The United States occupies over 3.5 million square miles of North America and, with just under 250 million inhabitants, is the third most populous country in the world after China and India. The population structure is younger than that of most of the European countries, with 12.5 percent of the population older than 65 in 1990 and a large, middle-aged “baby boom ” population bulge. The majority of the population is Caucasian, but a large minority—20 percent in total—belong to one of four large ethnic groups: black, Hispanic, Asians, and Pacific Islander. The United States has the largest economy in the world, driven by a free enterprise system concentrated in manufacturing and service; agriculture, mining, fishing, and tourism also make substantial contributions. The per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States is second highest among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries (after Switzerland); at $21,399 in 19911 (84), but this hides a highly unequal distribution. Compared with most European countries, the poorest fifth of U.S. households has a smaller share of total income, and the wealthiest fifth has a higher share. Poverty rates are generally higher in the United States than in Europe; as of the mid- 1980s, 17 percent of U.S. children were living below the official poverty level (129). The U.S. government can be described as either a constitutional democracy or a federal republic. The powers of the three branches of government are balanced: the executive comprises
Time was when the United States led the world in the amount of education its young people received and in the proportion that graduated from college. This was the case throughout most of the twentieth century, up until the final decade. However, the OECD Factbook 2009 (2009) identifies nine countries with higher rates of “tertiary attainment ” for individuals in the 25–34 age group, and another four essentially equal to the United States at 39 percent. Some cold comfort might be had from noting that the United States improved on this score by 3.5 percent from 1997 to 2006, but the OECD average growth was more than 8 percent. 1 Even critics of such rankings admit that the proportion of young Americans graduating from college has virtually stagnated since the 1970s. 2 But the situation is worse than that. Demographic stagnation has been accompanied by increasing inequality. College completion has decreased for the lowest half of family incomes and increased for the upper half. In fact, rates of college attendance, graduation, and graduation from the selective institutions that promise the best career opportunities have all increased for the highest income groups but decreased for the lowest. These trends ought to disturb anyone concerned with the global competitiveness of the American workforce or the well being of our polity and society. These problems have scarcely been ignored during the decades in which they were gestating, but only in recent years has growing recognition evolved into
Six books are reviewed: 1. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, by John Lewis Gaddis, 2. James K. Polk, by John Seigenthaler, 3. We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, by David Herbert Donald, 4. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of The Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, by Michael McGerr, 5. Party of the People: A History of the Democrats, by Jules Witcover, and 6. Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, by Lewis L. Gould.