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Income Inequality Is America’s Biggest Challenge: United Nations Economist

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In "The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing" statistician and United Nations health economist Howard Friedman compares the United States to 13 other wealthy nations in five key categories: health, education, safety, democracy and equality. His analysis and conclusions are alarming: the U.S. has fallen far behind in most of these areas, causing the nation to become "the Dog" when juxtaposed to its Asian and Western European competitors.

He backs up his assertions with sobering examples: the U.S. health care system — widely touted as the best in the world by the U.S. health care industry — ranks 37th in the world by the World Health Organization. France and Italy hold the top two spots. The U.S. also spends two to four times more on health care than any other country but the U.S. also has the lowest life expectancy. "That's the worst ROI you can imagine," Friedman says in the accompanying video.

The U.S. also used to "enjoy the highest rate of college education in the world but has become the Middle Child today," Friedman writes in the book.

America even ranks poorly in levels of voter participation.

The data Friedman tested and measured may show the U.S. lagging in these cross-country comparisons but our track record can change, he says, if Americans are willing to seriously observe and learn from other countries. Part of the problem stems from the U.S. political process "which really does prevent a lot of meaningful change from happening" and from jaded Americans who have become ignorant of the country's economic and societal decline, Friedman argues.

"Americans don't realize that a lot of our practices aren't normal," he says. "And they're not typical of wealthy countries. They're really far behind the curve. So I think awareness is an issue. I think there is some complacency that goes on as well. We're not at a point where people feel the need for change."

According to Friedman, the biggest challenge for the U.S. centers on the nation's rising income inequality, a problem that led to the Occupy Wall Street protests and one that has become a central theme of President Obama's reelection campaign. The U.S. "has substantially higher levels of income and wealth inequality than our competition," according to Friedman, and Americans' "staunch faith" in U.S. meritocracy is a misconception derived from false notions.

"The U.S. has far less social mobility than other wealthy countries," he says. "The American dream of this social mobility actually turns out to be a myth. The top student from a poor neighborhood has roughly the same chance of graduating college as the worst student from a wealthy neighborhood. That's not a meritocracy. And that leads us to a system where those who have the most will continue to have more and more and the rest will struggle." (See: The 'American Dream' Is a Myth: Joseph Stiglitz on 'The Price of Inequality')

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