Home > Uncategorized > We’re Not Number One

We’re Not Number One

by Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times (April 02 2014)

We in the United States grow up celebrating ourselves as the world’s most powerful nation, the world’s richest nation, the world’s freest and most blessed nation.

Sure, technically Norwegians may be wealthier per capita {1}, and the Japanese may live longer, but the world watches the NBA, melts at Katy Perry, uses iPhones to post on Facebook, trembles at our aircraft carriers, and blames the CIA for everything. We’re Number One!

In some ways we indisputably are, but a major new ranking of livability in 132 countries puts the United States in a sobering sixteenth place. We underperform because our economic and military strengths don’t translate into well-being for the average citizen.

In the Social Progress Index {3}, the United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks seventieth in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access {4}.

“It’s astonishing that for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag”, notes Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative {3}, which oversees the index. The United States has done better at investing in drones than in children, and cuts in social services could fray the social fabric further.

This Social Progress Index ranks New Zealand Number One, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. All are somewhat poorer than America per capita, yet they appear to do a better job of meeting the needs of their people.

The Social Progress Index is a brainchild of Michael E Porter, the eminent Harvard business professor who earlier helped develop the Global Competitiveness Report. Porter is a Republican whose work, until now, has focused on economic metrics.

“This is kind of a journey for me”, Porter told me. He said that he became increasingly aware that social factors support economic growth: tax policy and regulations affect economic prospects, but so do schooling, health and a society’s inclusiveness.

So Porter and a team of experts spent two years developing this index, based on a vast amount of data reflecting suicide, property rights, school attendance, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, opportunity for women, religious freedom, nutrition, electrification and much more.

Many who back proposed Republican cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and public services believe that such trims would boost America’s competitiveness. Looking at this report, it seems that the opposite is true.

Ireland, from which so many people fled in the nineteenth century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks fifteenth. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of “opportunity”.

Canada came in seventh, the best among the nations in the G-7. Germany is twelfth, Britain thirteenth and Japan fourteenth.

The bottom spot on the ranking was filled by Chad. Just above it were Central African Republic, Burundi, Guinea, Sudan and Angola.

Professor Porter notes that Arab Spring countries had longstanding problems leading to poor scores in the “opportunity” category. If that’s a predictor of trouble, as he thinks it may be, then Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran should be on guard. None do well in the category of opportunity.

In contrast, some countries punch well above their weight. Costa Rica performs better than much richer countries, and so do the Philippines, Estonia and Jamaica. In Africa, Malawi, Ghana and Liberia shine. Bangladesh (number 99) ranks ahead of wealthier India (number 102). Likewise, Ukraine (number 62) outperforms Russia (number eighty).

China does poorly, ranking ninetieth, behind its poorer neighbor Mongolia (number 89). China performs well in basic education but lags in areas such as personal rights and access to information.

All this goes to what kind of a nation we want to be, and whether we put too much faith in GDP as a metric.

Over all, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006 {5}. But 99 percent of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99 percent of the American population. Exclude the top one percent, and the average French citizen did better than the average American. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has stunted our social progress.

There are no quick fixes, but basic education and health care are obvious places to begin, especially in the first few years of life, when returns are the highest.

The arguments for boosting opportunity or social services usually revolve around social justice and fairness. The Social Progress Index offers a reminder that what’s at stake is also the health of our society – and our competitiveness around the globe.

Links:

{1} http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD

{2} http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN

{3} http://www.socialprogressimperative.org/

{4} http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/08/26/home-broadband-2013/

{5} http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/atkinson-piketty-saezJEL10.pdf

_____

I invite you to visit my blog, http://www.nytimes.com/ontheground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/opinion/were-not-no-1-were-not-no-1.html

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