Imagine if a politician were to say, "France has a better health care system than we do." I can almost guarantee that politician would suffer electoral defeat -- even though the statement, in most objective respects, is true. The U.S. is, for too many, the only country that matters; experiences anywhere else are irrelevant. Remember, we have many members of Congress who boast they have no passport.
At a time when many trend lines in the U.S. point to relative decline in this regard, one actually brings hope: More and more young Americans go abroad for some of their education. Last year, about a quarter million studied in another country; a decade ago, the number was about half that. Value will come not just from greater global consciousness, but from the direct experience that many nations simply do many things far better than we do.
New statistical evidence of this appears almost weekly. When it comes to student performance in mathematics, we are now 25th among the 34 advanced economies, and behind many developing countries as well. In college attendance, our previous preeminence has long faded; we are now 9th in percentage of younger workers with two-year or four-year degrees, and 12th in college graduation rate. In health, we are 37th in infant mortality and equally low in life expectancy. In environmental performance, we are 61st. In the percentage of people below the poverty line, we are 21st. Even when it comes to the "pursuit of happiness," enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as one of the noble goals of government, our citizens are only the 15th most satisfied with their lives.
But many of our political leaders, rather than asking what we can learn from the countries that have surpassed us in various ways, choose instead to win applause with unqualified boasts of our inherent greatness. They imply that the answers to our problems are to be found not just by closing our borders to immigrants but to foreign ideas as well.
The countries that are making great strides follow quite a different path. Some of them are autocracies. Their leaders want to know which countries do the best job teaching elementary education or high school science, and how; which countries best prepare their people for tomorrow's jobs, and how; which countries best protect consumers while maintaining business vitality, and how; which countries best reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, and how. They benchmark against the leaders--just like the strongest American businesses do.
Sadly, and shockingly given where the U.S. used to stand in most rankings, few of the best practices foreign leaders want to emulate are any longer in the U.S.
Young Americans who see this country from different shores can't help but conclude that something is awry in a political culture that denies what they plainly see elsewhere: health care systems that provide better outcomes at lower cost and for everyone; better airports, faster trains, more extensive urban public transportation--and even, amazingly, better highways; more upward mobility (yes, the American dream is now more real in many other countries than it is here); more sustainable energy policies; elections that work more quickly and inexpensively, with more rational discourse and greater citizen participation. The list is long.