January has turned out to be a banner month for fans of American exceptionalism. As documented in voluminous detail in a 404-page report released last week by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, Americans lead shorter lives than Western Europeans, Australians, Japanese and Canadians. Of the 17 countries measured, the United States placed dead last in life expectancy, even though we lead the planet in the amount we spend on health care (17.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 vs. 11.6 percent each for France and Germany). We get radically less bang for the buck than comparable nations. If that’s not exceptionalism, I don’t know what is.
Americans die young. The death rate for Americans younger than 50, the report showed, is almost off the comparative charts. A range of exceptionally American factors — car usage and lack of exercise, junk-food diets, violent deaths from guns, high numbers of uninsured and a concomitant lack of treatment, the high rate of poverty — all contribute to this grim distinction. Of the 17 nations studied, the United States ranks first in violent deaths, at roughly three times the level of second-ranking Finland and 15 times that of Japan, which ranked last. This list includes violent deaths by all means, not just gunshots, so it’s a pretty fair measure of either different people’s inherent propensity toward violence or the access people have to deadly weapons when they get violent. (To look at this list and conclude that guns have nothing to do with the rate of violent deaths, you have to believe that Americans are just much more murderous than anybody else.)