinating topic that is far too broad to be addressed here, and I’m going to throw my hands in the air and say I don’t know. If you can demonstrate that daylight bombing was the single greatest contributor to victory then yes, the United States defeated Germany, but that will be extremely hard to demonstrate.
As for lend-lease, yes, it had an important impact. It is impossible to say what would have happened without it, but I would point out that lend-lease shipments to the Soviets began relatively late and had virtually no impact in 1941. The Russians stopped the German assault on Moscow entirely on their own. As of mid-1942, shipments were substantial, particularly of industrial goods and much-needed food, and amounted to 4% to 7% of Soviet production for 1943 and 1944. This is enormous, but no one will ever be able to say that what would have happened without it. Note as well that the Soviets themselves were well aware of the fact that the actual weapons they received, whether tanks or aircraft, were obsolete and inferior in quality to their own weapons (such as the T-34 and the Yak-3), but they were very welcome all the same. Lastly, remember too that before the entry of the United States into the war, lend-lease goods were paid for, notably the exchange of British bases for obsolete destroyers.
Once again, I am in no way trying to denigrate the effort of the United States in the war, nor by any means deny its impact and most certainly not question the nobility of the cause or the bravery of the soldiers, including my grandfather. I never said anything like that. I’m simply trying to put things in a bit of context. When I was growing up, I was pretty much taught that the second world war was won by the United States and this deserves to be seen in the context of the efforts of other nations.
Sources for this bit…
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