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Why Aren’t We No. 1?

Most such rankings rely on statistics that rarely weigh in factors that non-elites take for granted as part of the good life. How about the number of cars a family household on average owns, the relative percentage of the household budget spent on food, the price of gas that allows them mobility, the average square footage of living space, or the number of electronic appurtenances that make life easier and enjoyable, such as microwaves or televisions? In all such categories, the United States ranks at or among the top nations in the world. I suppose those in Manhattan or at Harvard would not interpret the fact that a poor Mexican illegal immigrant can buy a used Yukon relatively cheaply and fuel it with $3.50 gallon gasoline as progress. But in terms of global assessment, he still has a safer, roomier, and cheaper automobile experience than the French or Italian driver of a tiny European Fiat that requires $9 a gallon fuel.

Nor do such pessimistic assessments consider intangibles such as global politics. Globalization itself is a product of U.S. innovation and technology and the U.S. military. The latter not only subsidizes the safety of the European Union and many of China’s immediate neighbors, but also generally has kept the Western world safe and the global sea-lanes and methods of commerce and communication free from disruption. That was not cheap, which is why the European Union, for all its advocacy, does not attempt it. If Russia goes into Estonia, it will not be the Dutch or Danish army that is called upon to ask Putin to leave.

The U.S. not only created the landscape that allowed, for example, a South Korea, Japan, or Germany to thrive over the last 70 years without substantial military investments, but presently allows such countries -- among them also Australia, Canada, Taiwan, and much of Europe itself -- not to worry about developing a nuclear deterrent and the costly and risky politics which that entails. Should we retreat from the world stage, in the next twenty years, then we might appreciate differences in the “social progress index” of a Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan, or for that matter a Germany or Iceland that will have to vastly increase defense expenditures to survive.

Homogenous South Korean eighth graders may test higher in math than do Americans, but then again Americans are not looking up to the skies to see whether a North Korean artillery shell or gas-laden missile is on its way down. Is there a global “security anxiety” index? Nor are there thousands of South Koreans posted on our shores to protect us from belligerent neighbors.

Speaking of social progress, the United States lets in the largest number of legal and illegal immigrants in the world. Currently 45 million or more residents were not born in the U.S. -- a number four times larger than any other nation. Ethnic, religious, and cultural homogeneity promotes some of the values (such as Internet access) that social progress indices usually value.

Yet in my hometown, which has been overwhelmed by illegal immigration over the last two decades, I can see why recent arrivals from Oaxaca have some difficulty in getting online free at the local Starbucks. The problem is not that they do not have cell phones with Internet service or that Starbucks and other franchises don’t offer free Internet services, but that the language, past experience, and culture of central Mexico are not quite the same as those in the United States.  Speaking Mixtecan languages and not being able to read Spanish in an English-speaking country makes it hard to surf the net.