Global Testing

November 2004


Most Americans neither care what the world thinks of us, nor why, and that is a shame. There are a lot of really smart people around the world and it is a pity we're so short sighted as to ignore them.

In the recent political campaign, one of the candidates made a big mistake by referring to a "global test" of policies that he would use to judge the policies of his administration. Well, Americans have always been easily upset by the notion that anyone, other than their own elected representatives, would tell them what to do. Leastways, they feel that way when some other government is doing the talking. They don't seem to mind at all when it is some foreign billionaire, or multinational corporation, spending untold millions on "lobbying" our government or finding intricate, barely legal ways to support political parties.

But to my mind, there is not anything worthwhile in this prejudice against submitting your conduct or the conduct of your government to comparison with other nations. We just don't do it much. We don't do it much because we don't want to know if we do not compare favorably with other nations in any way. We don't want to know that we have the longest legal work week of any industrialized nation. We don't want to know that more than 20 other nations, including Portugal, have a lower infant mortality rate than we do.

We especially do not want to hear that other nations have tougher, more protective labor laws than we do, or that other nations take environmental pollution, workplace safety, and consumer protection much more seriously than our government does. When all the other industrialized nations of the world were ready to sign the Kyoto Accords, there were only two hold-outs: Russia, because they were struggling to keep their heads above water even without trying to solve an expensive and difficult problem like global warming, and us. I'll leave you to guess why we didn't.

It has always seemed crazy to me that American people seem so indifferent to their own welfare. Why wouldn't you want the toughest rules on workplace safety of any nation? It's your safety that's at stake. The difference in financial terms between implementing real safety improvements and paying disability and insurance claims is negligible. Even if we don't work in a directly affected job, what about our kids? What about other people's kids? Industry pundits will tell you that keeping people safe and uninjured is too expensive and non-competitive. Well, so it is, as compared to slave labor. That is why so many of our good jobs have been going overseas. We subsidize slave labor all over the world and then wonder why people don't like us as much as they used to.

If our nation looked seriously at other countries and saw what they were doing not as well, and helped them to do it better, and saw where they were doing it better, and accepted their help, we would be a much better country. We wouldn't be so afraid of other people, for one thing. For another, we'd have some weight to our argument that we were doing a pretty good job of things because we'd be comparing ourselves with somebody else. Sure, we get lots of comparisons, but we only get told about things we're best at or have more of. Well, in Portugal, they have fewer refrigerators and TVs per capita, but more of their babies live long enough to go to elementary school. Which is more important?

What are we afraid of? That somebody else should have had a good idea we didn't give them? When we test our policies and proposed legislation against the jury of world opinion, we ought to take a really good long look at those policies and laws if they run 180 degrees away from the consensus. The court of world opinion thinks chopping people's hands off for stealing is too harsh. The court of world opinion thinks women should be allowed to vote. The court of world opinion says that access to decent minimal health care should not be out of the reach of most of the people. Now, there may be some things the court of world opinion has gotten wrong, but that's OK. There are times when you feel that you're right, even when most folks think otherwise. Just because you consult with other people, does not mean that you'll do what they say.

People who won't even ask other people what they think of an idea are usually pretty short on good ideas.

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