Why America Is No Longer No. 1, in 9 Charts

Why America Is No Longer No. 1, in 9 Charts
Source: AP
Source: AP

In a scene from the pilot episode of HBO show The Newsroom, a young Northwestern student asks a panel of speakers to explain "why America is the greatest country in the world." 

While the of the panelists offer generically patriotic answers, the audience is stunned when news anchor Will McAvoy, the surly protagonist of Aaron Sorkin's network news drama, launches into furious rant attacking the idea that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world:


"We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending — where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined." 

A clip of that rant, "The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER" has received more than 7 million hits on YouTube, perhaps reflecting a frustration with the brand of American exceptionalism that's so strongly associated with the U.S. national identity. In a speech outlining his foreign policy plan, President Barack Obama said that he believes "in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being." And it is a concept seemingly intertwined with the American identity, and almost 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world — although this number is lower compared to previous generations

Sure, the United States is a global leader in some categories including international businesses, athletic endeavors, global innovationmilitary spendingbillionaires and wine consumption. But the U.S. also comes out on top in some not-so-enviable categories like obesity, incarceration rate and soda consumption.

There was a time when the United States was, perhaps, one of the best places to be in the world, but that's quickly changing. Here are some of the areas where the United States isn't on top:

1. Highest college graduation rate


Image Credit: OECD

Although many consider America to have the world's best higher education system, its global rank in college completion has continued to slip in recent decades.

According to a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States fell from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25-34 who hold degrees. In fact, America hasn't held the top spot in college attainment of young adults since the 1970s.

2. Wealthiest middle class

While the rich in the U.S. make considerably more than those in other countries, members of the American middle class are no longer the most affluent in the world.

Americans in the 20th income percentile earned less in 2010 than Canadian, Norwegian, Dutch, German, Swede and Finn counterparts.

3. Biggest trading nation

In 2012, the U.S. lost its title as the biggest trading nation in the world to China, according to official figures from both countries measuring the sum of exports and imports of goods.

While U.S. exports and imports totaled $3.82 trillion, China's trade in goods amounted to $3.87 trillion.

4. Best education in the world

In the West, many often assume that their education systems are the best. However, Finland and South Korea top the list of 40 developed countries with the best education systems, according to a global report by education firm Pearson. The United States, on the other hand, places 17th in the developed world for education.

The rankings were based on international test scores, graduation rates between 2006 and 2010 and the prevalence of higher education seekers.

This chart highlights the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's new global rankings of how students from different countries fared in math, reading and science.

5. Best country to do business in

The United States also does not lead the world in several categories of commerce and doing business.

The International Finance Corporation and the World Bank examined and ranked 183 countries in 11 categories including ease of doing business, starting a business, getting credit, etc., and the United States did not top any of them. Here's just one excerpt from the study:



6. Tallest building in the world

There was a time when the title of world's tallest building did belong to the United States, where the skyscraper was born.

At completion in April 1931, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world until it was dethroned by the World Trade Center in 1973 until the U.S. lost its footing in the skyscraper race to those in the Middle East and Asia.

Today the title is held by the UAE, with the Burj Khalifa standing at a whopping 828 meters tall and 163 floors.

7. Fastest Internet access

If you're looking for the world's fastest Internet, you'll have to head over to South Korea. 

The U.S. comes in ninth for Internet speed in the world. At the same time, despite having a sluggish average speed, the cost of getting online is pretty high compared to other countries.


8. Top country for auto manufacturing

Data from NationMaster 

In 2000, America led the world in car production with 12,799,857 units produced, followed by Japan at 10,140,796. However, the industry saw a steady decline in the U.S. by 2005. In 2008, Japan took over the No. 1 spot, followed by China.

China snagged the gold to become the world's leading car manufacturer after its largest private auto company bought Volvo from Ford in 2010.

9. Biggest high-technology export industry

The World Bank defines high-technologies as "products with high R&D intensity, such as in aerospace, computers, pharmaceuticals, scientific instruments and electrical machinery." 

In 2004, America led the world with high-technology exports worth $176 billion, compared to China's $163 billion. The rankings shifted the following year when Chinese high-technology exports were worth $215 billion over America's $190 billion.

In 2012, the United States slipped to third place producing $148 billion worth of high-tech exports, behind Germany (worth $183 billion) and China (worth $505 billion).