01/24/2013 04:03 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Potemkin Shambhala

Chances are you've heard the phrase "Potemkin village" -- a facade of prosperity built for show (a brilliant PR scam by Russian minister Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her tour of Russian countryside in 1787). What you probably haven't appreciated is the semantic irony of this phrase. Zhit v potemkakh is Russian for "living in the dark" (with the word potemki being Russian for "darkness, dusk").

This morning I had a painfully bright bulb go off in my head when I read the following:

"More than a fifth of [U.S.] children live in poverty -- the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind such countries as Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece." [Inequality Impedes Recovery, Joseph E. Stiglitz, New York Times, Jan 20th, 2013].

Many of us, living in the U.S., have been gradually waking up to the fact that this self-advertising shambhala of prosperity is an economic sham, a Potemkin facade of prosperity littered with underwater McMansions, a pseudo-meritocracy where, as Stiglitz astutely points out, economic inequality equals political inequality.

But what a statistic! Worse than Bulgaria in terms of the percentage of children living in poverty! Not that there's anything wrong with Bulgaria...

I don't know: maybe it's my formerly Russo-centric bias but this hit me pretty hard. I have nothing against Bulgaria (one of my best friends is an ethnic Bulgarian) but let's face it: economically, Bulgaria was the backwater of the Eastern bloc and now it's ahead of us on this arguably essential index of social justice.

On a different but similar note: just this week, we've learned that despite our exorbitant per capita healthcare expenditure, health-wise we are lagging behind much of the advanced world:

As of 2011, 27 countries had higher life expectancies at birth than the United States. Data from 2007 show Americans' life expectancy is 3.7 years shorter for men and 5.2 years shorter for women than in the leading nations -- Switzerland for men and Japan for women. [CNN]

Congratulations to Bulgaria, I guess. And congratulations to Sweden and Japan too. As for us, it's high time to stop dwelling in the darkness of our culturally ego-syntonic (face-saving) assumptions. It's time to prop up the promise of new economy with something better than two-by-fours -- say, with actual change?