07/25/2011 12:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

We're Number 34!

American exceptionalism glides complacently into the 21st century on a lie and a prayer. The lie comprises all the flag-waving hyperbole, the exceptionalist claim that "We're Number One," when as measured by far too many key indicators we are actually closer to being #10 (social mobility) or maybe #34 (infant mortality) or dead last -- pun intended -- in the percentage of our population we incarcerate. The prayer is the exceptionalists' hope that no one will notice their swaggering hypocrisy as they set about gutting and privatizing all the magnificent programs on which American greatness depends and downplay default on the national debt like a cynical old bankrupt.

The latest proof of hypocrisy comes from two closely related American flameouts. We just launched the 135th and last manned flight under the Space Shuttle program -- having declared we can no longer afford as a nation to explore the universe in person. And we are about to kill the James Webb telescope, the successor to the famous Hubble Space telescope that opened up the universe to our curiosity and scrutiny and helped animate the manned space program. The last frontier is today a bridge too far and America's journey to space joins the moribund TV series Star Trek. Space exploration is to be privatized, looking out to the edge of the cosmos to be terminated, and if we ever again want to go where no man has gone before, we will have to hitch a ride on Russian or Chinese rockets.

So all those fiscal conservatives and Tea Party complainers who deny the public good and insist government is a wastrel need to make up their minds: do they want the United States to be a third class mini-state with a fourth class public sector? In which case they can go on pretending a great nation's budget is just like a family budget to be trimmed and balanced, but stop pretending we're number one and admit we're actually a drop-out.

Or they can try to give some substance to their boasting and take steps to maintain our global leadership. In which case they need to be revitalizing and growing the public sector they are currently devastating. For it is the public sector with its "res publica" (public goods) that alone can undertake those great American projects like the national parks (remember that Republican giant Teddy Roosevelt?), space exploration and world-class K-12 education and health care systems -- which entails bold leadership and a willingness by Americans to pool some of our resources to make leadership possible (it's called "taxes").

It's not that we don't know how to be number one: in military expenditures we outspend the world, budgeting more for hard power than the next two dozen or so nations on earth including China, France, the U.K., Russia, Japan, Germany, Italy, Brazil, South Korea and Canada and another dozen nations put together. If we can do it here, we can do it in health, science, education and social justice.

What we can't do is have it both ways -- talk number one and behave like number 34. Proclaim our superiority and privatize or close down every meaningful public program. Strut like a wealthy cosmopolitan but tax ourselves like some parochial back-water bankrupt (about to default on our debts!).

Leadership is a competition in big deeds not big talk. Big deeds cost big bucks and demand from a people confidence and a willingness to sacrifice, as well as a firm sense of how the private and the public intersect and reinforce one another. No nation ever maintained a global role by dismantling its government and refusing to pay its bills. We certainly cannot be number one and turn over leadership in physics to Europe (as we did when we dropped out of the super-collider race and punted to CERN in Switzerland), end our manned space program and defund the Webb telescope, and give up on higher education and public health. Launching Predator drones over Pakistan while we stumble into default won't cut it.

In short, we can embrace timidity and go on maiming the public sector, destroying democratic governance and stashing our shrinking wealth (unequally divided) under our mattresses. Or we can walk the bold talk and share our common-wealth (well named!) and resume a global leadership rooted in vision, dynamism, equal sacrifice and hard work.

But please, all you "exceptionalists," all you libertarian and Tea-Party and fiscal conservative hypocrites, stop preening to show off your new clothes when you're dressed in tatters. Stop telling the world how great we are, and yet telling us how impotent we are to pay for, let alone realize, greatness. Stop shouting "WE'RE NUMBER ONE" when it's because of you we're heading for number 35.