THE BLOG
04/15/2014 11:02 am ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

America by the Numbers: Part I

David McNew via Getty Images

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." -- Matthew 6:21

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. made public his opposition to the Vietnam War, articulated in his iconic "Beyond Vietnam" speech.

Presented at Riverside Church in New York City, "Beyond Vietnam" was the most controversial speech King ever delivered. In it, he confronted head-on America's "triple evils" -- racism, economic injustice, and militarism -- and called for "a radical revolution of values" to restore our nation's integrity. Afterwards, many supporters, black and white, abandoned him for daring to mix the anti-war and civil-rights movements.

Recently I watched Phyllis Cole-Dai's riveting 28-minute film "Beyond Vietnam: Summons to America." Cole-Dai uses excerpts of King's speech to narrate a montage of photographs from the '60s and '70s -- some uplifting and some horrific -- including gut-wrenching images of police brutality against civil-rights protestors, abject poverty in Appalachia, and Vietnam War atrocities. I was unprepared for the film's power, which superimposes America's undeniable transgressions with King's compelling summons to America to "come home." Indeed, I wept at the hard realization of how little has changed in the nearly half-century since King, addressing our better angels, paid the ultimate price for offering tough-love to his country. Of the evils to which King called attention, America has made limited progress only on one front (racism), while maintaining the status quo or losing ground on the other two. Numbers tell the story.

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. spent 52 percent of every tax dollar on defense. The 2015 budget, despite modest reductions in military appropriations, still devotes 50 percent of the discretionary budget to defense. America spends more on defense than the next 13 biggest military spenders combined.

Dwight Eisenhower, architect of the D-Day invasion, a Republican, and the 34th president, warned:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

America has remained at continual war virtually since World War II. Near the end of "Beyond Vietnam," King prophesied: "A nation the continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Ike, the soldier, and King, the preacher, both recognized that no nation can maintain a bloated war machine without compromising its social fabric: education, infrastructure, health, and well-being.

Our social fabric is seriously frayed. On April 8, the findings of this year's Social Progress Index (SPI) were released. Designed by Harvard University Business School Professor Michael Porter, the SPI evaluated 132 countries on a wide array of quality-of-life and well-being indicators. As expected, the US ranked high (second) in average per capita GDP at $45,336. (Of course, the average reveals nothing about the distribution and extremes that comprise that average.) On many other scales, however, we plummeted. "The US ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation, and 31st in personal safety." Other studies dice the education component more finely. In 2012 the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared the academic abilities of 15-year-olds in 65 countries. It ranked the US at 36th overall. American students performed poorly in reading and science, and well below average in mathematics. In no category did we break the top 20.

What about college education? Despite having the best system of higher education in the world, America is pricing the cost of higher education beyond the reach of many. Student debt has become a national crisis. On average today's graduate leaves college or university with $35,000 of debt. The costs of higher education are ballooning at a frightening pace. Why? Primarily because states, strapped for funds, are underwriting less, and secondarily because the federal government has reduced Pell grants. In contrast, following the Second World War, the federal government poured massive amounts of money into education through the GI Bill, with enormous benefit to American society.

Our bridges are collapsing, our highways and railways are crumbling, and our schools are failing because too much money that should go into education and infrastructure continues to finance the implements of war: stealth bombers, cruise missiles, and nuclear submarines.

The effects of skewed priorities are especially devastating for the poor. In regard to the second of King's evils -- economic injustice -- the US is losing ground. Time recently acknowledged, in the title of a feature article, what many know from the hardships of daily life: "There's A Class War Going On and the Poor Are Getting Their Butts Kicked." The article (April 1, 2014) reports:

[T]he share of income captured by the richest 10% of the population jumped dramatically from around 30% in 1980 to 48 percent by 2012, while the portion grasped by the population's richest 1% more than doubled, from 8% to 19%.

Other data show that since 2009, as the 1% got immensely richer, the bottom 90% got poorer. America, "the land of opportunity," tops the developed world in income inequality. A standard statistical measure of inequality is the Gini index; the higher that value, the greater the inequality. Ours is 45%. By contrast, the average Gini coefficient for the Scandinavian countries -- Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden -- is about 25%.

Income equality and social mobility are closely correlated. In general, countries with less income inequality have greater social mobility. If you want to live the American Dream, the quip goes, move to Denmark.

The income gap between haves and have-nots is growing because, by almost any standard, American workers are getting the shaft. As CEO salaries skyrocket, workers wages are stagnant or falling, despite increased productivity. We're working harder, and longer too. Virtually every country in the world mandates minimum leave for workers. In Germany, every worker is entitled to 25-44 days vacation, with 30 being standard. Canada mandates 15-25 days, Pakistan 14, and Sweden 38-48. The US? 0. With the collapse of unionization, American workers no longer have forceful advocacy. Last year private-sector union membership fell to 6.9%, the lowest percentage in more than a century. Combined public-private sector unionization is now at 12.4%, down from a high 35% in 1954, which many consider the peak of America's golden years.

In index after index, the US is fast-becoming second rate. Even in terms of freedom of the press, the US -- once a beacon to the free world -- is losing ground. The 2013 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders placed the US at 32nd, far behind the Scandinavian countries, and considerably behind the former Soviet-block countries of Poland and the Czech Republic. We retain first place in one category, however. America leads the world in incarceration rates: 716 prisoners per 100,000 population (more than half of which are black and Latino, so even our progress on racism is nothing to crow about). We imprison 2.5 times as many people per capita as does Iran.

Polls show that only 3 in 10 Americans see our country moving in the right direction. Americans differ on why we are going astray. For King, the reasons were all too clear: the collective influence of three interrelated evils -- racism, economic injustice, and militarism.

If America is to survive, let alone thrive, we must undergo King's long-delayed "radical revolution of values" and bring our economic system into alignment with those higher values. The next post will address how we might do just that.

(The author is grateful to Andy Schmookler for helpful comments on a draft of this essay.)