“We’re Number 17! We’re Number 17!” America’s Hellbent Race To The Bottom


The United States was once an indisputably great country, and in some respects perhaps the greatest country. I speak not of American Exceptionalism, the belief of neoconservatives and some fundamentalist Christians that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq War at point of gun. I speak of a nation where prosperity and success could be attained through hard work, where there were myriad educational and job opportunities, and where borders were open to people in pursuit of the American Dream.

But in recent decades America’s standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures. This, of course, will come as news to many of us, not the least of whom are the inside-the-Beltway politicians who fiddle while America crumbles.

America is first by some measures, all of them negative: These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as a gulf between the rich and everyone else that accelerated during the Bush Recession as the economy tanked and unemployment soared, but CEOs and their corporations pocketed record stock dividends and profits. But by other measures, including life expectancy (despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world), as well as obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, America ranks dead last or nearly so.

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This hellbent race to the bottom (“We’re Number 17! We’re Number 17!”) has been a group effort, but the three arms of government — the executive, legislative and judicial branches — that are supposed to be the custodians of our national interests must shoulder most of the blame.

Nixon’s excesses and Clinton’s infidelities aside, the Bush-Cheney interregnum was not merely the darkest chapter in modern American history with its gross distortion of presidential power, including the use of torture and governance by fear, it has remained a debilitating presence in the four-plus years since Barack Obama took office. While the young president has suffered his share of self-inflicted wounds, as well as the slings and arrows of cruel Republicans and spineless Democrats, the toxic fallout from the first eight years of the decade has compromised his ability to lead.

Congress deserves the harshest criticism because it is so out of touch with all but the most affluent and powerful Americans. I recently reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and was struck by how President Johnson and his advisers had to escalate the Vietnam War by stealth because Congress would never have approved massive troop increases and a sustained bombing campaign because the American people would not have supported them. Contrast that with how Congress rolled over on gun control in fawning obeisance to the National Rifle Association, America’s largest terrorist organization, although most of us favor toughening laughably weak federal laws and demanded action in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become a branch of the Republican Party and the plutocracy, its hackery evident in decisions from Citizens United to enshrining workplace discrimination and validating civil liberties abuses, to protecting Big Pharma from liability for killer drugs and medical devices.

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I am in the clutches of a malaise. It is impossible for me not to conclude that America is abandoning its youth, its elderly and its poor; is suffocating its middle class, increasing numbers of whom have become working poor; is timid and risk averse; is allowing the drift from productive manufacturing to a service economy where little is made of value; continues to give obscene tax breaks to the super rich and corporations; fails to confront the fossil fuel monster that saps our resources and further dirties our environment, and has turned its back on newcomers while disenfranching voters.

And not least has turned away from its own rich history, core values and virtues to the point where many of us, if shown a copy of the Bill of Rights, would believe it to be a subversive document.

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What makes my malaise so deep is that I do not merely believe things will continue to become worse in a land for which I have bled red, white and blue. I believe they may never get better.

If you feel otherwise, please offer your thoughts on how the country can rebound within the present political and social framework. And if big changes are necessary beyond that framework, as well, what are they? If the darkest hour is before the dawn, what should a new American dawn bring?

  • SteveK

    Your thoughtful post should cause those on both sides of the aisle to reflect and do a little soul searching on their positions and priorities.

    I think however that those who are the primary cause of this decline, this race to the bottom, will deny that a crisis exists, and are totally ignorant of the fact that they, their policies, and their sycophants are the cause.

    We all know that Empires crumble but it’s easier to read about the process in a history book than to watch it go on around you.

  • epiphyte

    It’s not too late for the USA. Yet. But this whole left vs. right thing has got to stop – it’s not useful any more. Consider:

    Exhibit a: Medicare part D.
    Authors: The pharmaceutical industry.
    Objective: Enable the pharmaceutical industry to suck $0.5T out of the US treasury, at retail.
    Result: Passed with a three-line republican whip.

    Exhibit b: The affordable care act (Obamacare).
    Authors: The Health insurance + healthcare delivery industries.
    Objective 1: Enable the healthcare delivery industry to suck $1.2T out of the US treasury, at retail.
    Objective 2: Enable the private health insurance industry to extract an additional $120B from the taxpayers, in exchange for less than nothing.
    Result: Passed with a three-line democratic whip.

    If we want to survive, it’s time to wake up to the fact that it’s not about left vs. right; it’s about Good faith government vs. cynical, deceitful, treasonous graft.

    For the past 20 years our government has been about 90% graft, 10% good, with the additional complication that that ratio holds no matter how you cut it – any given representative is 90% corrupt and desperately trying to hold on to some measure of integrity in one or two areas they really, really care about.

    Corporate control of government is sucking the life out of this country. In previous generations there was a word for this, but we’re not allowed to use it these days. (Hint: it begins with an F, and ends in tears all round)

    Don’t ever believe it can’t happen here. What’s left to stop it?

  • zephyr

    It pains me to agree with you Shaun but I’ve been watching this steady erosion for a long time. Sometimes I wish I didn’t care, but I was brought up to believe truth, personal responsibility, and conscience actually matter. Unfortunately those values aren’t driving the country anymore. I’m glad I grew up when I did, the country now seems like a sickly parody of what it once was. The soul of America is very much on the ropes. I was once an idealist, later a pragmatist, now I’m probably in danger of becoming a misanthrope.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist


    It is far easier to fondle one’s American flag lapel pin than look into the mirror.


    The examples you cite are illustrative of how deeply rotten the fundamentals have become.

    It is my belief that the Affordable Care Act, fraught with problems as it may be, nevertheless is the only government accomplishment of note in the new millennium. The executive proposed the act, the legislative branch approved it with a modicum of bipartisanship, and the judicial branch upheld it, albeit not on its merits. But the act would never have become law without an immense payoff to the very corporate forces most responsible for creating the problems that demanded health-care reform.


    My parents sought to instill similar values in their children and would be, if anything, more heartbroken than I am if they were still on the planet.

  • sheknows

    I think Americans beieve we are still number one. Ask anyone on the street. They believe our economic problems are transitory, and will cease to be a problem once the people in office change. Happens every 4-8 years. Because we spend more on our military than two other countries combined, that makes us great. :)
    The average American doesn’t look at the whole picture and wouldn’t recognize it even if they could. It doesn’t help that anyone who brings this information in to the light of day is called a “nut job liberal” or “nut job libertarian” who wants to destroy this great nation.
    Before you can change things, you have to get people to admit there is a problem. 50% don’t believe it…40% don’t care…and 10% are responsible for it.
    The only way people will change the course of this slow and painful demise of our nation is when they are forced to change it.

  • rudi

    Because we spend more on our military than two other countries combined,
    Were dropping to only 39% of the WORLD TOTAL.
    Our spending is equal to the others top seven in total.

  • sheknows

    Rudi…you are right..we spend 3x as much as China, the next largest military and at LEAST 7 times as much as other countries.

  • http://[email protected] PW

    Great post, Shaun,and some really good comments. I’m old,so I’ve been noticing this decline for longer than maybe some! It coincides with our constant state of war since the end of WWII. We might want to look at that, at what specifically perpetuates war in America (hint: it’s not terrorists!), and overturn the entities that commit other people’s kids, wallets, and wellbeing to an effort that has enriched only 10% of us. We might want to discuss what we have to — I mean what we must — let go of if we want America back.

    Let’s be honest, though: we never had the America that was as pure and worthy as many would like to think. So perhaps our first aim should be the ego-challenging goal of just rising to the level of our friends and neighbors who have far healthier societies. We don’t like to think of America being “merely” as good as other nations, much less their inferior. We have a lot to learn. But until we dump our hubris and get to work on making the America we like to think we are on 7/4 each year, we’ll continue on this downslide.

    I hope TMV will facilitate an ongoing discussion of the issues raised by Shaun, a discussion in which we could explore what’s required of America if we want progress. Because some hard choices face us. Just rethinking our economic choices — if we want to wean ourselves from profiteering militarism,that costly flag pin — would be top of my list.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist


    Being constantly at war certainly has something to do with America’s decline insofar as the many billions of dollars spent on swords could have been better spent on plowshares. The questions is whether that would have happened without continuous conflicts since there is no such thing as the Plowshare Industrial Complex.

  • sheknows

    PW, excellent commentary. I especially liked the portion about looking into what “perpetuates war in America” and dealing with THAT. I think you mean them…but since we have this image we created that we are the great protectors of freedom and fighters of injustice globally( except here in the US), we have to keep taking on this responsibility no matter what the cost…in dollars and in lives.
    We have a chance right now to back away from a conflict and get through this with minimal involvement and cost, but we won’t. The military has to justify it’s ungodly budget and contract companies and those heavily invested in them want more work.
    PW you are right, more discussion on this at TMV would be great. I am not being very constructive at the moment, but perhaps my mood will change down the road.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    I presume that you are alluding to Syria, and if so I find myself to be ambivalent. The U.S./NATO-led Libya mission accomplished its main goal and did not lead to a wider war. About Syria I am not so sure because of Iran. In any event, there is that “ungodly budget” to justify.

  • zephyr

    the Plowshare Industrial Complex

    First time I’ve ever seen that phrase. I like it!

  • justcowboyway

    Right on the money Mr PW. Good post.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    Another blog has picked up my post:


    The first two comments, the only two at this writing, are instructive. Sheknows nailed it in her first comment above in writing, “The average American doesn’t look at the whole picture and wouldn’t recognize it even if they could.”

  • cjjack

    PW said:

    So perhaps our first aim should be the ego-challenging goal of just rising to the level of our friends and neighbors who have far healthier societies. We don’t like to think of America being “merely” as good as other nations, much less their inferior. We have a lot to learn. But until we dump our hubris and get to work on making the America we like to think we are on 7/4 each year, we’ll continue on this downslide.

    This has been my feeling for quite some time.

    A half a century ago, our nation was handed a couple of stinging defeats. The Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit, catching us flat-footed before we could cobble together a crude satellite and gamely become #2 in the Space Race. A few years later they beat us again, putting a man into space.

    How did we react? We said “space, huh? Impressive, but we’re going to send a man to the Moon.” We were embarrassed enough to dedicate considerable resources to beating the damned Russians to the Moon. And we did. Nobody other than an American has ever walked on the surface of another world.

    Imagine if we took that attitude towards health care. What would our system look like if we treated it as a point of national pride, and strove to make it not just better, but like the Moon shot…something no other nation could even attempt?

  • epiphyte


    …”there is no such thing as the Plowshare Industrial Complex.”

    I wish I could agree. But when you look at it from the point of view of the organic farmers complaining that Monsanto’s genetic mods were contaminating, and thereby destroying the value of, their crops, I’m sure you’ll disagree. They ended up being sanctioned for stealing intellectual property. Go figure.

  • http://kikoshouse.blogspot.com SHAUN MULLEN, TMV Columnist

    An old friend who wishes to be an Anonymoose because he has a very public role as a national news editor, respond to my piece thusly:

    While I’m with you on virtually all of your litany of despair, and have frequently said even during the Bush years that any right-thinking prez following on would need close to eight years just to undo the damage, I’m just as convinced that a chunk of our present predicament is due to progressives’ rest break/victory lap following passage of Obamacare.

    That allowed the summer of the Tea Party, which liberals took to be an aberrant rabble that no one would heed, and then the off-year 2010 election that Dems seemed to sleep through while that “rabble” turned out in force.. If the Dem ranks don’t internalize the lesson of 2010 and show up strong in 2014, nothing much will change. And even if they do show up, it’s difficult to assess the impact of the state legislative GOP-engineered gerrymandering of districts across the land, and how to rectify the imbalances that has created short of a new Census.

    But being practically Polyanna incarnate, I have hope for the upcoming generations — with their eyes wide open on equal rights, immigration, same sex marriage and other progressive touchstones, as well as facing the prospect of dealing with mom & pop’s massive medical drain on the economy — stepping up to confront what the current Neanderthals and the spineless will not/cannot. Given how the preponderance of the youth vote goes now, and the fact that they’re turning out more than the pundits were predicting in recent hustings, I’m hoping I’m not too presumptuous or optimistic.

    Food for thought.

  • zephyr

    But being practically Polyanna incarnate, I have hope for the upcoming generations

    I want whatever he’s drinking..

    Seriously, there is always hope when smart and courageous people take up the challenge. We’ve seen this in other chapters of our history when things also looked very, very bleak.

    stepping up to confront what the current Neanderthals and the spineless will not/cannot

    It isn’t just the neanderthals and the spineless, it’s also people who just don’t know any better and people who aren’t capable of shaking off their old loyalties – even when there are mountains of evidence showing how badly misplaced their loyalties are. They do as much damage with their reflexive denial as do active neanderthals.