America is exceptional and ordinary, good and bad, better and worse

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
June 2020

American exceptionalism is one of our country’s most cherished notions.1 There is considerable truth in it: we are different in a number of respects from the world’s other rich longstanding-democratic nations, a group that includes Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, (South) Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. At the same time, there are a host of ways in which we’re quite ordinary.2

To some, “exceptional” doesn’t just mean different; it means best. To others it means worst. As we’ll see, America is both.

Social scientists and journalists often emphasize our problems and shortfalls. That’s helpful, because it spurs us to do better and (hopefully) helps us figure out how. But it can also give us the impression that things are getting worse. Sometimes that’s accurate, but in other instances it’s misleading. In fact, in many areas of life things have been improving and we could be doing better.

Here is a brief and partial introduction to the United States in comparative perspective. Though it barely scratches the surface, it will give you a sense of some of the ways in which the US is both different and similar, both wonderful and woeful, both better than it used to be and worse than it could be.

WE’RE THE BIGGEST

We have by far the largest population, as figure 1 shows. Along with Canada and Australia, we also have the largest land mass (not shown here).

Figure 1. Population
“m” = million. Data source: World Bank. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Our economy, too, is far and away the biggest, according to the standard measure — gross domestic product (GDP). Figure 2 shows this.

Figure 2. GDP
Gross domestic product. Adjusted for inflation and converted to US dollars using purchasing power parities. “tr” = trillion. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Sometimes big is good. Other times it’s not. No one will rejoice at the fact that, as we see in figure 3, the United States has the most obesity of any affluent nation.

Figure 3. Obesity
Adult obesity rate. Obesity is defined as body mass index greater than 30. “Measured” means the obesity estimate comes from actual measurements of people’s height and weight. “Self-reported” means the obesity estimate comes from surveys in which people report their height and weight to the interviewer. Data sources: OECD; NCHS. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE MUCH, MUCH RICHER THAN IN PRIOR CENTURIES

The extent of human progress over the past two centuries is astonishing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in patterns of economic growth. Economic historians have estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) per person back to the year AD 1 for France and back a few centuries or more for some other countries. For most of the past two thousand years — and by extension, for virtually all of human history — the quantity of goods and services we produced barely budged. Then, in the 1800s, nations such as the United States, Germany, France, and a handful of others stumbled upon an institutional framework featuring markets, government provision of property rights and public goods, and the scientific method. This configuration has proved conducive to rapid and sustained economic advance.

Figure 4. GDP per capita
Adjusted for inflation and converted to 2011 US dollars using purchasing power parities. “k” = thousand. The line that extends back to 1 AD is for France. The data begin in 1500 for Germany and in 1650 for the United States. Data source: Maddison Project Database 2018, rug.nl/ggdc.

WE’RE NEARLY THE RICHEST

Among the world’s affluent longstanding-democratic countries, the US ranks fourth in GDP per capita.

Figure 5. GDP per capita
Gross domestic product per person. Adjusted for inflation and converted to US dollars using purchasing power parities. “k” = thousand. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

OUR POOR AREN’T ESPECIALLY WELL-OFF

America’s affluence doesn’t trickle down to everyone in a straightforward fashion. As figure 6 shows, the income of US households on the lower part of the income ladder is below that of their counterparts in many comparator nations.

Figure 6. Tenth-percentile household income
Posttransfer-posttax household income. The incomes are adjusted for household size and then rescaled to reflect a three-person household, adjusted for inflation, and converted to US dollars using purchasing power parities. “k” = thousand. Data sources: Luxembourg Income Study; OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Income gives us only a partial picture of people’s standard of living. To get a more complete sense, we can ask people about their actual living conditions: Are they regularly unable to pay bills? Do they have holes in their walls or cracks in their windows that they’re unable to fix? Is their neighborhood unsafe? And so on. According to the best available data, a larger share of Americans suffer material hardship than is the case in most other affluent countries.

Figure 7. Material hardship rate
Average of the deprivation rates (share of households experiencing deprivation) in the following seven areas: inability to adequately heat home, constrained food choices, overcrowding, poor environmental conditions such as noise and pollution, arrears in payment of utility bills, arrears in mortgage or rent payment, difficulty in making ends meet. Measured in 2005. Data source: OECD, Growing Unequal?, 2008, pp. 186-188, using data from the Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) for European countries, the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA) for Australia, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) for the United States. Large dot: United States. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

OUR INCOMES ARE THE MOST UNEQUAL

So we’re a fabulously affluent country in which the poor aren’t particularly well-off. That suggests a high degree of income inequality. America is indeed quite unequal, as figure 8, which shows the share of household income that goes to the top 1%, makes clear.

Figure 8. Top 1%’s share of income
This is a measure of income inequality between the top 1% and the bottom 99%. Pretax income. Excludes capital gains. Data source: World Inequality Database. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE MUCH BETTER EDUCATED THAN WE USED TO BE

In the world’s rich democratic nations, educational attainment has been rising steadily for the past 150 years, as we see in figure 9. The United States was the first country to introduce universal public elementary school and then high school.

Figure 9. Education
Average years of schooling completed. Population aged 25 and over. Data source: Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Mean Years of Schooling,” Our World in Data, using data for 1870-1950 from Lee and Lee Long-Run Education Dataset, barrolee.com, data for 1950-1990 from the Barro and Lee data set, barrolee.com, and data for 1991ff from the United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

SOME COUNTRIES HAVE PASSED US IN COLLEGE COMPLETION

A generation ago, the United States had the highest rate of college completion among the world’s rich nations. But since then a number of other countries have caught up and passed us.

Figure 10. College completion
4 years college or more. Ages 25-34. Data sources: Census Bureau, “Years of School Completed by People 25 Years and Over, by Age and Sex,” using Current Population Survey (CPS) data; OECD, Education at a Glance 2015, table A1.3a, p. 41. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria. The lines are loess curves.

WE SPEND THE MOST ON HEALTH CARE, BUT WE’RE AMONG THE LEAST HEALTHY

America spends a lot of money on healthcare — far more, as a share of our GDP, than any other rich nation. Figure 11 shows this gap.

Figure 11. Health expenditures
Share of GDP. Includes public and private expenditures. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

Despite this massive spending, we don’t live very long relative to our counterparts abroad. In fact, life expectancy in the US is lowest among the affluent countries, as figure 12 indicates. Infant mortality data (not shown here) tell a similar story.

Figure 12. Life expectancy
Years of life expectancy at birth. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE PRIZE WORK, BUT ONLY A MODEST SHARE OF US ARE EMPLOYED

Employment is front and center in the American ethos. Yet fewer Americans are in paid work than in many other affluent nations.

Figure 13. Employment
Employed persons aged 25-64 as a share of the population aged 25-64. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE EXALT FAMILY, BUT COMPARATIVELY FEW AMERICAN CHILDREN GROW UP WITH TWO PARENTS

The share of American children living with both biological parents and the share living with two parents have each decreased by 15 to 20 percentage points since the mid-1960s. The US stands out — at the low end — among the rich democratic countries.

Figure 14. Children living with two parents and children living with both biological parents at age 16
The data points for children living with both biological parents are decade averages. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series family16; Census Bureau, “Living Arrangements of Children,” table CH-1; OECD Family Database.

OUR LABOR UNIONS ARE AMONG THE WEAKEST

Labor unions play a significant role in determining wage levels and wage growth in many of the world’s rich countries. In the United States, union membership peaked in the mid-1950s and has fallen steadily since. It has declined in most other rich democratic countries as well, but in the US unionization was comparatively low even at its peak, and that remains true today.

Figure 15. Unionization
Share of employees who are union members. Data sources for the United States: 1950-82 are from Richard B. Freeman, “Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes,” in The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Michael D. Bordo et al, University of Chicago Press, 1998, table 8A.2; 1983ff are from Bureau of Labor Statistics, data.bls.gov, series LUU0204899600, using Current Population Survey data. Data source for other nations: Jelle Visser, “ICTWSS: Database on Institutional Characteristics of Trade Unions, Wage Setting, State Intervention, and Social Pacts,” version 5.1, 2016, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies, series ud, ud_s. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE HAVE A MODERATELY FREE ECONOMY

Liberty is one of our core values. And yet, according to one measure, displayed in figure 16, our economy is fairly ordinary in the degree to which economic actors are free to choose.

Figure 16. Economic freedom
Average score for business freedom, labor freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom, and financial freedom. Each item is scored from 0 to 100. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: Heritage Foundation, heritage.org/index. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE THE BIRTHPLACE OF MODERN DEMOCRACY, BUT NOT MANY OF US VOTE

Our political system, like that of other affluent democracies, is a representative democracy. Though there is a role for direct democracy, in the form of state and local referendums, most important political decisions are made by elected representatives rather than by the citizenry. Compared to our counterparts in other affluent nations, relatively few Americans participate in electing those representatives.

Figure 17. Voter turnout
Share of eligible voters. Legislative elections. The solid line for the US is for presidential election years; the dashed line is for off-years. Data source: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, idea.int, series VAP turnout. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

OUR POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS ARE UNUSUAL

Beyond the fundamental similarity of representative democracy, the structure of America’s political institutions is relatively unusual.

  • The US is one of a small number of rich democracies in which the executive (president) is directly elected. In most other countries the executive (usually the prime minister) is the leader of the largest party in the parliament, and she or he has no formal lawmaking authority.
  • We have two legislative bodies (the House of Representatives and Senate) with equal power. Most others have just one house in parliament; and in those that have two bodies, one of the two is largely ceremonial.
  • Most other affluent democracies have a proportional representation electoral system: people vote for parties, and the share of seats each party gets in the legislature is proportional to their share of the votes. We have a winner-take-all system: people vote for individual candidates, and in each state or congressional district only the candidate with the most votes gets representation.
  • Private donations account for a much larger share of campaign finance in the United States than in other countries.
  • We have a more federalized system of government than most other rich nations: state and local governments have considerable decision-making power.

OUR GOVERNMENT TAXES AND SPENDS LESS THAN MOST

There are various ways to measure the size of government, but a common one is according to the share of the economy (the GDP) that passes through the government. By the standards of the world’s rich nations, that share is relatively low in the United States.

Figure 18. Government revenues
Share of GDP. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

OUR WELFARE STATE IS COMPARATIVELY SMALL, BUT IT’S MUCH BIGGER THAN IT USED TO BE

People tend to dislike loss. The more income they have, the more insurance they are willing to purchase in order to minimize potential loss. Some types of insurance — insurance against low income in old age, against being unemployed, against having a serious illness or disability, and more — are most effectively provided by government. For this reason, as countries get richer they tend to expand public social (insurance) programs. In the world’s rich democratic nations these programs now account for around 25% of GDP. Even though we lag behind many other countries, our spending has increased quite a bit over the past century. The difference between the leading nations today and the United States today is much smaller than the difference between the US today and the US a century ago.

Figure 19. Public social expenditures
Share of GDP. Data source: Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, “Public Spending,” Our World in Data, using data for 1880-1930 from Peter Lindert, Growing Public, volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 2004, data for 1960-1979 from OECD, “Social Expenditure 1960-1990: Problems of Growth and Control,” OECD Social Policy Studies, 1985, and data for 1980ff from OECD, Social Expenditures Database. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE HAVE A LOT OF GUNS, AND WE HAVE A LOT OF GUN KILLINGS

Compared to other rich nations, America has a very high prevalence of guns and a very high incidence of gun homicides.

Figure 20. Guns and gun homicides
Gun homicides: per 100,000 population. Data source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Guns: per 100,000 persons. “k” = thousand. Data source: “Gun Homicides and Gun Ownership Listed by Country,” The Guardian, 2012, using Small Arms Survey data.

WE SPEND LESS ON THE MILITARY THAN WE USED TO, BUT STILL MORE THAN OTHER COUNTRIES

Our military spending is the highest among the affluent democratic nations, though it has decreased significantly since the middle of the twentieth century.

Figure 21. Military expenditures
Share of GDP. Data source: World Bank. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE THE MOST RELIGIOUS

A larger share of Americans say religion is “very important” in their lives than is the case in any other affluent democracy, as figure 22 shows. The share in the US has been declining since 2000, and if that continues it won’t be too long before we join the club of secularized countries. But for the moment we’re still exceptional in this regard.

Figure 22. Religion is very important in my life
Other response options: rather important, not very important, not important at all, no answer. Data source: World Values Survey, series v9. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE THE MOST PUNITIVE

When it comes to crime and punishment, our approach over the past generation has had more of an Old-Testament flavor than a New-Testament one. As figure 23 shows, we incarcerate a larger share of our population, by far, than any other affluent nation. Part of this owes to the fact that our murder rate is the highest, but murders account for only a small portion of crimes, and our rates of assault, rape, robbery, and other types of crime aren’t particularly high relative to other countries.

Figure 23. Incarceration
Persons in prison per 100,000 population. Includes pretrial detainees. Data sources: International Centre for Prison Studies, via the OECD; Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE MODERATELY WELCOMING

America has long been a land of immigrants, a country that, more than any other, welcomed the world’s tired, its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the words of Emma Lazarus’ homage to the Statue of Liberty. Immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s dampened the embrace, while a reform in 1965 and a partial amnesty in 1986 reopened the door to a significant degree. Where do we stand today? The US is now quite ordinary in its foreign-born population share.

Figure 24. Immigrants
Foreign-born share of the population. Includes both legal and illegal immigrants. Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE MODERATELY TRUSTING

As an open society that prizes individual liberty, America depends, to a certain degree, on our ability to trust one another. Do we? The World Values Survey regularly asks a representative sample of adults whether “most people can be trusted” or “you need to be very careful in dealing with people.” Americans are below average in trustingness, as figure 25 shows.

Figure 25. Trust
Share of adults who believe most people can be trusted. Question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Data source: World Values Survey. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE SOMEWHAT HAPPY

Our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, highlights the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right” of Americans. How happy are we? A good comparative measure comes from a question regularly asked by the World Values Survey: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Respondents are asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of one to ten. Relative to our counterparts in other rich longstanding-democratic countries, we Americans are ordinary in our happiness.

Figure 26. Life satisfaction
Scale from 1 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). Question: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: World Values Survey, via the World Database of Happiness, series 122F. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

WE’RE DOING BETTER, BUT NOT WELL ENOUGH, IN REDUCING GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

America is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Given the size of our economy, it’s no surprise that our total output of carbon dioxide emissions is much greater than that of any other rich nation. But as figure 27 shows, our emissions are among the highest even when calculated on a per capita (per person) basis. We’ve improved in recent decades, but we need to do much, much better.

Figure 27. Greenhouse gas emissions per capita
CO2-equivalent metric tons per person. Includes carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). Data source: OECD. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835; Seymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation, Basic Books, 1963; Lipset, American Exceptionalism, W.W. Norton, 1996. 
  2. For more, see Peter Baldwin, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, Oxford University Press, 2009.