Let’s be thankful that our problems are those of rich countries

Published in The News Tribune, November 24, 2011

These are divisive times.

It’s easy to see why.  Jobs are scarce, millions have lost their health care coverage, college debt exceeds credit card debt, income inequality is rising, more people are hungry, and state and federal governments look to be on unsustainable paths.   In the past, a robust economy and rising tax revenue succeeded in keeping some degree of division under wraps.

Today’s more austere times means that we now have to establish priorities rather than add new ones.  We’re faced with the inevitable – and unenviable — task of choosing between higher taxes or less spending.

This reality has succeeded in rallying those on different sides of the country’s ideological spectrum.  The Tea Partiers point their fingers at the “unproductive” among us; for them, austerity means limiting government so as not to encourage those of us who are lazy.   In their minds a smaller government would discourage the free riders among us.

On the other side, the Occupy Wall Streeters point their finger at Wall Street and the uber rich; for them this time of austerity delivers the message that politics and the economy are driven by the interests of one out of every hundred of us.  The public response should be to curtail their influence and tax their income.

The stakes today are high.  That’s why these are divisive times.

Yet the problems we Americans (as well as Europeans) are facing – those associated with the aftermath of a financial collapse, the aging of the population, and large public commitments to social spending — are problems exclusive to rich countries.  Most other countries in the world would trade their problems with ours in a heartbeat.

One of the most traumatic life events to experience is the loss of one’s child.   If you live in Africa, this experience occurs ten times more often than it does in America.  In Afghanistan, parents experience this loss twenty times more often than do parents here.  As recently as the Great Depression – around the time my parents were born – infants died at about the same rate in America as they do in Africa today.

An infant born in the United States today can expect to live until the age of about 80.  In the worst-off nations around the world, infants can expect to live into their 40s, but no more – not too different than was the case in America 100 years ago.  If you give birth in Africa, you’re ten times more likely to lose your life than if you give birth in America.  The odds of dying during childbirth in Africa today are pretty similar to those in America 100 years ago.

In many countries with low life expectancies, the main culprit is HIV/AIDS.  In some of the worst hit countries such as Lesotho, almost one in four adults in the prime of their life is HIV positive.  AIDS in these countries steals citizens’ emotional and economic health as well as aspirations for a brighter future.

Turning to education, less than one half of elementary-aged kids in many countries  — Liberia, Burkina Faso, Haiti – are enrolled in school.  More disturbing is that many other countries would be lucky to have one in four of their girls literate.

None of this means or should imply that we can be happy with the state of affairs in our own country.   Our country’s infant mortality rate is twice that of many other rich nations; and African American newborns are more than twice as likely as white infants to not survive infancy.

But it does mean that even in austere times, most Americans are very well off.  For those who think our country suffers from too much social spending, this is a “problem” people in many countries are literally dying for lack of.  We’re fortunate that due to luck – or surely nothing we can personally take credit for — we live here and in these times, and not in some other country or at some other period of history.

Even in divisive times, there is much for which Americans can be thankful.  Sharing this fortune with others is a great way to put that gratitude into practice.