Do the Facts Lie?

Prophet Muhammad said, “He is not one of us who proclaims the cause of tribal partisanship” When asked, what is “tribal partisanship,” he an-swered, “[It means] your helping your own people in an unjust cause.” [1]

“I choose to live in what I think is the greatest country in the world, which is committing horrendous terrorist acts and should stop.” Noam Chomsky [2]

Interviewer to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have heard that a half a million children have died [because of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And–you know, is the price worth it?” Secretary Albright answered: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” [3]

On March 21, 2003, as I headed home, a day after the United States formally invaded Iraq, I ran into a colleague from Northeastern University–a professor of the humanities–at the Ruggles train station in Boston. I was aware of his political inclinations, and he of mine, from previous encounters. Still, I thought we were on friendly terms.

“I bet you oppose the war,” he greeted me, as I approached him.

“Not at all,” I shot back, ” I wish to see Iraq liberated as much as you.”

Although, it was only the second day of the war, and the bombs and missiles were accurately on target, it appeared that the tension leading up to the war had taken their toll on our colleague’s nerve. He snapped at my banter. Agitated, he began to poke his finger in my face, while lecturing me about how “thankful” I should be about living in “the world’s greatest country ever.” Luckily, my train arrived on time–for which I am thankful–saving me from an unhinged patriot’s harangue.

This was not my first encounter with the overzealous patriotism that often dominates political discourse in the United States; and not only among members of the zany right. All too often, politicians rally their audience with inflated claims of American greatness. The United States is “the greatest country in the world.” At other times, it is “the greatest country ever,” “the greatest country ever conceived,” or “the greatest country in the history of mankind.” When the exuberance soars, America also “kicks ass!”

Nearly as often, one hears of the United States as the great Samaritan: second to none at ‘civilizing’ half-breed races. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the United States is the “the last best hope of mankind,” no less. More frequently, it is “the shining beacon on the hill.” Recently, John Kerry, Democratic Presidential candidate, roused students at UCLA, “I believe we can bring a real victory in the War on Terror. I believe we must, not only for ourselves but for all who look to America as the last best hope of earth.” I have to wonder if the Vietnamese civilians killed by Kerry and his crew also looked upon them as “the last best hope of earth.” [4]

Judging from results from polls, quite a few Americans are persuaded by this rhetoric of American greatness and munificence; though my colleague from Northeastern would go into a fit over their ‘fewness.’ In 1955, according to a Gallup Survey, 66 percent Americans polled believed that “The United States is the greatest country in the world, better than all other countries in every possible way (emphasis added).” In 1991, mercifully, this percentage had declined to 37 percent; five years later, it held steady at 37 percent. (This looks like the proportion of steady Republicans in this country.) But there is a fly in the ointment. In response to a slightly altered question, 55 percent Americans agree that “the United States is the greatest country in the world, better than all others.” On the worse reading, then, a clear majority of Americans still subscribe to the thesis of American uniqueness; though that majority is down to 55 percent from 66 percent. Shall we take comfort from this decline in the proportion of hyper-patriots in the US since 1955? [5]

In the absence of polls on the issue, I will report results from my own unrepresentative annual surveys on America’s civilizing mission. For several years, I have passed out a questionnaire to assess my students’ preparation for my undergraduate courses in Development Economics and the Global Economy. One perennial question I ask is about US ‘foreign aid.’ What percentage of its gross domestic product does the United States annually allocate as foreign aid to Third World countries? I offer my students five choices: (A) One-tenth of one percent, (B) One percent, (C) Five percent, (D) Ten percent, and (E) Twenty-five percent. Incredibly, about half the class chooses C, and most of the remaining half pick D and E. Two or three ‘unpatriotic’ students in each class pick A or B. The correct answer is A. Perhaps, my students think it proper and patriotic to pick a percentage that makes their country look generous.

In a sense, this talk of national greatness is unsurprising. It is the sta-ple of a world organized–as it has been these last few hundred years–into nation states that must compete to survive and stay ahead of the pack. They compete economically, politically and militarily. Often, this competition requires sacrifices–of rights, of leisure, of safety, of lives. The ideological weapon in this competition is nationalism–creating pride and unity grounded in claims of national greatness, and matched by an equal contempt for the low or lower standing of other nations.

Perhaps the United States is distinct because of the intensity of its nationalist claims. The standard political rhetoric maintains that the US is the “greatest in the world,” “the greatest ever,” or “the greatest in the history of mankind.” It stands at the top of the food chain. Some older nations–that have survived many cycles of history–might think this strange. Are these upstarts trying to compensate for their late arrival on history’s stage? Arguably, older nations have the self-assurance of a long and often distinguished history behind them and, therefore, do not feel compelled to stake out exaggerated claims of national greatness. But there is more to it.

Nationalism is for the most part a modern phenomenon, a product of the competition between the new nation states operating in a capitalist world economy. In this competition, success and nationalist obsessions work in tandem. A nation fired with its own greatness is more willing to endure greater sacrifices; conversely, it is also more willing to inflict pain on Others. In the case of the United States, there was no shortage of successes–economic, technological and military–to fuel notions of national greatness. As these successes grew, the American establishment found it convenient to ratchet claims of American greatness. Most likely, by the turn of the twentieth century, if not before, the United States was declared to be unique among nations: the greatest country ever, populated by the noblest breed of humans, the instrument of God, and the greatest civilizing force on earth. Today, no Congressman can disavow American uniqueness and survive an election.

I could explore the sinister objectives served by these visions of American uniqueness–how corporate capital has used it to rally Americans behind imperialist wars, to incite fears of white America against Americans of color (and, hence, divide America’s working poor), or to dupe American workers into surrendering their rights to corporate capital. Since all this has been done before, I will attempt something a bit pedantic, but I hope still useful. I will examine whether the United States is indeed “the greatest country in the world, better than all other countries in every possible way?” I suspect this is a thankless task, but my work will be amply rewarded if it deflates even a little some of the illusions of American grandeur.

By the most widely accepted criterion, America’s economic lead looks quite secure. Measured in terms of dollars with comparable purchasing power, the US had a per capita income of $35,080 in 2002, one of the highest in the world. Only two other countries had higher per capita incomes; Luxembourg at $51,060 and Norway at $37,850. But these are small countries, with 444,000 and 5 million people respectively; and the per capita income of the richest 444,000 or 5 million Americans would easily exceed the per capita income of Luxembourg and Norway respectively. In other words, Americans can take just pride in their country’s economic preeminence: the United States is the world’s richest country.

The United States also commands the world’s largest economy, though only by a narrow margin. Measured in terms of dollars with comparable purchasing power, the US gross national income adds up to $10,110 billion, a little more than a fifth of the global income. The European Union comes a very close second with a combined gross national income of $9,520 billion. With its rapidly expanding membership, the European Union may soon outpace the US as the world’s largest economy. China places third in the world league of major economies, with a gross national income of $5,807 billion. At its present stellar growth rate, China could outstrip both the US and the European Union within two decades if not sooner. [6]

Surely the US lead in technological capacity must be larger and more secure. In its 2001 Report, the UNDP published for the first time a Technology Achievement Index (TAI) “which aims to capture how well a country is creating and diffusing technology and building a human skill base–reflecting capacity to participate in the technological innovations of the network age. This composite index measures achievements, not potential, efforts or inputs.” According to this measure, the US ranks second–with a TAI value of 0.733–finishing behind Finland with a TAI of 0.744. Perhaps this makes Finland a threat to America’s national security; no country that lags in technology can lead the world for long. Conceivably, the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly might urge President Bush do something about it. After all, Finland is a small country; knocking down its TAI a few places will be much less of a challenge than occupying Iraq. [7]

Perhaps the United States might regain the lead when judged against indicators of technological effort, such as R&D spending as percentage of a country’s GDP, or R&D personnel per million in the country. However, this only makes matters worse. On the first measure, the United States ranks seventh, behind Togo, Sweden, Israel, Japan, Korea and Switzerland. (Yes, I too am wondering about Togo.) On the second criterion, the United States improves its rank to fourth place, still lagging behind Iceland, Japan and Sweden. [8] (Now what does Iceland do with all those scientists?)

In a last ditch effort, to salvage America’s position, I decided to extend the technology comparisons to three indicators of educational performance. But this only produced more disappointments. Judged in terms of school life expectancy (the number of years a child is expected to spend in the educational system), the US ranked fifteenth in the late 1990s. In mathematical literacy for fifteen year olds, it ranked eighteenth out of 27 countries. It’s performance was only marginally better in scientific literacy, moving up to the fourteenth place in the same group of countries.[9]

The United States commands the largest lead where it matters most–in military power. At $396.1 billion in fiscal year 2003, US military spending exceeds the combined military budget of the next twenty countries. In 2002, the US outspent the seven “rogue” states (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba) by a factor of thirty-seven. [10] With Iraq under occupation since April 2003, and Libya air-freighting the components of its would-be WMDs to the United States, the ratio by which the US outspends the remaining “rogue” states must have risen still higher. Given these gaps in destructive capabilities, the United States should feel safer than any empire in recent memory. So why doesn’t it?

In personal freedom, most Americans confidently place their country at the top. In a Gallup Poll taken in August 1995, Americans were asked, “how far up or down on a 10-point scale [10 being highest] would you rate each of the following nations in terms of the individual freedom granted to its citizens?” The US came out first, with 74 percent of the respondents giving it a ‘high’ rating (10-9-8). Canada and Britain ranked a distant second and third, with only 63 and 46 percent giving it a ‘high’ rating. [11]

Experts view the freedom rankings a bit differently. The Freedom House, a conservative organization based in New York, publishes an annual report, Freedom in the World, that relies on opinions of experts to rank countries by various indicators of freedom. According to their index of civil and political liberties compiled for 2000-2001, the United States received the highest score of six (on a scale of one to seven), but this was an honor that it shared with fourteen other countries, including Portugal and Uruguay. Britain ranked 34th, well after Poland and Panama. Israel, the world’s most touted ‘democracy,’ ranked 41st, after Bolivia and Benin. [12]

Is the United States the world leader, then, in press freedom? That too is misconception. In October 2003, Reporters Without Borders published its Second World Press Freedom Ranking; compiled from a questionnaire with “53 criteria for assessing the state of press freedom in each country.” The United States ranked 32nd, behind Hungary, Jamaica, Benin and East Timor. To make matters worse, American-occupied Iraq, only recently ‘liberated’ from the grip of a tyrant, ranked 135th. There is one consolation: US-occupied Iraq is ahead of Saudi Arabia, our closest ally in the Islamicate world. [13]

In many situations, it may be useful to look upon the rates of incarceration as an important indicator of un-freedom and racism in a country. For many years, USSR, ‘the Evil Empire,” led the world in this field with its Siberian gulags. More recently, the United States has taken the lead with the highest rate of incarceration per capita: 6.41 per thousand in 1999. Russia, the successor to USSR, remains in hot contest, with an incarceration rate of 6.37 per thousand. [14] If we add the prisoners the Bush-Ashcroft regime has taken recently under the Patriot Act inside the United States, those held in Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those captured at our behest (under ‘extraordinary rendition’) by torture-friendly regimes, our leading position looks quite secure. The racial composition of those incarcerated tell their own story. Consider the percentage shares, in the table below, of African-Americans in the prison and total populations of four US states in 1996. This disproportion is common to many states. [15]

Table One
Share of African-Americans in State Prisons


M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at