United States (Overview), United States of America, popularly referred to as the United States or as America, a federal republic on the continent of North America, consisting of 48 contiguous states and the noncontiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii.
The total surface is of 9.826.630 km² (including the federal district of Columbia). The mount McKinley or Denali (6,194 ms), in Alaska, is the highest point of North America; the lowest point is in the valley of the Death, in California, a depression located 86 ms under the level of the sea.
The United States of America is a federal republic on the continent of North America. It has an area of 9,826,630 sq km (3,794,083 sq mi) and is the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada. The estimated U.S. population for the year 2006 is 298,444,220, third in the world behind China and India.
The United States consists of 48 contiguous states and the noncontiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii. In addition, the United States includes a number of outlying areas, such as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States, which are located on the Caribbean Sea, and the islands of American Samoa and Guam, located in the Pacific Ocean. The national capital is Washington, D.C., located along the banks of the Potomac River between the states of Maryland and Virginia.
The 50 U.S. states vary widely in size and population. The largest states in area are Alaska at 1,717,854 sq km (663,267 sq mi), followed by Texas, and California. The smallest state is Rhode Island, with an area of 4,002 sq km (1,545 sq mi). The state with the largest population is California (36,132,147, 2005 estimate), followed by Texas, and New York. Only 509,294 people (2005 estimate) live on the plateaus and rugged mountains of Wyoming, the least populous state.
Each state is subdivided into counties, with the exception of Louisiana, where comparable political units are called parishes. Within these counties and parishes, there are communities that range in size from small villages to towns to cities. Extensive areas of urban sprawl exist in larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City.
According to the 2000 census, the United States was a nation of 281,421,906 people. In 2006, the United States was estimated to have 298 million people. This population count makes the United States the third most populous country in the world, after China and India. Nearly 5 percent of the Earth’s inhabitants live in the United States. Historically, this nation has attracted vast numbers of immigrants from around the globe. Yet the United States remains less densely populated than other large countries or other industrialized nations—in 2006 there were 33 persons per sq km (84 per sq mi).
The population of the United States has grown continuously, from 4 million at the first national census in 1790, to 76 million in 1900, to 281 million in 2000. Its natural growth rate in 2006 was a moderate 0.6 percent compared with a 1.25 percent growth rate for the world. This U.S. growth rate reflects the 14.1 births and 8.3 deaths per 1,000 people that were occurring yearly in the United States. At this rate of growth, it would take the United States 77 years to double in population, while the world population would double in 55 years. These growth rates, both nationally and internationally, are likely to change, however, as birthrates were declining in developed and developing nations at the turn of the 21st century, and death rates were rising in parts of Africa and the former Soviet Union.
For a large country, the United States is also remarkably uniform linguistically and culturally. Only 6 percent of Americans in the 1990 census reported they spoke little or no English. This is very different from many other countries. In Canada, 68 percent of the population speaks only English, 13 percent speaks only French. India has 14 major languages and China 7 major dialects. The linguistic uniformity in the United States results from early British dominance and from widespread literacy. Advertising, movies, television, magazines, and newspapers that are distributed across the nation also promote a common language and common experiences.
Cultural differences among parts of the United States—north and south, east and west, island and mainland—are also disappearing. In the second half of the 20th century, Americans were more likely than ever before to travel or move to other parts of the country. The national media and large corporations promote the same fashions in dress, entertainment, and sometimes in behavior throughout the states and regions. Newer suburbs, apartments, offices, shops, factories, highways, hotels, gas stations, and schools tend to look much the same across the nation. The uniformity of the American media and the dominance of the English language not only characterize the United States, but increasingly influence cultures around the globe. E-mail and the Internet are the latest technologies that are spreading American English.
Although America’s culture is becoming more uniform, its society remains a diverse mix of ethnic, racial, and religious groups. The United States is a pluralistic society, meaning it is composed of many nationalities, races, religions, and creeds. Some of the people who immigrated to America embraced the opportunity to leave old cultures behind and to remake themselves unencumbered by past traditions and loyalties. Others found that the liberties promised under the Bill of Rights allowed for distinctiveness rather than uniformity, and they have taken pride in preserving and celebrating their origins. Many Americans find that pluralism adds to the richness and strength of the nation’s culture.
The diversity of the U.S. populace has been a source of friction, as well. Throughout the nation’s history, some segments of American society have sought to exclude people who differ from themselves in income, race, gender, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Even today, some citizens argue that recent arrivals to the United States are radically different from previous immigrants, can never be assimilated, and therefore should be barred from entry. There are very different understandings of what makes a person an American. The nation’s motto, E pluribus unum (“From many, one”), describes the linguistic and cultural similarities of the American people, but it falls short as a description of the diversities among and within the major groups—Native Americans, those whose families have been Americans for generations, and more recent immigrants. This diversity is one of America’s distinguishing characteristics.
EDUCATION AND CULTURE
American culture is rich, complex, and unique. It emerged from the short and rapid European conquest of an enormous landmass sparsely settled by diverse indigenous peoples. Although European cultural patterns predominated, especially in language, the arts, and political institutions, peoples from Africa, Asia, and North America also contributed to American culture. All of these groups influenced popular tastes in music, dress, entertainment, and cuisine. As a result, American culture possesses an unusual mixture of patterns and forms forged from among its diverse peoples. The many melodies of American culture have not always been harmonious, but its complexity has created a society that struggles to achieve tolerance and produces a uniquely casual personal style that identifies Americans everywhere. The country is strongly committed to democracy, in which views of the majority prevail, and strives for equality in law and institutions.
Characteristics such as democracy and equality flourished in the American environment long before taking firm root in European societies, where the ideals originated. As early as the 1780s, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, a French writer living in Pennsylvania who wrote under the pseudonym J. Hector St. John, was impressed by the democratic nature of early American society. It was not until the 19th century that these tendencies in America were most fully expressed. When French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, an acute social observer, traveled through the United States in the 1830s, he provided an unusually penetrating portrait of the nature of democracy in America and its cultural consequences. He commented that in all areas of culture—family life, law, arts, philosophy, and dress—Americans were inclined to emphasize the ordinary and easily accessible, rather than the unique and complex. His insight is as relevant today as it was when de Tocqueville visited the United States. As a result, American culture is more often defined by its popular and democratically inclusive features, such as blockbuster movies, television comedies, sports stars, and fast food, than by its more cultivated aspects as performed in theaters, published in books, or viewed in museums and galleries. Even the fine arts in modern America often partake of the energy and forms of popular culture, and modern arts are often a product of the fusion of fine and popular arts.
While America is probably most well known for its popular arts, Americans partake in an enormous range of cultural activities. Besides being avid readers of a great variety of books and magazines catering to differing tastes and interests, Americans also attend museums, operas, and ballets in large numbers. They listen to country and classical music, jazz and folk music, as well as classic rock-and-roll and new wave. Americans attend and participate in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer games. They enjoy food from a wide range of foreign cuisines, such as Chinese, Thai, Greek, French, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, and Cuban. They have also developed their own regional foods, such as California cuisine and Southwestern, Creole, and Southern cooking. Still evolving and drawing upon its ever more diverse population, American culture has come to symbolize what is most up-to-date and modern. American culture has also become increasingly international and is imported by countries around the world.
The U.S. economy is immense. In 2005 it included more than 295 million consumers and more than 20 million businesses. U.S. consumers purchase more than $6 trillion of goods and services annually, and businesses invest over a trillion dollars more for factories and equipment. In addition to spending by private households and businesses, government agencies at all levels (federal, state, and local) spend roughly an additional $2 trillion a year. In total, the annual value of all goods and services produced in the United States, known as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was $12.5 trillion in 2005.
Those levels of production, consumption, and spending make the U.S. economy by far the largest economy the world has ever known—despite the fact that some other nations have far more people, land, or other resources. Through most of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, U.S. citizens also enjoyed the highest material standards of living in the world. Some nations have higher per capita (per person) incomes than the United States. However, these comparisons are based on international exchange rates, which set the value of a country’s currency based on a narrow range of goods and services traded between nations. Most economists agree that the United States has a higher per capita income based on the total value of goods and services that households consume.
American prosperity has attracted worldwide attention and imitation. There are several key reasons why the U.S. economy has been so successful and other reasons why, in the 21st century, it is possible that some other industrialized nations will surpass the U.S. standard of living. To understand those historical and possible future events, it is important first to understand what an economic system is and how that system affects the way people make decisions about buying, selling, spending, saving, investing, working, and taking time for leisure activities.
This article consists of ten major sections. The first section of this article discusses how individual people, business and labor organizations, and social institutions make up the U.S. economic system. Next, the article discusses the production of goods and services. The third section describes the different types of businesses that operate in the United States, such as proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. It also discusses how entrepreneurs acquire and organize the funding and resources needed to run a business.
Capital, savings, and investment are taken up in the fourth section, which explains how the long-term growth of any economy depends upon the relationship between investments in capital goods (inventories and the facilities and equipment used to make products) and the level of saving in that economy. The next section explains the role money and financial markets play in the economy. Labor markets, the topic of section six, are also extremely important in the U.S. economy, because most people earn their incomes by working for wages and salaries. By the same token, for most firms, labor is the most costly input used in producing the things the firms sell.
The role of government in the U.S. economy is the subject of section seven. The government performs a number of economic roles that private markets cannot provide. It also offers some public services that elected officials believe will be in the best interests of the public. The relationship between the U.S. economy and the world economy is discussed in section eight. Section nine looks at current trends and issues that the U.S economy faces at the start of the 21st century. The final section provides an overview of the kinds of goods and services produced in the United States.
The institutions of all governments emerge from basic principles. In the United States the one basic principle is representative democracy, which defines a system in which the people govern themselves by electing their own leaders. The American government functions to secure this principle and to further the common interests of the people.
Democracy in America is based on six essential ideals: (1) People must accept the principle of majority rule. (2) The political rights of minorities must be protected. (3) Citizens must agree to a system of rule by law. (4) The free exchange of opinions and ideas must not be restricted. (5) All citizens must be equal before the law. (6) Government exists to serve the people, because it derives its power from the people. These ideals form the basis of the democratic system in the United States, which seeks to create a union of diverse peoples, places, and interests.
To implement its essential democratic ideals, the United States has built its government on four elements: (1) popular sovereignty, meaning that the people are the ultimate source of the government’s authority; (2) representative government; (3) checks and balances; and (4) federalism, an arrangement where powers are shared by different levels of government.
Every government has a source of its sovereignty or authority, and most of the political structures of the U.S. government apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In previous centuries the source of sovereignty in some countries was the monarchy-the divine right of kings to rule. Americans place the source of authority in the people who, in a democratic society, reign. In this idea the citizens collectively represent the nation’s authority. They then express that authority individually by voting to elect leaders to represent them in government. “I know no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1820, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” This was an experimental idea at the time, but today Americans take it for granted.
The second principle of U.S. democracy is representative government. In a representative government, the people delegate their powers to elected officials. In the United States, candidates compete for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, as well as for many state and local positions. In turn these elected officials represent the will of the people and ensure that the government is accountable to its citizens. In a democracy, the people exercise power through elections, which allow adult citizens of the United States the chance to have their voices heard and to influence government. With their vote, they can remove officials who ignore their intentions or who betray their trust. Political leaders are accountable as agents of the people; this accountability is an important feature of the American system of representative government.
In order to truly work, however, representative government must represent all people. Originally, the only people allowed to vote, and thus to be represented, were white men who owned property—a small percentage of the population. Gradually, voting rights were broadened to include white men without property, blacks, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, and women.
The third principle of American democracy is the system of checks and balances. The three branches of government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—restrain and stabilize one another through their separated functions. The legislative branch, represented by Congress, must pass bills before they can become law. The executive branch—namely, the president—can veto bills passed by Congress, thus preventing them from becoming law. In turn, by a two-thirds vote, Congress can override the president’s veto. The Supreme Court may invalidate acts of Congress by declaring them contrary to the Constitution of the United States, but Congress can change the Constitution through the amendment process.
The fourth principle of democracy in the United States is federalism. In the American federal system, the states and the national government divide authority. This division of power helps curb abuses by either the national or the state governments.
Source: United States (Overview)," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2006
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