American Exceptionalism

Although there are many (too many to list) superb categories in which the United States is undeniably “exceptional,” there are several important categories where we lag behind the world.

By “lag behind,” we don’t mean the U.S. simply falls a bit short of the leaders; we mean the U.S. is not even on the same page.  And by “the world,” we’re not referring to countries like Sweden, Norway, Germany and Switzerland; we’re referring to places like Latvia, Estonia, Guatemala, Honduras, Pakistan and Haiti.

Dr. Jody Heymann is director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, chairwoman of the Project on Global Working Families, and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. Recently, Dr. Heymann and her team put together some statistics comparing America with the rest of the world.  Among their findings:

177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers; the U.S. does not.

74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers; the U.S. does not.

132 nations guarantee breastfeeding breaks at work; the U.S. does not.

163 nations guarantee paid sick leave; the U.S. does not.

48 nations guarantee paid time off to care for children’s health; the U.S. does not.

41 nations provide leave that can be used for child education needs; the U.S. does not.

33 nations provide paid leave to care for adult family members; the U.S. does not

Clearly, while the overwhelming majority of the world believes that it’s the government’s responsibility and duty to address certain universal phenomena?education, birth, sickness, death?the United States takes a different view.  No matter how universal or inevitable the phenomenon, we consider the government’s involvement to be, at best, an unnecessary intrusion, and at worse, a form of socialism.

It’s been said that in the U.S., anything that has a “value” can also be assumed to have a “price.”  Put another way, anything that can, in theory, be sold for a profit is considered to be automatically for sale, which illustrates our unshakeable confidence and faith in the virtues of commerce, and helps explain how we got in the fix we’re in.

Not to be coarse or frivolous, but to take the premise to its logical conclusion, it was this impulse that led to pay toilets at the airport.  It’s true.  If there was going to be a way to make money off something as biologically imperative as a bowel movement, it was going to be an enterprising American who found it.

Arguably, the only free universal program the U.S. has ever had was public education.  And while the public school system was once a source of enormous national pride, it is today under attack by privatization hounds dedicated to demonizing and exploiting it with skewed statistics and trumped-up arguments.  Seeing private and charter schools as the potential cash cow of the future, they’ve set their sights on jettisoning public education.

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A note on the aftermath of that Upper Big Branch (West Virginia) coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners last April.  Despite all the platitudes and somber promises that immediately followed the deaths, pro-business Republicans were successful in halting passage of any meaningful mine safety regulations.

Even though Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had 505 safety violations in 2009, the U.S. Congress let them off the hook, rejecting measures that would have made mining significantly safer.  The NAM (National Association of Manufacturers), a powerful business lobby, told the legislators that bolstering safety standards would raise the price of coal?.and that was that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at