Tuesday, August 25, 2015

America: Still the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free?

America. Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free. These ideals have been the hallmark of every American's socialization since childhood. Americans see themselves as strong, hardy and innovative; an individualistic "up by your own bootstraps" kind of people. In many ways, the ideals of our pioneer past have never left us: reinforced by our cultural myths and made tangible by countless books, plays, and the magic of Hollywood. There's no doubt that the US military is second to none. Not just in the world but in history. We have the best equipped, the best trained, the best fed, and the best motivated military in the world. Quite simply, American military presence can reach out and touch anyone anywhere in the world at a moment's notice 24/7/365 with the most extreme prejudice. They can also build schools and hospitals. But what about the second half of that statement---Land of the Free. Surely, we as Americans are free...aren't we?

Americans certainly think of themselves as being free, or at least most of us was brought up with that notion. We've always considered the US President to be the "Leader of the Free World". However, it seems that few still do nowadays. Certainly in the world, America doesn't carry the prestige it once did. The image of the "Ugly American", first popularized in the early 1970's as a stereotype of the occasionally rude, often patronizing and arrogant American who thought, rightly or wrongly, that the world should be made over in the American Image---whether they wanted it or not---as part of the belief in our own Exceptionalism. So then, how do we stack up when it comes to freedom?

According to the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom published annually by the Heritage Foundation, the top three most economically free economies belong, in order, to Hong Kong with a 89.6 rating out of 100. Next is Singapore at 89.4 followed by New Zealand with a rating of 82.1 (Australia and Switzerland round out the top five with 81.4 and 80.5 respectively. The United States placed 12th, between Denmark and the United Kingdom with a rating of 76.2. European powerhouse Germany ranked 16th with a 73.8 rating while Japan was 20th with a 73.3.

In terms of fiscal spending, the US ranked a 66.2 out of 100 while tiny Bahrain received a rating of 99.9. Norway had a 52.1 while Mexico's was 77.8. Russia had a rating of 86.1. Things were much improved for the United States when it came to labor freedom despite the decline in organized labor. Here the rating was an impressive 98.5. Saudi Arabia had a rating of 72.7. Russia was 58.9 while China had an unexpected rating of 63.0. The UK's ranking for labor freedom was 75.6. No other country ranked as high as did the US in this category. What about personal freedom?

In terms of property rights, New Zealand ranked first in the world with a score of 95.0. Numerous countries were tied for second with a rating of 90, including The Netherlands, Canada, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries, the UK, Singapore, and Australia. As for America, it came in with a rating of only 80.0. In terms of financial freedom, the highest marks went to Australia and Hong Kong with a rating of 90.0 each. There were numerous countries with ratings in the 80.0 range including the Czech Republic, Estonia, and the United Kingdom. As for the US, it ranked a 70.0 along with second tier nations like Panama, Columbia, El Salvatore, and Hungary as well as some leading countries such as Poland and Germany. For the record, China and Russia received a score of 30.0 while Saudi Arabia rated a 50.0. So, it's quite obvious America is not quite as free as we would like to believe it is. If you're ever looking for the real Leader of the Free World from an economic freedom perspective, you might try Leung Chun-ying. He's the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Now, what about education?

I've always thought that the single most important investment government can make was in the quality of its education system, which only makes sense. A society which produces a well rounded graduate is going to see a more productive and innovative individual. This in turn grows businesses, which adds jobs and produces more tax revenue to improve the quality of life for the community or nation. The policy of "flunking forward" by passing kids who've underperformed all out of concern over their self-esteem does no one any good. Yes, it gets them through the system but it produces uneducated graduates who then become someone else's problem, usually society's in terms of higher crimes rates, incarceration costs, more public dollars for social services like food stamps, housing, medical care, and generational poverty. At the same, employers are stuck with unqualified workers, lower productivity, higher medical costs, and higher turnover. As a nation, we find ourselves unable to compete effectively which feeds the downward economic spiral. With that in mind, let's take a look at how we stack up with the rest of world.

According to a May 13, 2015 report by the BBC, Asia seems to have lock on world's brightest minds. In terms of math and science (15 year olds), Singapore came in tops followed by Hong Kong and South Korea. Japan and Taiwan were tied at fourth. Vietnam was 12th. The highest European nation was Finland, which ranked 6th. Estonia was 7th with Switzerland and Holland taking eighth and ninth place
Canada came in tenth. Eleventh place with to Poland. The United States was tied with Italy in the 28th spot, coming in just ahead of Portugal.

In the area of reading, top honors went to South Korea. Finland was second with Canada, New Zealand and Japan--just beating Australia--rounding out the top five. The United States came in 14, splitting Iceland and Sweden. Great Britain was 20th and Mexico was dead last in 34th place. With such poor rankings, you would think that we need to spend more money on our failing educational system. Well, you'd be wrong. America already ranks first in dollars spent per student in the world with an average of just over $15,000 spent on each student (K - 12). Nevertheless, the 2013 report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), American teachers made about $7000.00 more a year than the other educators ($38,000 vs. $31,000). If academic success is an indicator of a nation's economic success, then clearly the US is in serious trouble.

While I'm sure there are multiple explanations for this, such has overpaid administrators and teacher unions more concerned with maintaining their political clout and protecting teacher seniority rather than improving the methodology of teaching, I think it's essential that educators need to be left to teach rather than being overpaid babysitters. First and foremost discipline must be restored and enforced with a zero tolerance for bad behavior. We must stop excusing wrong behavior and we must stop drugging students. Second, kids need to be taught at an early age the need for critical thinking skills and developing their intellectual creativity. Third, teachers should teach only in the areas they're qualified for. Lastly, teaching is critical and should be rewarded as such, both financially and in terms of respect. They shape the futures of individuals and indirectly, the future of communities and nations. However, I want to qualify that by saying incentives should be based on individual classroom performance. Gifted children should be given every tool possible to excel, even if segregated. To many students graduate from High School with a sixth or eight grade reading level and no problem solving skills. That's completely unacceptable and the school and school system must be held accountable; financially if necessary. While more emphasis must be placed on math, science, and reading comprehension, we can't overlook the arts, history and civics even if the school year needs to be lengthen.

I know life is tough. Most parents work at least one job; many work two. While I don't believe it takes a village, nevertheless, the parent has a responsibly to take an active role in their child's academic performance. Every parent and someone from the school must meet regularly. No exceptions. Personally, I like the German academic system whereby children are tested as to their abilities and interests and encouraged in that direction. And let's be honest---not everyone should or needs to go to college. Not all jobs require an advanced degree when a technical certificate will do. Therefore, I strongly recommend bringing back trade schools. We don't need more lawyers, we need more carpenters and plumbers.

One last topic I'd like to address. Respectability. It's critical for our own individual success. It's also critical for our national success since it attracts not just tourists and students, but foreign investments as well as helps build alliances. I started off discussing "the Ugly American". How do we stand these days? According to a 2015 report from Forbes, the most respected country in the
world is Canada. Norway and Sweden came in second and third. As pointed out by the report, Finland and Scandinavia have consistently ranked in the top ten for the last six years, along with Holland, Australia, and Switzerland. As for the United States, we ranked 22nd, just behind military junta ruled Thailand. Isn't that special? One of the reasons cited by the report for America's dismal showing was the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court which added more evidence of our broken political and economic systems. I would add that the 2014 report verifying that America was no longer a functional democratic-republic, but an oligarchy serving the interests of leading corporations and the top 1% was a strong contributor as well.

There you have it. While we are not the freest country in the world by any measure, we're not the worse off either. Most certainly, we're a far cry from what our Founding Fathers intended. Academically, we're in serious trouble when compared to the rest of the world; especially our economic competitors. We've lost our Republic when we became an oligarchy with a rising police state (these, by the way, are not signs of "creeping socialism". Quite the opposite, despite the rhetoric of some Rightwing groups. These are signs of fascism. It's not Italian or German fascism. It's not Franco's Spanish fascism or Peron's Argentine fascism, nor the fascism found elsewhere. Fascism adapts. It draws from the Left and Right based the customs, traditions and history of each country. There are two things they always have in common though. One is to demonized whatever they fear the most and secondly, they advance in increments; two steps forward and one step back. A step to the Left and a step to the Right. Probing. Always testing the resolve of the People. So, what do you think they've found here? Is there resistance or is there complicity from indifference? Is this the free America you expected?

2015 Index of Economic Freedom

Asia tops biggest school rankings

World education rankings: which country does the best in reading, maths, and science?

The World's Most Reputable Countries, 2015

How America Became an Oligarchy

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