It’s a sad state of affairs that America’s current congressional failures, although frustrating, are also feeling more and more like the norm. Whether one’s anger is directed towards the President, the Congress, or just the entire federal government, one thing that remains true in each case is that running a nation as large as the United States causes such difficulty because of the very size, power, diversity, and freedoms that we take pride in.
This most recent failure, although tragic, will only truly worsen if the shutdown lasts long enough to affect the bond market, a major staple of both American and international finance. Longer term, however, as the republican party continues to fight between those who share its traditional values and those who were elected merely on a platform of stopping as much legislation as possible, expect things to get worse between now and 2014. Instead of focusing on current screw-ups, however, it may be much more worthwhile to look at countries that experience far fewer of these kinds of absurdities.
The UN Human Development Index, a report that measures quality of life on a series of statistics such as life expectancy, per capita income, and level of education has the United States ranked 3rd in the world in 2011, but after being adjusted for inequality, it drops it down to 23, just two spots above Greece. Norway is at the top of both lists, unaffected by adjustments for inequality.
And whether you look at the UN reports on human development, or a series of other reports on everything from healthcare to social mobility, you will find the United States ranks well below the likes of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Israel, Australia, and an array of other countries with populations that are under a tenth the size of America’s roughly 310 million citizens. Norway, in contrast, has just over four million citizens, making it just a bit larger than the state of Oregon.
So despite the bad taste in our mouths from our own federal gridlock, it’s not always fair to compare ourselves to smaller, and more culturally homogenous countries who are able to get things done much more quickly and efficiently due to the very fact that they have far fewer people (and cultures) to organize when trying to get something done (think about the work it takes to get just one or two of your friends to meet up and do something together, let alone ten). Smaller countries also have an astonishingly better ratio of representatives to number of citizens, so concerns of the government are more likely to be the concerns of the people. That makes dramatic shutdowns of the government in a place like Norway an almost laughable scenario.
But if you look at our peers, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, or other world powers with well over 100 million people that also possess a great deal of influence, you see similar administrative headaches. Brazil and India are both suffering from economic slowdowns, massive amounts of corruption, and an inability to create infrastructure fast enough to keep up with economic opportunities. Russia with its rigged elections is also losing the innovation race in everything from technology to entrepreneurship largely because of a disproportionate amount of financial weight put into fossil fuel oligarchies that have more interest in developing the of Siberian tundra than the streets of St. Petersburg. China, a country with massive economic growth (yet not as much as it used to) has a construction industry that is completely divorced from supply demand economics, creating ghost towns large enough to house millions of people. Finally, if you take a look at the European Union and its recent economic turmoil, one will find that many of those efficient little countries in Northern Europe that do so well on their own are just as bad at organizing people in the hundreds of millions as we are. In contrast, America doesn’t look so bad, unless you unfairly compare it to a Norway.
That being said, fair or not, it doesn’t change the fact that little countries are quicker at getting things done, and almost always have been. Sweden had sex education in schools in the 1950s. The first country in the world to have a colonial empire with territories in more than three modern continents was tiny Portugal. Legal marijuana is old news in Holland. Singapore, with just four million people has one of the largest and most technologically advanced ports in the world. Scotland has an entire class of politicians, activists, and economists who have made the case that independence from the UK would make them a more efficient nation, and better prepared for the 21st century. In a world where a place like Estonia can become a tech hub overnight and an unmanned flying robot can take out an entire tank battalion, the act of being a superpower seems to bring a lot of dead weight with it.
It’s not to say that American problems cannot be fixed, or that we have no hope of aspiring to make great strides in the coming years. The United States still has huge amounts of resources and capabilities that a Denmark or a Taiwan could only dream of. But in an era where technology has sped up the rate of science, finance, communications and culture, the ability of only a few people to do big things is only going to increase, and the need to make decisions quickly will only become more urgent.
So while we large countries squabble at home over how to get huge populations to agree on anything that could potentially help preserve our superpower stardom on the world stage, it might become the case that the 21st century won’t be dominated by one large country or another, but instead just might come to be inherited by the little guys.