In the greatest country across all the lands, life was always splendid. “Oh, what a magnificent economy!” the pundits declared, praising record-low unemployment and sky-high stock prices.
And the virus whispered quietly in the crowd, “But those many employed have no benefits, no sick leave. They have no savings and no safety net. Those stock prices, meanwhile, are inflated with buybacks. The national debt is great, despite this prosperity. The companies are weak and make little investment in their futures.”
“We have so much wealth!” politicians announced with glee. The virus murmured in the background, “But that wealth is concentrated with the very rich. Most Americans struggle day-to-day and cannot afford a single financial emergency.”
The generals lauded the world’s most powerful military, in a country that spends more on its defense than the next seven highest-spending countries combined. “Americans can sleep well,” they said, “under the protection of our unparalleled defense.”
“But how are you protecting them at home?” asked the virus, knowing that military provided little security against gun violence, cyberattacks, misinformation, and, of course, illness.
Powerful hospital management companies celebrated and bragged of the world’s most advanced medical technology and its most skilled healthcare experts. The virus listened to this boasting and was genuinely perplexed. The virus knew, after all, that even with all the finest expertise, America’s healthcare was the most expensive and inaccessible in the world. The virus knew, too, that the United States had fewer physicians, fewer hospitals per capita, and fewer hospital beds per 1,000 people than most wealthy nations.
“Why would they brag,” the virus asked, “when that great healthcare offers so little to most of its people?”
The pundits, politicians, generals, and executives all looked on at the country of which they were so proud, and they praised it. “Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!” they proclaimed.
“But America hasn’t got anything on,” the little virus said.
We were raised to believe in American exceptionalism, the justification for our massive global footprint and ever-expanding military. For decades, we have led, and when no one follows, we go where we want to anyway. Our leadership tells us it’s our prerogative because we are a benevolent force in the world, so trust us, we’re just doing what’s right. Many politicians (in particular on the right, but not exclusively) lambast those who question our greatness as unworthy. It is not a problem with America; it is a problem with her critics.
But if we’re such a benevolent and powerful global leader, why are we on track to have the worst coronavirus pandemic outbreak of any country on Earth? What’s the point of being a world power if you can only portray strength to the outside, leaving your own population to suffer?
I won’t downplay the dangerous impact of the Trump administration’s dishonesty and amateur bungling. Its navel gazing has no doubt made this national crisis exponentially worse than it might have been under, say, a professional administration led by experience. It isn’t sufficient though to blame current leadership. Our system has been on a path for a national reckoning for some time.
Money drives not only our economy but both our healthcare and political systems. The role of money in politics has increased dramatically since Citizens United in 2010, and with it the influence of corporations, wealthy donors, and special interest groups. Transparency in political funding is gone. Bribery on a massive scale is effectively legal. Industry executives and lobbyists aren’t just influencing the government; they’re joining it in greater numbers. The revolving door between private sector and the very government intended to regulate it is in a veritable spin, blurring the lines and roles between the two. The enhanced influence of big business has shattered capitalism’s guardrails.
Unfettered capitalism has directly impeded our healthcare industry’s effectiveness. With hospitals and pharmaceutical companies focused on profit, our healthcare industry is optimized for profit rather than treatment. Healthcare systems designed as a public good are designed to build in contingencies for the needs of the community in good times and bad. Healthcare systems built for maximum profit provide the optimum number of resources to ensure maximized use at all times. Excess capacity cuts into earnings, so surge capacity does not exist.
The overwhelming influence of money in politics has influenced our government’s world view and world engagement as well. Our defense budget has grown exponentially since World War II. Rather than insulating and protecting us from conflict, it has dragged us further in. By 2018, contractors received nearly half of our defense budget, and the industry lobbies hard to protect its financial interests. The top 20 defense companies have already contributed nearly $18 million to the 2020 election cycle so far. Unsurprisingly, many of our elected officials are consistently strong advocates of increased defense spending. Advocacy for soft power tools is not as enthusiastic, since politicians have little to gain from enhanced diplomatic measures.
None of this is new, and the consequences have been growing for some time. Everyday Americans have paid for it for decades. The costs have been right in front of us all along. But since this virus has called it out, the failings of our country are clearly exposed for all of the world to see. Now we are cloaked in Trump’s boasting alone. America has no clothes.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.