Saturday, December 23, 2017

So Just How "Free" Is America Anyhow? : How America's "Freedom" Rankings Stack Up

America. It's often called "the land of the free" or the "torch of freedom in the world", and so on. People have been coming here literally since the beginning of the nation's history in their search for freedom. People from the world over have literally risked everything to come here. Of course, much has changed from when our Founding Father's decided it was time to strike out on our own, especially since the end of World War II and the rise of "America Incorporated". I thought it would be interesting to take a look at where America ranks in terms of freedom and other key factors,such as education, taxes, and incarceration, plus perhaps some other issues.

According the Freedom House's 2017 report, there are approximately 7.4 billion people now living on our tiny Planet Earth. That's a lot of people. According to the report, about 39% of those individuals are relatively free ("free" and "freedom" are, of course, subjective). 36% have little or no sense of freedom, while 25% fall somewhere in between. When broken down along national lines, Freedom House tells us that of the 195 countries in the world, some 45% are mostly free, while 30% have some degree of freedom, and 25% have little or no freedom (for the record, the Middle East---excluding Israel--and North Africa had the worse ratings, followed by Asia. 2016 was the 11th year of global decline in freedom while theocracy or religious autocracy had grown).

According to the 2017 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation, the United States is ranked overall in 17th place. Yelp, you read that right. The "Beacon of Freedom" in the world is 17th in the world, right there between former Soviet Republic, Lithuania (16th) and Denmark (18th). We are ranked as "mostly free", which I find rather embarrassing frankly. According to the report, large public debt (currently at 108% of the Gross Domestic Product or GDP) and budget deficits are the main reason. The regional leader in economic freedom is our neighbor to the north, Canada, which is ranked number one (not bad eh?).

Speaking of regional rankings, the U.S. is third, between Chile and Columbia, with the three of us trending downward. Globally, the world leader of overall freedom remains Hong Kong, followed by Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia. Ironically, the United Arab Emirates ranks higher than the U.S. in terms of overall freedom, in eighth place (do you think we should invade it and spread some more of that "American Democracy" around? Just asking). In terms of business and labor freedom, both are in decline due to over regulation by federal policies (also, in the case of labor freedom, we have to factor in the continuing decline of labor unions as well. An additional reason for the decline of freedom in the business sector is because the U.S. has among the world's highest corporate tax rates).

With respect to national security, let's look at the percentage of the General Domestic spending (GDP) on military spending, and where we stack up. All reports show that the U.S. ranks first going away when it comes to our military budget. The U.S. spends an estimated $611 billion dollars annually of our defense budget (and that doesn't include untold billions on various military and intelligence "black projects"). Our closest competitor is China, which spends around $216 billion on its military (again, not including any of its "black projects"). In terms of GDP percentage, the U.S. spends 3.3% of its GDP compared to China's 1.2%. Russia "only" spends approximately $69 billion (5.3% GDP) on its military while Saudi Arabia spends just under $64 billion (10% of its GDP). India and France spend nearly identical amounts, $55.9 and $55.7 respectively on their military, which makes up 2.5% and 2.3% of their nation's GDP. Little ole Israel spends $17.8 billion (5.8% GDP) to stay safe. Of note is that Great Britain spends 448 billion on its military, yet that is just 1.9% of its total GDP, the same as China. Mexico spends just under $7 billion on its defense budget, which is .06% of its GDP.

Regarding property rights, which have always been near and dear to the hearts of Americas (the ownership of property has long been key to the perception of having achieved the "American Dream"). Yet, while property rights are, in theory guaranteed, growing regulations at the local, state, and federal levels have resulted in uneven application of protection (such as the rise in crime and defense of property, habitability, landlord/tenet laws, fire protection, and zoning changes, including the so-called "eminent domain" law. Rising taxes on personal property, such as property tax, drainage/runoff tax, and school tax has made it increasingly difficult for some to afford their property). What about political freedom?

Well, as most of you (hopefully) are aware, the United States is not the "democratic republic" or Constitutional Republic that our Founding Fathers intended. Gradually, starting approximately with the end of World War II, corporate power has gradually increased its control and influence over the federal government, creating a "hand-in-glove" type of partnership; a Oligarchy or plutocracy if you will (by definition, this is also known as Fascism, which a symbiotic relationship between big business and government, resulting in a incremental decline in personal freedom, a decline in privacy, along with a rise in de facto police/surveillance state. So, where do we actually stand? According to the British based research company, Economic Intelligence Unit (EIC) report, the "Democracy Index", America ranks 21st in the world. We're just behind Japan and just above Italy (the UK is ranked 16th, just behind Malta and just above Spain). The report looks at 60 different indicators, grouped into five categories which measures voter plurality and security, political culture, and civil liberties.

The three largest Scandinavian countries (you know, the one's with that "failed" democratic socialist form of government we're forever reading about on social media), Norway, Iceland, and Sweden are ranked one, two, and three in that order. Denmark is fifth, behind New Zealand. Canada is sixth; Australia is tenth; while Germany is 13th. Mexico is 67th, and interestingly, Greece, the birthplace of Democracy, is ranked in 44th place. Russia is in the 134th spot, while China is close behind in 136th place, and the country which comes in dead last is...North Korea (queue fake gasp and shocked expression)! Another interesting point from this report, is that the U.S. is listed officially as a "flawed democracy".

Another academic and policy development used site is Democracy Ranking, an Austrian initiative which looks at a number of factors, including gender, education, economy, public health, and the environment to not just rank democracies or economic/political health of a country, but also examines the quality of a county's political freedom and how well society is served overall. According to their annual report (the latest released in 2016), the top ranked democracies are Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands (Holland), New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, and Australia. The U.S. was 16th and trending downward. A key factor in the success of any country, is the quality of its education system. So, where does America stand in comparison to the rest of the world?

In the areas of math and science, Asia took the top four spots (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, tied with Taiwan, respectively). Canada was tenth. Germany and Australia were 13th and 14th, while the UK was 20th. The U.S. tied with Italy in the 28th spot, just behind Spain and just above Portugal (the U.S. was ranked 24th in reading, behind the U.K. and over Denmark). A similar report, published by the World Top 20 Project, lists Japan as number one academically, with continued improvements in the key areas of reading, math, and science. South Korea is ranked second, followed by the U.K. Singapore is fourth. Of note is Russia, which is ranked in fifth place and showing signs of significant improvement. China came in eleventh place, while America was ranked 18th, where the report indicated that there are glaring failures in the areas of early childhood and high school academic performance. In 20th place was Portugal, which had the list's worse high school graduation rates.

The next key indicator to a nation's overall health is its prison rates. How does America stack up in relation to the other major global players? Putin's Russia ranked fourth in terms of percentage of its population that is imprisoned (ranking just above India). Turkey is ranked seventh, while Iran and Mexico are ranked ninth and tenth respectively. South Africa, with its obscenely high murder rates (targeted mainly at its white Afrikaner population) is ranked 12th. The uber-polite Brits are 17th. Interestingly, Castro's "oppressive" Cuba is only 34th on the list and "head chopping" Saudi Arabia is ranked 44th. Even the "teargas throwing" Israelis are in the bottom 1/3 of list in 65th place (just above the Congo and Zimbabwe). The United Arab Emirates are 97th, while Scotland is 110th (I suspect they just throw back a few pints, arm wrestle and go home). Ireland is 132nd (they'll just whoop your butt then and there on the spot...and then buy the next round).

So then, who's at the top of this rather dubious list of most incarcerating nations? Well, that "honor" (cough cough) goes to the good ole U.S. of A. We lead the world in having the most imprisoned portion of its population, followed by China and Brazil. In our defense, however, the largest demographic of prison inmates are illegal immigrants who were convicted of drug charges and/or violent crimes, comprising just over 25% according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Illegal immigrants are arrested an average of seven times according to the GAO. They also account for approximately 37% of all federal sentencing's according to the latest (2014) statistics. According to the same report, illegal immigrants also make up just 5.1% of the U.S. labor force. Closely related to incarceration rates is poverty. According to UNICEF, the U.S. ranks second among industrialized nations, with just over 25% of all children under the age of 17 in the U.S. living in poverty. Of the 19 top industrialized nations, the U.S. has the highest rate of income disparity and poverty other than Mexico and Turkey. UN Poverty Index ranks the US 17th out of 19 countries. According to the OECD, the U.S. poverty rate is the highest in the developed world.

On the flip side of that question, which nations seem to have the happiest or most satisfied people? Well, according to the 2017 CNN Travel Report, the happiest people on the planet are the Norwegians! They are joyfully followed (skipping no doubt) by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands (Holland), Canada, New Zealand, with Australia and Sweden delightfully tied in ninth place. The U.S. was less pleased with 14th place, while Germany was 16th. The U.K. had to keep their stiff upper lips with the 19th spot, which was still better than Russia in 49th place (who doesn't love a good Siberia rubdown?) and China in the 79th position (apparently they have a "Great Wall to Nowhere in Particular").

Now that was the 2017 CNN Travel Report, which is more or less not the kind of academic or serious study that we tend to look at. Let's look at the United Nation's "World Happiness Report 2017" and see if there were any significant differences. This report again gave the top spot to Norway, followed by Denmark and Iceland (damn democratic socialists!). In fourth place is Switzerland and Finland rounding out the top five. In seventh place was the ever so polite Canadians, followed by New Zealand and Australia (brilliant mates!). Last, in tenth place, is Sweden. The United States ranked 14th (again) , with Chile rounding out the top 20. So, not much of change overall.

So, there it is. America's "Freedom" rankings. There are other topics we can, of course, look at, but the results are generally pretty much the same. What does this mean in the great scheme of things? I think it shows another perspective of who we are as a nation. Perhaps too, it's how we are perceived by other nations. As Americans, we tend to see the world through a red, white, and blue prism. We see everything through a fixed set of ideals, which is fine so long as we understand that our values or national objectives don't necessarily apply to everyone else (this is especially true when we remember that we are now an Oligarchy). Other countries have their prisms too! While we tend to get miffed as a nation when other people with different values, languages, religions, and traditions come here and try to impose them on us, let's remember that we've been doing the same to them for years, or in some cases, for decades (which goes back to prism analogy). To borrow from a old Buddhist saying, there are many paths to the mountaintop.

We've seen America turned into a plutocracy, with a growing police state mentality. We've become more divided as a nation than at any time prior to the Civil War. We've basically allowed ourselves become divided along racial, gender, sexual, political, and even religious lines. We've stopped listening to each other to the point that some even go into meltdown mode when they hear an idea which differs from our own. We scream, destroy things, and pout if someone says something we disagree with. We would rather have no freedom of speech or expression than a civil discussion. We've stooped to calling people "racist" or "sexist" if we don't get the attention we think we deserve. Our every failure is always someone else's fault. In the end, we've been reduced into a nation of cliques. At some point, and I suspect sooner than later, "something" will happen and the crap will hit the fan, and that's when our Oligarch masters offer their "solution"---security for some but a police state for all.

Instead, we should accept that we are being played. Most of us even know we're being played but allow ourselves to get sucked up in the moment. We know the corporate media is manipulating us (96% of all media is owned by just six corporations). We know both of the two political parties are literally bought and paid for, yet if we listen to the media, we are expected to believe they are our only choices when they're not (Independents are the nation's largest political bloc and growing along with third parties such as the Greens or Libertarians. Meanwhile, the Democrats and GOPers fight for a larger piece of a shrinking pie). We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves and start demanding answers from the "men behind the curtain".

It's time to demand term limits, an end to gerrymandering, an end to the "Citizens United" misruling and real campaign finance reform. We need to demand that Indies and third parties be included in our political debates, especially national debates since Indies represent the majority of voters! We need to demand a level playing field in terms of wages, hiring, and firing. We need to place an emphasis on the reuse of developed land instead of concreting over every green field, which would help struggling neighborhoods too, and so much more. But none of its going to happen until we come together as Americans.

Freedom House Report 'Freedom in the World 2017'

The Heritage Foundation: 2017 Index of Economic Freedom

Economic Intelligence Unit: 2017 Democracy Index

World Top 20 Project

Institute for Criminal Policy Research/University of London-Birkbeck: World Prison Brief

United Nation's World Happiness Report 2017

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