If you're down on America, you've got a lot of company.
The U.S. economy is supposed to be recovering from a brutal recession, but instead we're stuck in a long rut of high unemployment and declining living standards. The politicians in Washington whose job is to make America better seem to be doing the opposite, arguing incessantly, accomplishing little, and wallowing in dysfunction. The mushrooming national debt—and the ineptitude of the government's stewards—could soon cause a downgrade in the nation's AAA credit rating, which would be the first ever. No wonder twice as many Americans feel their nation is on the wrong track as feel it's heading in the right direction.
Since we can't seem to get our own act together, perhaps we can lift our spirits by focusing for a moment on other countries that have similar--or even worse--problems. America's days as the world's most enviable democracy may be numbered, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we're still far from the bottom of the list of well-run nations. Here are 11 countries that make America look good:
Belgium. Perhaps the Tea Party should adopt Belgium as its model country—since it hasn't had a functioning national government for more than a year, a modern record. Few Belgians have complained, because regional and local governments handle most of the services that citizens depend on. And a caretaker national government has been able to administer the federal budget. But since elections last year, eight political parties that each earned a fraction of the votes have been unable to agree on who should run the country. The eight parties recently agreed to begin talks to maybe, someday, form a government.
Canada. It's irresistible to tweak our mild-mannered neighbors to the north for recent riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in hockey's Stanley Cup finals. The uncharacteristic mayhem included several stabbings, over 100 injuries, and more than a dozen torched vehicles. It could have happened in Los Angeles or Detroit or Baltimore—but for once, it didn't.
Greece. Greek entrepreneurs are known for their business savvy almost everywhere in the world, except in ... Greece. Two decades of nepotistic government hiring and swelling union wages have wrecked the Greek economy, leaving the government with a monstrous debt it can no longer pay on its own. Even with a European bailout, the wage and benefit cuts that many Greeks will be forced to endure will erode living standards for years.
Iceland. Bankers in this Scandinavian country went berserk in the early 2000s, after the banking sector was privatized. Banks offered high rates of return on deposits to attract gobs of foreign money, while lending lavishly in other countries. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, losses rapidly multiplied and depositors yanked their money, producing a run that led to the collapse of the whole banking sector. As part of the rout, Iceland's banks stiffed foreigners on about $5 billion worth of deposits. Iceland is now recovering, but a plunging currency has led to double-digit inflation and a national case of the blahs.
Ireland. At the worst point of the recent recession, the U.S. economy had contracted by about 3.1 percent. Ireland's economy, by contrast, has shrunk by a punishing 14 percent, according to Moody's Analytics, and it's probably going to get worse before it turns around. Ireland's property bust is more severe than America's, and the banking sector effectively became insolvent last year, forcing Ireland to seek a Greek-style bailout. Terms of the bailout are forcing sharp spending cuts that are pushing unemployment up. Ireland is also under pressure to raise its famously low corporate tax rate—at 12.5 percent, about one third the rate in the United States—but that could drive away multinationals that have become a key part of Ireland's economy.
Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is one of the most controversial leaders in Europe, thanks to ever-present sex scandals, the occasional appointment of showgirls to government posts, and recent feuds with high-ranking members of his own party. His antics might constitute an amusing sideshow if Italy were a vibrant, thriving nation. But it's not. A high debt load and stagnating economy could make Italy the next European basket case needing a Greek-style bailout—except that Italy is far bigger than Greece or Ireland, and a debt crisis there would overwhelm Europe's resources. Berlusconi's term extends to 2013, but calls for his resignation could force an earlier exit.
Japan. Its citizens have shown poise and dignity while rebuilding from the devastating tsunami and earthquake that hit earlier this year, but Japan is still mired in a two-decade slump it can't find a way out of. Deflation has been a persistent problem for years. Its dynamic economy has suffered from an overreliance on exports and passive decision-making by Japan's central bankers and other leaders. The meltdown at a nuclear complex following the tsunami highlighted the dysfunctional levels of distrust between government ministers, the bureaucrats who work for them, and business leaders—a problem that has prevented Japan from revitalizing its once vibrant economy.
Pakistan. It seems obvious that America' so-called ally harbored Osama bin Laden for years. Exasperated American officials are now turning up the heat, leaking evidence of Pakistani ties to terrorists and other nefarious deeds, such as the government's alleged role in the torture and death of a prominent Pakistani journalist earlier this year. The FBI recently arrested a Pakistani man in Virginia, claiming he's a spy. And the White House has suspended about $800 million in U.S. aid for Pakistan, out of $2 billion it provides every year.
Saudi Arabia. There's a big controversy in the desert kingdom over women drivers—and no, guys, it's not because they talk too much on their cellphones or can't stay in their lane. Saudi Arabia is the only nation in the world that effectively prohibits women from driving, along with opening their own bank accounts, getting a passport without a male guardian, and even showing their faces in public. Some Saudi women are fed up, and the arrest earlier this year of 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif for getting behind the wheel prompted female sympathizers to mount a social-media campaign and post YouTube videos of themselves driving on Saudi roads. No U.S. ally has less in common with American values (or more oil).
The United Kingdom. Imagine if it turned out that Fox News had illegally gathered information on thousands of newsworthy Americans, with the complicity of the FBI and top operatives in both the Republican and Democratic parties. That's essentially what's been unfolding in Great Britain's phone-hacking scandal, where several journalists working for Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World have been jailed, the head of Scotland Yard has resigned and other government officials have been charged with covering up the shenanigans, going back years. This follows a 2009 scandal in which nearly 400 current and former British legislators were ordered to repay the government for bogus expense claims that included TVs, tennis court repairs, mortgage payments, and other freebies. The British public may be even more disgusted with Parliament than Americans are with Congress.
Venezuela. This Latin American nation now has the world's largest proven oil reserves yet remains an economic backwater thanks to the command-style policies of dictator Hugo Chavez. Since gaining power in 1999, Chavez has nationalized many industries, reduced the economy's diversity and linked it closely with ups and downs in the volatile oil market. Inflation is running at 25 percent per year, one of the highest rates in the world. The government can't even keep the lights on: There are ongoing electrical blackouts, which the government blames on sabotage, excessive consumption, and unusual weather. In Washington, at least, inept politicians still blame each other.