The opening sequence from the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived HBO show ‘The Newsroom’ still seems to make the rounds on social media. It’s the sort stuff enjoyed by self-loathing Americans or foreigners with an acute case of tall-poppy syndrome.
The series garnered mixed reviews, with Jeff Daniels playing the lead character of Will McAvoy. In this regularly posted clip, McAvoy tries to make the case that America is not the greatest country in the world, although he concedes that it used to be. By the time he finishes, he leaves the viewer with the impression that it’s not great at all.
A panel he is sitting on is asked by a member of the audience, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Other panelists answer diversity, opportunity and freedom.
First, McAvoy suggests that America’s freedom is by no means unique in the world:
“Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK. France. Italy. Germany. Spain. Australia… Belgium has freedom… 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of ’em have freedom.
While it’s not clear what 180 countries he’s referring to, it’s obvious that they don’t all enjoy the same degrees of freedom. In deciding to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S., one of my key considerations was the freedoms I enjoy here as well as the institutions and safeguards that protect them.
I’ve lived and worked in several of the places McAvoy listed as well as in others that undoubtedly make up his 180 states. In my experience, none comes close to offering the depth or breadth of freedoms and rights that Americans enjoy. These include but are not limited to: freedom of the press, religion, speech, and assembly; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; and, the right to a trial by jury, to a speedy trial and to own private property.
While the general trend in recent decades has been towards increased liberty across the globe, America still stands out as the beacon of freedom. Take the U.S.’s fiercely guarded freedom of speech, for example. In many countries there are outright bans on campaigning or advertising on election day or in the days before it. In Australia, broadcast advertising is banned on the three days before an election. In New Zealand, opinion polls are illegal on election day, and the night before, all advertisements such as billboards or posters must be covered or removed.
In the U.K., Ireland and Switzerland, campaign advertising on television is not permitted at all – I was amazed to learn that, for example, in the U.K. this extended to arguments for or against leaving Europe in the recent Brexit referendum.
Outside of the U.S. and New Zealand, direct to consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals in developed countries is prohibited. Yet while New Zealand permits prescription drug marketing, there are around 50 pieces of legislation regulating other areas of advertising. And you won’t find any ads there, for example, of cars driving fast, or SUVs driving off-road, if it might be construed that the vehicle is harming the environment.
Or consider the freedom for consumers to spend their money. Shopping hours in the United States are generally determined by store managers and customer demand. In other countries in McAvoy’s list, governments still generally restrict trading hours on certain days or by type of store. Almost all provinces in Canada and most states in Australia prohibit trading on numerous holidays, and in Belgium most shops are only permitted to open on nine Sunday afternoons per year.
Next McAvoy attempts to tear down the U.S. education system stating that it is “[S]eventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science.” Here he is referring to the results of America’s admittedly lamentable public school system. Without going into detail about the core issues, which I’ve done elsewhere, the reasons behind this mediocrity are primarily an absence of choice or competition, and the public union monopoly.
However, while the U.S. primary and secondary education sector isn’t as strong as it should be, McAvoy conveniently ignores the fact that America is without peer when it comes to tertiary education, where the government’s role is considerably smaller, and private and non-profit universities excel. In addition to delivering exceptional quality, these schools attract and create the world’s best minds. Look no further than this year’s Nobel Prize winners, more than half of whom are the product of and/or teach at America’s universities.
McAvoy goes on to bemoan that the U.S. is “49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality”, metrics regularly used to slight the quality of American healthcare. As it turns out, the writers at ‘The Newsroom’ read the infant mortality tables upside down and placed America more than 130 rungs lower than it actually is. More importantly, I’ve previously written about why these statistics are meaningless in the context of a healthcare system and plagued with measurement issues.
Finally, McAvoy comments that America is only “third in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports.” Labor force is an odd statistic to cite to argue America isn’t great, given it’s driven largely by population. The U.S. is roughly 4 percent of the world’s population, yet it generates more than 16% of global GDP, ranking second behind China. However, China’s GDP is only a fraction of a percent larger, yet it makes up more than 19% of the world’s population.
Boiling it down, McAvoy tries to argue that America’s freedoms aren’t unique and that America doesn’t rank first in a bunch of metrics, most of which are meaningless or misinterpreted. He concedes that it once was the greatest country, and then implies that to him the world’s greatest country would be first or near to first across all the indicators he cites. But America never has been top or near top on all those metrics at any given time, so his argument is incoherent.
I’m not going to make the case that America is the greatest country. To me that’s a subjective exercise, which should involve coming up with your own framework of weighted categories in which you want a country to excel at (e.g. economic freedom) or rank low in (e.g. crime and corruption), then measuring countries across them.
Interestingly, McAvoy never offered his own opinion as to what, if the U.S. isn’t it, might be the greatest country in the world. Given the character’s political leanings, my sense is he might prefer to live somewhere in Europe.
The year HBO canceled ‘The Newsroom’, Holman Jenkins wrote in the Wall Street Journal a column entitled ‘Europe’s Plea to be Forgotten’. It was on the subject of its excessive regulations, which of course was one of the key reasons many Brits voted to exit this year. Jenkins wrote of the EU’s targeting of Google and other tech companies that have emerged in recent years:
“Contributing next to nothing to this explosion of wealth has been the European Union. Germany and France are the core powers of the EU, the world’s No. 4 and 5 economies. Name a single major Web-era success that emerged from either.
Let’s amend that: These countries do produce cutting-edge entrepreneurs, engineers and creative talents, who can be found by the thousands in the U.S.”
McAvoy’s monologue didn’t note that America ranks number one year after year in the number of migrants moving to it. Forget what folks say about the country, when they have the opportunity to move, the world’s people overwhelmingly choose the U.S. On the metric of net migration, America continues to be the greatest.
<Related reading: ‘America: The Selfish State’ published by Nicholas Kerr in 2004 in The Australian.>