The USA Is Number One (in Cheese Production)!

America is still the best in the world in these 24 weird, surprising, and inspiring categories.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

As we celebrate the 236th anniversary of America’s independence, it’s a good time to reflect on all the things that make the United States the greatest country in the world. Like, for instance … well … hmm.

We’re billed as the land of the free, but we’re actually 47th in press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders, behind Botswana and El Salvador. We’re 10th in economic freedom, according to the Heritage Foundation—not bad, but not quite on the level of Canada or Mauritius. We’re 51st in math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum. We spend by far the most on health care, but can’t crack the top 20 in life expectancy. And while we remain the richest country in terms of gross domestic product, we’re anywhere from sixth to 19th in per-capita income, depending on how you count. (Plus, no one expects us to hold off China for long when it comes to GDP.)

So what do we lead the world in? If you believe Will McAvoy, the news anchor on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the United States is tops in just three things: “number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending.” Actually, McAvoy is forgetting a litany of other horrible metrics in which the United States ranks first. There’s also obesity, divorce, illegal drug use, pornography, student loan debt—the list goes on.

But come on—don’t we lead the world in anything we can be proud of? Indeed, we do! To celebrate July 4, here is a list of some rather obvious, some surprising, and some genuinely inspiring achievements that put the “exceptional” in “American exceptionalism.”

Cheese. No one churns out pressed milk curds like we do. (Well, unless you count the European Union’s 27 members as a single entity—but let’s not.) Here’s to you, Wisconsin. And while we’re on the subject of agriculture: The United States dominates the global standings in both beef and corn production as well.

Olympic medals. We’re tops among men and women, in summer and winter.

Foreign aid. The United States gives the most overall for both development and humanitarian purposes. Sure, Norway gives more per capita. But we have more a lot more capitas.

Billionaires. We may no longer have the world’s richest person—that’s Mexico’s Carlos Slim—but we still have 11 of the top 20, from Gates to Buffett to Sheldon Adelson. And we have more than 400 billionaires total, suggesting that even when the United States is no longer the richest country, it will remain the best country in which to get rich.

Roads. Our highways and byways sport some potholes, but we still have a lot more miles paved than any other country. Good thing, because we also own the most cars. And sticking with infrastructure, we no longer have any of the world’s five tallest buildings, but we do top the list in innovative building design, according to a recent study in KPMG. Whatever that means, we’ll take it!

CO2 emission reductions. No, this statistic does not come from some parallel universe in which Al Gore defeated George W. Bush. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States’ economic slowdown and natural gas boom have combined to make it the world’s largest reducer of carbon emissions since 2006, cutting 7.7 percent. Who needs the Kyoto Protocol when we’ve got fracking?

Patents. Americans aren’t actually filing the most patents per year anymore—that honor goes to China, followed by Japan. But more patents are filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office than anywhere else, with nonresidents now making up about half of the total.

Worker productivity. Norway’s workers contribute more productivity per hour, but they also take more vacations, according to a 2008 report. On a per-year basis, our sweat and sleeplessness pay off—for our employers, anyway.

Research universities. Starting with Harvard, MIT, and Yale, the United States has 13 of the top 20 in U.S. News’ global rankings.

Rollercoasters. With 658 coasters, some 40 of which loop the loop, the United States leads China in both quantity and quality.

Marine protected areas. The United States has more than 225 areas under protection. Is that better than just having one or two gigantic areas under protection? Perhaps not for the fish, but if nothing else, it reflects a serious effort to balance the interests of conservation and commerce.

Cats and dogs. Americans own millions more of both than the residents of any other country. Second-place Brazil has fewer than half as many dogs.

Legal immigrants. A whopping 35.5 million as of 2005. Our immigration system may be broken, but it’s not as broken as a lot of other countries’ immigration systems.

Generosity. What American decline? The United States jumped from fifth place to first in the U.K.-based Charity Aid Foundation’s latest World Giving Index, which grades countries on three metrics: volunteering, helping strangers, and donating money.

Patriotism. Even if the facts don’t always bear us out, we’re still convinced that our country is tops. In a World Values Survey, 77 percent of Americans reported being “very proud of their nationality,” more than any other country polled. Well, technically, we were tied for first with Ireland. And the survey in question is from the 1990s. But how else could you explain all those people still singing along with Lee Greenwood every Fourth of July?

Media. We have the most newspapers, radios, television broadcast stations, and hours of television watched per day. Oops, maybe that last one isn’t so inspiring. But hey, it’s a holiday. Go ahead and enjoy the fireworks on your boob tube. In the land of the 47th-most-free, no one’s going to stop you.

Thanks to Natasha Geiling for research assistance.