America! Land of the free, home of the brave, and the greatest country on the face of the planet, right? A country with seemingly limitless natural resources, and according to many politicians, anointed by God herself to lead the world out of the wilderness and into a bright new age of liberty and justice for all. Too bad the road to that vision is pockmarked with so many potholes, because we haven’t raised enough taxes on people who can afford to pay to fill them.
Americans, maybe more than anyone on Earth, are guilty of the sin of hubris and excessive pride. As the great Greek poets of the ancient world have taught us, hubris can lead to some really bad outcomes. The reality is that a good portion of the rest of the world has far outpaced the United States in things like healthcare. While the U.S. has painstakingly cobbled together a convoluted insurance-friendly monster called Obamacare (remarkable mostly for how much better it is than what we had), the rest of the developed world enjoys one-payer government healthcare that outperforms the U.S. in both cost and quality of care. The proof is in the pudding; they live longer than Americans.
But healthcare is not the only way America lags behind the rest of the world. Here are 11 things other countries do better than us.
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1. Food waste reduction.
In a country as bountiful as the United States, it is remarkable how many people are hungry. Almost 50 million Americans, present to some degree in every single county of the country, live in a food-insecure household. Meanwhile, while children go to bed on empty stomachs, up to 40% of the food supply, more than 20 pounds of food per person per month, is wasted. That’s $165 billion worth of food thrown out. Factor in all the water, energy and land used to produce this waste and it borders on criminal.
France has a better way. This year, national French law banned the disposal of unsold food. Instead, the food must be donated to charity or used as animal feed. Food-related businesses are now required to sign up with a charity and donate unsold food. The food must be in a state ready for consumption (to save the charities the time and money to prepare it). The law also incorporates an education program to inform schools, businesses and the general public about the food waste problem. The goal is to cut food waste in France in half by 2025.
2. College loans.
The cost of a college education in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years, as any debt-ridden college grad can tell you. A political frenzy of tax-cutting fever has hobbled monetary support for public universities, especially at the state government level, and private college tuition has reached unaffordable heights mostly due to reckless spending and administrative bloat. Caught in this upward spiral are lower- and middle-class students who now leave school with college debt approaching $30,000 on average, crippling their ability to accept lower paying but attractive jobs, relocate, or even move out of their parents’ homes.
Most developed countries scratch their heads at the idea that we must burden our children with debt in order to educate them and strengthen the nation. In countries like Germany, Iceland, Brazil, Norway, even Panama, public university tuition is free. Even in the United Kingdom, although education isn’t free, the government allows students to pay loans back based on their income, reducing the pressure of debt and allowing more freedom of choice upon completion of college. Additionally, the UK writes off the debt after 30 years if it has not been paid back. Compare that to the US, where nothing, not even bankruptcy, erases college debt.
3. Maternity leave.
We hear a lot of wistful nostalgia from the right-wing political establishment about the good ol’ days, when mothers were home taking care of their children and parents were ever-present in their lives. Yet the same politicians gnash their teeth at any hint of government help that would go a long way to realizing their nostalgic dreams. Maternity leave policy in the United States is left entirely to the whims of individual states, and in many cases, to the whims of individual employers. The federal government guarantees only unpaid leave. Meanwhile, the burden of paying bills forces many mothers to get back to work as soon as they are able.
In many other countries, maternity leave is guaranteed and even paid for. Denmark guarantees a full year of paid maternity leave, to be split between mother and father, for all public sector employees. France, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria offer four months fully paid leave. Croatia, a year. Russia, 20 weeks. Serbia, a year. And on it goes.
4. The rights of the Earth.
The recent Supreme Court decision struck a blow against clean air, allowing coal-fired power plants to emit minimal amounts of mercury and other poisonous pollutants into the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency is in a constant battle against conservatives who are tirelessly working to cripple the agency’s power to limit air, water and ground pollution.
In Ecuador, they have a different perspective. In 2008, Ecuadoreans rewrote their constitution and became the first country to recognize the rights of nature to defend itself against humankind. The constitution recognized nature’s right to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” Citizens have the right, by law, to enforce nature’s rights, and nature itself can be named as the defendant in Ecuador’s court system. Nature is acknowledged not as the property of humans to do with as we please, but as an equal partner in the protection and health of the planet.
5. Wi-Fi service.
In the United States, as in much of the developed world, Wi-Fi access to the Internet is considered a private service for which we pay to use. And we pay dearly. Not only is Wi-Fi service slower in America, we also pay twice as much or more than our world counterparts. The reason for this is pretty clear. In the U.S., most of our Wi-Fi infrastructure is controlled by a very few monopolistic companies, like Time Warner and Comcast. No competition equals high prices and lousy service.
In the tiny country of Estonia, Wi-Fi access is free to all. In Estonia, you can walk outside for miles and never lose your Internet connection. And 97% of schools have Internet. Compare that to only half the schools in the United States, a country infinitely richer. Ninety-four percent of tax returns in Estonia are done online. Voting can be done online. Doctor’s prescriptions are issued online. Access to information. Banking. All this and more in a country where half the citizens literally had no phones 20 years ago.
6. Vacation time.
The United States is the only developed nation without any legally required paid holiday or vacation day. Zero. Conservatives have often argued that vacation time reduces productivity, and that in order to remain productive, American workers must outperform and out-work the rest of the world.
Then again, working constantly and productivity are not always linked. The US is the fifth most productive country, lagging behind Switzerland, Singapore, Finland and Germany, all of which mandate paid vacation and holiday time. In the European Union, every single country grants its citizens a minimum of four paid workweeks of vacation time per year. Experts have shown that productivity on the job increases after a prolonged vacation. John Schmitt, a senior economist at Center for Economic Policy Research told the business website 24/7 Wall Street, “paid vacation and holidays don’t appear to have any meaningful impact on macroeconomic outcomes.”
7. Bike friendliness.
In 2015, 150 cities were ranked for their bicycle-friendliness. Factored in, among other things, were political leadership, facilities, culture, and traffic reduction. The top city in the world for bike friendliness, no surprise, is Amsterdam, where cycling is safe, relaxing and efficient. Other cities ranking high are Copenhagen, Utrecht, Berlin, and Barcelona. Only one city on this top 20 is an American city, Minneapolis, ranked 18th. (At least during the non-frigid months.)
Studies have shown the enormous benefits of a bike-friendly environment. For every dollar spent building a new bike lane, cities save as much as $24, leading to lower health costs, reduced pollution and reduced traffic.
8. Tipping practices.
The reason that tipping in our culture has evolved is that we simply do not pay our service sector anything approaching a living wage. A hundred years ago, tipping was not common in America. We considered ourselves a classless society, and tipping pointed to a troubling attitude of a servility that was the opposite of the American ideal of class mobility. This changed with Prohibition. With the reduced revenue restaurants suffered from the elimination of alcohol service, tipping was encouraged to help servers make ends meet. The practice took off from there, and restaurant lobbyists went further, uncoupling tipped employees from minimum wage requirements. Since 1991, tipped employees’ federal minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13. In effect, the food industry has shifted the responsibility for paying its employees to consumers.
In most other developed nations, waiters, cab drivers and other service employees, who are paid decent salaries, do not expect to be tipped, and if they do, they are pleased with much less than the typical 15-20% tip Americans fork over to their service providers. In fact, in other countries, tipping can occasionally be considered an insult to an employee, as it is in Japan.
9. The metric system.
Outside of Burma and Liberia, the United States is the only country in the world not using the metric system. We got close to metrification during the Jimmy Carter years, when Congress mandated a switch to the system. However, the switch was scuttled with the election of Ronald Reagan, who deemed it too expensive and presumably un-American. Meanwhile, in an increasingly globalized economy, the refusal to go metric has begun to affect the U.S. bottom line. In a global economy, businesses expecting to prosper need to be speaking the same language, the universal language of science, medicine and commerce. The metric language.
In 1991, the Mars Climate Orbiter project, a NASA initiative to study weather on Mars, literally went up in smoke. Its orbit was too low, causing it to burn up from the friction in the Martian atmosphere. The reason behind the low orbit was eye-opening. While Lockheed Martin, a NASA subcontractor that helped design the Orbiter, was using American imperial units, the rest of the designers, from partnering countries, were using metrics. Conversion errors were made, and $328 million evaporated.
10. Belief in science.
A Gallup poll in 2014 revealed that 42% of Americans, 4 out of every 10, reject evolution. This huge swath of the country believes that God created humans just 10,000 years ago. How backward is that? Contrast that with Europe, where more than 80% of the population accepts evolution as fact. Right-wing American politicians use the rejection of science as a wedge issue to gain office and power, polarizing the country and perhaps endangering the planet, since the same Americans who reject evolution also reject the science behind climate change.
With the US lagging far behind many European and Asian countries in science and math education, in an increasingly competitive world where science and economics are intertwined, it bodes poorly for the future of the country and its standard of living.
11. Abortion rights.
Abortion is becoming an increasingly difficult medical procedure to obtain in the US. Right-wing lawmakers, who decry government intervention in the workplace or air quality control, have no objections to government intrusion into a woman’s body and personal reproductive decisions. Republicans have passed state laws making it more and more difficult to even find an abortion clinic. Some states have only a single clinic in the entire state. Clinics are closing in record numbers due to the difficulties of jumping through the hoops conservative lawmakers have set up in order to deprive women of their rights.
We all already know that most Western democracies would not dream of intruding on a woman’s right to choose, but even the tiny country of Nepal outperforms the U.S. in this area. Formerly a country that outlawed abortion outright and prosecuted women who received abortions, Nepal legalized the procedure in 2002, setting aside the issue of religion and putting women’s health front and center. From that point on, Nepal worked to integrate abortion into the rest of women’s health rights, becoming a model for the rest of the world. Abortion clinics are available in all 75 districts of Nepal, 50,000 female volunteer counselors are available to help pregnant women, abortion-inducing medications are distributed widely, and midwives are trained to perform abortions.