by Bob BrowningNews Weekly
The good and bad of the US model
, July 28, 2001
We have many good reasons to be thankful to the United States. We also have cause to worry. The American Way is spreading powerfully around the globe. Much of it arrives through enthusiastic popular adoption, but there is also a growing body of critics who see undesirable elements in the US model.
America led and largely resourced the long-drawn-out resistance needed to defeat the fascist and communist totalitarianisms that last century threatened civilised achievement around the world.
More recently, it took the lead against Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosovic. It helped quell the re-introduction of some of the old political poisons into national and ethnic relations. It is trying to guard against the possibility of political fanatics using weapons of mass destruction to terrorise nations.Superpower role
The US is the only nation currently with the power, wealth and will to act as anything like a world policeman - even if at times it does so very selectively. Many question its China policy, for example. Is it putting trade before human rights? But America does lead in promoting the rhetoric, and sometimes the reality, of human and civil rights, political democracy and religious tolerance around the world.
The US continues to be the main engine pulling the global economy. The huge American market underpins many national economies. With several noticeable exceptions - mainly in regard to agricultural products - the US allows most countries access to its cashed-up - or credited-up - seemingly insatiable consumer market.
US multinationals, on their good side, provide millions of jobs and help spread newer, more productive technology around the world.
But there is a downside to the US model and its burgeoning global influence. America combines exceptional levels of productivity, income, and wealth with exceptionally high levels of income inequality, poverty and social spending. Poverty is the plight of nearly 14 per cent of Americans. The poverty rate among African Americans is 28 per cent. Poverty in America is much more widespread than in Europe.
As one of the nation's leading sociologists, Seymour Martin Lipset states (Winter 2000, Wilson Quarterly
), the US is:
"among the leaders in the unequal distribution of income. Gauged by the Gini coefficient, the social scientist's standard measure of income inequality, the US score of 37.5 is almost 10 percent higher than that of the next closest country (Britain) among the Western democracies, and far above Sweden's 22.2.
"To put it in simpler terms, the richest 20 percent of Americans have incomes about nine times greater than the poorest 20 percent, while in Japan and Germany the affluent enjoy incomes only four and six times greater, respectively."
The major European countries provided important social services long before the US. It did not enact pension, unemployment, or industrial accident insurance until President Roosevelt's New Deal to counter the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Today the US remains the only developed nation that does not
have a government-supported, comprehensive medical system. It is one of the few that do not provide child support to all families. As Lipset also states:
"Today, Americans are still more opposed than Europeans to government involvement in economic affairs, whether through wage and price controls, publicly funded job creation, or the length of the work week. Nor are they favourably disposed toward government regulation in other realms, such as seat belt laws.
"Only 23 percent of Americans believe it is government's responsibility to take care of very poor people who can't take care of themselves.
"They are less disposed than Europeans to believe that the state is obligated to supply a job for everyone who wants one, to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed, or to guarantee a basic income."
Among nations claiming democratic status, America has the highest proportion of non-voters in national elections. Its presidents are elected - by "landslides" - on as low as 27 or so per cent of eligible voters.
The most chilling aspect of the US model is that, in per capita
terms, it has the highest rate of violent crime and the biggest prison population of any major nation.
In the view of a growing number of reformers, the American prison system is one of humanity's ongoing human rights catastrophes. It subjects its inmates to what one New York Times
writer described as "unspeakable barbarities". Some see US prisons as evidence of a wider societal sickness.
The American prison population has quadrupled over the last two decades. And then there is the death penalty. Currently, there are close to 4,000 people on death row in US prisons. In Alabama, about 40 of the approximately 185 current death row inmates do not have counsel. There is no legal aid system like Australia's in America. Legal representation overwhelmingly depends on pro bono
or lowly paid service by private law firms. Of the 600 inmates now on California's death row, 161 have no lawyers to handle their direct appeals, and 72 others have no counsel for Federal habeas corpus
The American Bar Association's Lawrence J. Fox told The New York Times
(July 5, 2001) that increased profit pressures and large salary rises for associates deterred legal firms from taking cases. Legal firms were saying that they were paying associates $125,000 or more a year and so "can't afford to have someone off spending 1,000 hours on a death penalty case," he said.System failing
US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently became the second pro-death-penalty Supreme Court justice to raise the horrifying spectre of innocents being delivered to the death chambers. She admitted (New York Time
, July 4, 2001) that "the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed".
Justice O'Connor said the growing availability of DNA testing might alleviate some concerns. But she said most states with capital punishment had not passed laws setting up testing after convictions. Six death-row inmates were exonerated and released last year, and 90 have been freed since 1973.
She also said defendants with more money got better legal defence. In Texas last year, people represented by court-appointed lawyers were 28 per cent more likely to be convicted than those who hired their own lawyers. If convicted, they were 44 per cent more likely to be sentenced to death. Connor conceded:
"Perhaps it's time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used."
The American system permits execution of the mentally retarded. Last month, as President Bush was preparing for his first visit to Europe, nine highly regarded veterans of the American Foreign Service called for the abolition of execution of the mentally retarded. They argued that the practice put the United States at odds with the rest of the world, created diplomatic friction, especially with European allies, tarnished America's image as the champion of human rights and harmed broader American foreign policy interests.
More than any single country, China constantly uses United States prison and death penalty rates to deflect criticism of its own human rights abuses. "The Chinese raise the issue at every possible opportunity," Harold Hongju Koh told The New York Times
. He headed the US State Department's human rights bureau from 1998 until January this year. "I would go into meetings with them, and we'd have a set of points, and for the first 20 minutes, they'd talk about the death penalty."
Although China has the highest execution rate in the world, it has banned the execution of the mentally retarded.