Disappearance of U.S. exceptionalism

The United States reached a pinnacle of exceptionalism during the period from World War II through the mid-1970s. America came to the aid of the free world and, after the war, led a restructuring of economic and financial institutions and revitalization of the world economy. America exhibited exceptionally broad-based industrial and human capabilities during the war and high moral values and wise economic policies afterward; in turn, the postwar global economy was exceptionally profitable for the United States.

Additionally, historic economic gains of the period from post-WWII through the 1970s brought unprecedented economic prosperity to the United States, which was equitably shared among all income segments and significantly improved the average well-being of the population. Unfortunately, this era of pre-eminent global exceptionalism has been gradually squandered since the 1970s as wealth, greed and ideology have gradually suffocated attempts to promote human rights, social justice and the common good. The robber barons re-emerged, and America underwent a transition to a second Gilded Age, which brought forth the Great Recession, a rerun of the Great Depression.

Clearly, American capitalism remains exceptional by virtue of its spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, global economic achievements and creation of abundant wealth. However, its current international ranking among the 20 richest nations of the world in providing for the broad-based well-being of its citizens is dismal, discouraging and immoral. Political and corporate leaders continually preach about America’s exceptionalism, but apparently their criteria, as members of the Big Money class and as political power brokers, differ substantially from those of the poor and middle class. As the potential for America’s greatness continues to wither, its performance since the 1980s, as experienced by average citizens, does not measure up to greatness, much less exceptionalism.

Consider, from a middle-class prospective, current international data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which rank U.S. obesity, life expectancy, infant deaths, teenage births, homicides, imprisonments and general health and social problems as the lowest among the 20 richest nations. Other rankings were second lowest for child well-being and illegal drug use, and fourth worst for math and literacy of 15-year-olds. (footnote 1)

In addition to having the highest income inequality, according to the OECD, America’s financially related rankings, based on a nation’s percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), include the largest budget debt and lowest gross public spending, taxes paid and foreign aid. Meanwhile, corporate tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have steadily declined from just less than 6 percent in the early 1950s to about 1 percent in 2009. The nation’s current net taxes paid, as a percentage of GDP, is less than the post-WWII average. (2) Thus, by an internationally adopted standard, the current net American tax burden is a light load for both individuals and corporations.

But how, during the 1950s and 1960s, was the United States so successful in creating and equitably sharing great prosperity with those citizens who created it, only to see this progressive era fade into the Great Recession? Well, 50 years ago, the United States and European nations collected about the same percentage of total taxes as a percentage of GDP: about 30 percent. However, since 1965, this percentage has remained constant in the United States (that is, no increase in the percentage of GDP devoted to taxes) while European nations increased their percentage from 1965 to 2009, on the average, by 10 percent. (3) Consequently, compared to the United States, at least 19 of the world’s most developed nations have a greater degree of income equality, assume a higher tax responsibility and consistently attain higher levels of well-being for a variety of problems across their total populations.

But what American politician could survive an election process preaching a message of severe income inequality? No one could, despite the fact that this fundamental problem with the U.S. economy has denied the middle class a fair share of the nation’s historic prosperity, thus lowering the nation’s collective purchasing power to the extent of creating a recessionary economy. What corporate executive could survive telling stockholders they should receive a lower return on their investments so as to increase middle-class wages, which have been stagnant for three decades? Furthermore, what political party could survive with a message that, according to accepted international standards, Americans should be paying higher taxes to finance world-class public education, health care, and public and social services?

Obviously, the answer to each question is “none.” Such propositions are counter to the prevailing theme that greed is good for America and to the reality that truth is what a culture wishes it to be, as opposed to what it actually is. Such is the myth of trickle-down economics of the post-1980s, associated with the misconception that a free-market economy promotes the general interest of the people. In 1864, Charles Dickens warned in “Hard Times,” “I am sure you know that the whole social system is a question of self interest. What you must always appeal to is a person’s self interest.” (4) In “The End of Laissez-Faire” (1926), John Maynard Keynes also disagreed with those who saw free markets as inherently providing just resolution among competitive forces:

“By the working of natural laws individuals pursuing their own interests with enlightenment in conditions of freedom always tend to promote the general interests. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities. There is no ‘compact’ conferring perpetual rights on those who Have on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the Principles of Economics that enlightened self interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear sighted than when they act separately.” (5)

The nation’s past internationally recognized and deserved image of having achieved a high degree of exceptionalism has become substantially diluted. The dominant cultural driving forces of this socio-cultural transition have been an infectious, greedy materialism created by historic post-World War II global prosperity and a political right-wing response to the post-1960s progressive civil and human rights revolution. As a consequence, interrelated and interdependent social, economic and political forces have attacked, manipulated and demeaned fundamental democratic principles. The ideological justification offered represents a self-serving and self-righteous brand of narcissistic individualism, a false and perverted sense of “compact conforming perpetual rights that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities.”

Restoring American exceptionalism begins with renewing the altruistic values of a societal-oriented individualism, re-establishing higher individual and professional ethics, and a recommitment to the principles of Athenian social justice and the public and common good. After all, these are the cultural characteristics that originally created U.S. exceptionalism.

Tom Wallace is a resident of Loon Lake and Bonita Springs, Fla. This is the preface of his new book, “America is Self-Destructing: Wealth, Greed, and Ideology Trump Social Justice and the Common Good.”


1. Toynbee, Arnold J. “A Study of History,” ab. Sommervell, D.C., New York: Oxford University, 1957, IVI: 273.

2. Ferguson, Niall, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” New York: Penguin Press, 2011, p. xv.

3. Ibid., p. 308.

4. Belluck, Pam, “Medicaid Expansion May Lower Death Rates Study Says,” The New York Times, July 26, 2012.

5. Wilkinson and Pickett, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010, p. 80.