While the United States still maintains the world's finest university system, college graduation rates are slipping. Among 25 to 34-year-olds, America trails Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in its percentage of college graduates. This speaks, in some measure, to the disparities that are endemic in the U.S. education system. If you are poor in America, chances are you attend a school that underperforms, are taught by teachers that are not as effective, and have test scores that lag far behind your more affluent counterparts (the same is true if you are black or Hispanic -- you lag behind your white counterparts). Can a country be a great global power if its education system is fundamentally unequal and is getting steadily worse?
What about national infrastructure -- another key element of national economic power and global competitiveness? First, the nation's broadband penetration rates remain in the middle of the global pack and there is growing divide in the United States between digital haves and have nots. Overall, its transportation networks are mediocre compared to similarly wealthy countries and according to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranks 23rd in the OECD for infrastructure quality -- a ranking that has steadily declined over the past decade. American commuters spend more time in traffic than Western Europeans, the country's train system and high-speed rail lines in general pale next to that of other developed nations, and even the number of people killed on American highways is 60 percent higher than the OECD average. Part of the problem is that the amount of money the U.S. government spends on infrastructure has steadily declined for decades and now trails far behind other Western nations. In time, such infrastructure disadvantages have the potential to undermine the U.S. economy, hamstring productivity and competitiveness, and put the lives of more Americans at risk -- and this appears to be happening already.
Finally, a closer look at the U.S. health care system is enough to make one ill. Even after the passage of Obama's 2010 health care reform bill (which every Republican presidential candidate wants to repeal) the United States is far from having a health care system that meets the needs of its citizens. According to a July 2011 report by the Commonwealth Fund, "the U.S. has fewer hospital beds and physicians, and sees fewer hospital and physician visits, than in most other countries" even though it spends far more on health care per capita than any other country in the world. In addition, "prescription drug utilization, prices, and spending all appear to be highest in the U.S., as does the supply, utilization, and price of diagnostic imaging." Long story short, the United States spends more for less on health care than pretty much any other developed nation in the world. That might also explain why life expectancy in America trails far behind most OECD countries.
The United States also has the unique distinction of having one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, on par with such global powerhouses as Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ecuador. It has the fourth worst child poverty rate and trails only Mexico and Turkey in overall poverty rate among OECD countries. And when it comes to infant mortality, the U.S. rate is one of the worst in the developing world.
But not to fear, the United States still maintains some advantages. For example, it is one of the fattest countries in the world, with approximately one-third of the country considered obese (including one out of every six children). In addition, the United States has, by far, the largest prison population -- more than China, Iran, and Cuba -- one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and one of the highest rates of death from child abuse and neglect.
This steady stream of woe is certainly dispiriting, but the more optimistic might be inclined to respond that America had has problems before and has always found a way to right the ship. Certainly, this is a legitimate counter-point. The problem is that anyone looking to Washington today would have a hard time imagining that Congress and the White House will lock arms anytime soon and fix these various national crises. And this political gridlock is the biggest reason to be concerned about decline.
Perhaps at no point in recent American history has the country's politics been less capable of dealing with serious challenges. Certainly, when one party basically rejects any role for the federal government in providing health care, improving educational opportunity, or strengthening the social safety net, the chances for compromise appear even slimmer.
As Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago, said to me, "What future president, witnessing Barack Obama's difficulties over health reform, will make an equivalent political investment regarding climate change or another great national concern? I fear that we are headed for a kind of legislative Vietnam syndrome in which our leaders will shy away from the large things that must be done."
Obama argued in his recent State of the Union speech that "innovation is what America has always been about." Indeed, the recent report of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that the United States is currently sixth in global innovation and competitiveness. Good news, right? Not so fast. The report also found that the country is dead last in "improvement in international competitiveness and innovation capacity over the last decade." Bottom line: dysfunction reaps an ill reward.
Kagan's retort to this argument is that "on many big issues throughout their history, Americans have found a way of achieving and implementing a national consensus." True, but the philosophical divide between the two parties over the role of government offers little reason for optimism that such a new national consensus is in the offing.
The fact is, discussions of U.S. power that only take into account America's global standing in relation to other countries are not only misleading -- they're largely irrelevant. Sure, America has a bigger and better military than practically every other nation combined. Sure, it has a better global image than Russia or China or any other potential global rival. Sure, America's economy is bigger than any other nation's (though this is a debatable point). But if its students aren't being well educated, if huge disparities exist in technological adoption, if social mobility remains stagnant if the country's health care system is poorly functioning, and if its government is hopelessly gridlocked, what good is all the global power that transfixes Kagan and others? The even more urgent question is how the United States can hope to maintain that power if it's built on a shaky foundation at home.
Rather than talking about how great America is on the campaign trail -- which surely both candidates will do throughout the 2012 election -- the country would likely be better off having an honest discussion on the immense challenges that it faces at home. Even more helpful would be a recognition that education, health care, infrastructure, and overall national economic competitiveness is as essential to U.S. national security as, for example, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy. All this talk about the myth of American decline might make Americans feel better about themselves for a while, but it is a distraction from the real and declining elements of U.S. power.