If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have followed my rants and ponderings over the past 7 months, you’ll know that I skew my writings toward housing and community development topics while we travel. As numerous travelers have noted, they often think about their own community as much as the lands they are visiting while they travel. Something has been nagging me for months and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it until recently. I started writing this weeks ago, but it wasn’t until I was forwarded this Economist link discussing national well-being that I felt a bit more confident to put this out there. I still don’t know if it will make total sense, but I’m going to give it a go. Here it is…
While serving in the Peace Corps in the early 90’s, there was a significant push to change the vocabulary from using the term “3rd World Country” to “Developing Country”. I had understood that “3rd World” was a derogative term and “Developing Country” was a much more politically correct term to use. The use of “3rd World” made me want to understand the meaning behind the terms “1st World” and “2nd World”. These terms were essentially created as we were entering into the cold war era. 1st World was used to define the capitalist and/or allied nations. 1st World nations are described as having a functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economies, economic stability, and a high standard of living. 2nd World was used to describe the Soviet block countries and Communist nations. Surely, first and second were nomenclature determined from our imperialistic perspective. Essentially “3rd World” was the term used to describe everyone else, which also aligned with mostly economically challenged countries with residents primarily made up of people of color. It stuck and moving forward when someone said 3rd World, they mostly thought of African, South/Central American, or several South Asian Countries.
I suppose because we wanted to feel better about our labels and there wasn’t a “4th World” level, we started using “Developing Countries” to describe these previously known “3rd World Countries”. Through time we also better defined what it meant to be a “Developing Country”. They are now described as less developed (infrastructure), less industrialized, have a low HDI (Human Development Index – a tool that looks at life expectancy, per capita income, and education rates).
This little trip around that world has allowed me a chance to get a slight glimpse of the world, but more importantly, a good pulse on the United States of today. Overall, I have a greater appreciation for what we have in the United States than before we left on this journey. The United States is truly an amazing country and we have a lot going for us. That stated, I find myself much more realistic and practical in my thinking about our nation. Given the decreasing quality of life for an increasing number of U.S. residents, I can no longer see the U.S. as a country that should be labeled 1st world. There’s probably room for a new term…say “Incongruent” Country. This might better describe where we are as a nation. Essentially, it increasingly feels like we are a country that is unable to live up to many of the minimal standards we established for ourselves.
The standard of living and quality of life for an increasing number of low- and moderate-income families and individuals is in many ways worse than the base levels seen in many of the “developing countries” we visited in our travels. Our state of health care, housing, transportation, food, and education are arguably worse or significantly worse for an increasing number of U.S. residents than they are for the average resident of many supposedly less-developed countries. This isn’t the end of the world for us. It is what it is. As I see it, we have three options:
- Accept it and continue on (most likely scenario) with regressive priorities that run counter to striving toward a high quality of life for all residents. If we go this route (unfortunately, most likely of paths), I would only suggest that we change our label of “1st World County” to something more appropriate, like “Incongruent” County to recognize that we no longer can align with standards we set to be a “1st World” Nation. Again, it is what it is. Let’s call a spade a spade.
- Reprioritize our funding and policies to strive toward ensuring a high quality of life for all U.S. residents. Not so sure this will happen under the current President. To be fair, this slide in our First World Nation status has been happening for decades and through numerous Administrations.
- Embrace our struggles as a “1st World” country and work with what we have to get us back into some alignment. I actually think this is the most practical approach we can take because much of it can be achieved through regulatory and policy changes….many at the local government level. Just a few examples of this, which are common practice in “Developing Nations”, include:
- Housing regulations that support higher occupancy of dwellings, multiple housing units on a parcel, occupancy in a basement/attic w/o egress.
- Un-subsidization of gas. This would certainly create more incentive for better public transit, which would ultimately create more cash in pocket for low- and moderate-income household and would serve as an incentive for more walking/biking as modes of transportation leading to better health.
- Decreasing the liability risk. Making it more difficult to sue would allow people and entities to what was necessary to get by vs. worrying about potential liability risk.
- Un-subsidization of wheat, corn, sugar beets, and soybeans. This might create an incentive to grow more nutritious food in the U.S. and more of a disincentive to manufacture processed foods. Again, may lead to better health.
- Limit or do away with standardized testing. Let teachers teach to the student vs. teach to the test.
I’m quite certain there are thousands of regulatory change examples that could be made that would make life better for low- and moderate-income families in the United States. I realize that this lessening of regulations and policies would more than likely create negative consequences. The loosening of standards could increase death, injury, and illness rates that would put the United States on par with less developed countries, but it seems like that is a luxury we can no longer afford as a nation.
Based on what I’ve noticed traveling thru 40-some countries and reflection of our situation in U.S. of A, I think we need to lower our expectations of ourselves and our standard(s) of living. We in the United States can no longer afford the luxury of many of the regulations and rules we’ve grown accustomed to in the past. The current guy holding the position of U.S President is pretty hell bent on decreasing corporate and foreign trade regulation to increase the U.S. economy. I’m not talking about this type of regulation, but rather the mostly state- and local-level government imposed rules that supposedly have led to a better quality-of-life for many U.S. residents. By this I mean it doesn’t feel like we are able to responsibly play by the rules we’ve put in place because the economics no longer can support it.
We’ve set the bar too high. Tipping point for WWI, leaning into the depression, and peaking post-WWII through technological and economic dominance, the U.S. had the clout and foundation to establish lofty quality of life goals for its society. For a plethora of reasons, our economic caste system and indifference of others, we’ve allowed it to be politically and socially acceptable to lower the average citizen’s quality of life standards in the United States. It’s probably easiest and most practical to look at ways to become more lax in our regulations and policies that are impossible for us to responsibly keep as a society. We’re already seeing this in subtle ways…with pushes to change housing codes in NYC so that basement space is deemed an acceptable living unit and rural communities letting paved roads revert back to gravel. The new question for us should be, “if we (government, individuals, families) don’t have the money for it, what policies or rules could we eliminate to make it easier to survive in our lives?”
The alternative, of course, is to look at where and how we are funding our priorities. We have the option to increase revenue to better these areas where we are lagging in the quality of life factors or to reallocate the funds we already have as a nation. Nowhere have I read that a 1st World Country is defined by a strong military. Without question, the military might and spending of the United States are superior to the rest of the world. Military spending in the United States has long been the nation’s priority and it seems as if we could easily achieve a better quality of life standard for the average United States citizen if we just applied the same principle to this spending line item…”How much do we need to spend on “defense” spending to just be the strongest military in the world (vs. a military that spends more than the world’s next 10+ strongest militaries combined)? The U.S. spends over $612 billion a year on defense spending, which is more than Russia, China, India, Great Britain, Germany, France, Israel, Turkey, South Korea, Japan combined! Can’t we just be the best military vs. the bestest-by-far military? We could easily take $450 billion a year from our defense budget and still be the best military in the world! These dollars could be invested in housing, health, education and other quality of life indicators that would lead to the U.S. being viewed again as a “1st World Country”.