The United States is exceptional along many dimensions. Sometimes, people pick two of these dimensions and try to argue that one causes the other. And that’s probably true sometimes. But “the USA is #1 in the world on dimension X, and #1 on dimension Y” isn’t much evidence that X causes Y.

The United States has:

  1. the 3rd largest population, and the largest population of any first-world country (by far)
  2. the 3rd or 4th largest land area (depending on how you measure USA’s and China’s land)
  3. the highest GDP of any country
  4. the highest median income, the 8th highest GDP per capita (PPP), and the highest GDP per capita of any large country (the top 7 countries combined have a lower population than California)
  5. unusually high income inequality for a developed country
  6. the highest healthcare expenditure per capita
  7. the highest gun ownership per capita (with double the gun ownership of the #2 country)
  8. an unusually high homicide rate for a developed country
  9. the most Nobel Prize winners winners (by a huge margin) and most Fields Medalists (narrowly beating France)
  10. the highest obesity rate of any large country, and the 11th highest overall
  11. the most top universities (whatever that means) by a wide margin
  12. unusually low life expectancy for a developed country
  13. an unusually high fertility rate for a developed country
  14. the 2nd most exports (after China) and the most imports (China is #2)
  15. the most military expenditures (by a factor of 3) and the 2nd most nuclear weapons

(Those were just the examples I could come up with in an hour of research.)

(I also looked at a few stats where I thought the USA might be exceptional, but it turned out not to be: IQ, educational attainment, infant mortality1, and net immigration.)

A lot of these facts are clearly intertwined—the fact that the US has the highest GDP is related to the facts that it has the highest military expenditures, the highest healthcare expenditures, and the 2nd highest exports. (But they’re not fully intertwined, because the US still has high military and healthcare expenditures relative to GDP.)

For other facts, you can come up with narratives as to why they’re related—maybe the high obesity rate causes the low life expectancy, maybe high gun ownership causes the (relatively) high homicide rate. But maybe not. The United States is weird and I don’t have a great handle on why it’s weird (and, as far as I know, nobody else does either). Until someone comes up with a Grand Theory of National Weirdness, I’m reluctant to pick two ways in which the USA is weird and claim one causes the other.


  1. Some sources say the USA has high infant mortality. I didn’t look into this much, but the CIA World Factbook claims that the USA defines infant mortality more broadly than most countries, and if you adjust for this, infant mortality looks similar to most developed countries.