I had occasion recently to write a longer essay on measuring the comparative well-being of nations which will appear in a Dutch-Flemish Jesuit journal, Streven. Many may know that the two Nobel economics laureates, Joseph Stiglitz and Armartya Sen, joined others in preparing a document for France's President Nicholas Sarkozy to help get a better take on comparative well-being ( which includes variables beyond the economic). Their thought has been recently published in Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Does Not Add Up ( 2011).
It is no easy task to measure true well being. A country ( e.g., Finland) may rank quite high on economic indices yet show considerably higher per capita suicide rates. Another ( e.g., China) may be growing in wealth, educational attainments etc. yet be experiencing severe environmental deterioration. To truly measure what economists have been calling ' sustainable development', we need not only economic indices for the present but also for the future ( e.g., Japan and much of Europe are not replenishing their population and getting considerably older). We need, as well, social indices ( what sociologists call ' social capital', i.e. bonded relations with friends, acquaiantances, one's community including such things as knowing and being able to rely on neighbors and friends for help and support). Finally, Stiglitz and Sen try to capture some measures of environmental sustainability ( water, air quality, replacement of depleted natural resources etc.). No one measure of national well-being, taken in complete isolation, captures the whole picture. As the old bromide puts it: ' having' does not and can not really replace ' being'
Both reports from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development ( O.E.C.D.--comprising 34 countries) and the United Nations' Human Development Index have been trying, in recent years, to make their measures of well-being more comprehensive. After all, just knowing what the national GNP is tells us nothing about its distribution.
I feel I got a snap-shot of some of these indices from O.E.C.D. reports about a series of issues country by country. On a range of issues countries ranked quite differently. Here are some sample findings. (1) Work-Life Balance: This measures amount of working hours and days per year versus leisure or vacation time. Denmark ranked first and the United States 23rd for the O.E.C.D. countries. U.S. workers worked more hours per year than the average O.E.C.D. rates, leaving less time for family and liesure. (2) Safety from Crime: Japan ranked best. The United States ranked 29th. The gun fatalities in the United States at 14.05 per 100,000 clearly and dramatically outranked all European countries and was startling higher than the O.E.C.D. averages.
(3) Perceived Life Satisfaction: This measure recorded a population's own perception of life satisfaction. The best countries were Denmark, Finland and The Netherlands. The United States ranked 13. (4) Comparative Health: Switzerland ranked first, Canada 3, The United States 16th. The United States, in particular, has higher obesity rates and a lower life expectancy than most European countries. It spends considerably more of its annual GNP on health care than most other advanced industrial countries but has less longevity or average health as a result. Fifty million un-insured does not help its ranking in comparative health statistics. ( 5) Quality of Governance: Australia ranked #1. The United States #3, Israel was ranked the worst.(6) The Environment: This measure was flawed since it only looked at air quality and did not address a wider range of environmental issues. On the measure used, Sweden ranked as #1, the U.S.A. ranked 18, Chile ranked lowest. (7) Housing: This measure looked to quality and amount of housing, calculating the number of square feet per person for living arrangements. Canada ranked #1, The U.S.A. #4. The worse ranked O.E.C.D. country was Turkey.
(8) Income per Capita: Luxembourg ranked #1, the U.S.A. # 2. The U.S.A. ranking, however, is very misleading since the United States has very high inequaloity of wealth ratings, a higher poverty rate and a very low social mobility index as we will see. (9) Income Equality: the highest countries on income equality were, in order: Norway, Australia, Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Finland. Belgium ranked #13, France #14. The ten worse O.E.C.D. countries on the measure of inequality were, in this order: Chile, Mexico, Turkey, The United States. Also on this top ten of most unequal countries on wealth distribution, after the United States, were, in order: Israel, Portugal, The United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, New Zealand. Another set of indices for economic well-being refer to social mobility opportunies within comparative countries ( rising in social class from class of origin or birth). Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium had higher social mobility rates than the United States. (10) Amount and Quality of Education: Canada, Finland and South Korea tied for first. The United States ranked # 6. (11) Levels of Incarceration: The average level of incarceration across the O.E.C.D. countries was 139 per 100,000 population. Iceland at 44 was the lowest in prison population. Japan, for example, had 63 and Australia stood at 129. The United States incarceration rate at 760 is startlingly high, 3 to 4 times what one finds elsewhere. The next highest incarceration rate after the United States was Poland at 225.
A related issue about social equality and social mobility rates refers to child poverty rates among countries. Key findings of a 2008 O.E.C.D. study of child poverty notes that, on average, across the 34 O.E.C.D. countries, around 13% of all children were poor in 2008. There was some variation, of course, across countries. Child poverty rates were below 8% in the Nordic countries, about 8% in the Netherlands, 10% in Belgium and exceeded 20% in Chile, Israel, Mexico, Turkey and The United States. The U.S. also, far and away, led in single parent families with children. Several factors contribute to child poverty. Two important ones are whether children live with a single parent ( a greater predictor of poverty) or with a parent who has paid work.
These comparative statitistics are not just for sheer ranking. They also help to forge policies. Thus, social mobility is increased by a mixture of very early childhood education, a social mix of children in schools, scholarships or other governmental support for tertiary education, progressive tax programs etc.
The 2008 O.E.C.D. report, Growing Inequality, puts the case in terms which might have some resonance, as we prepare for our presidential election. They also have a strong resonance wtih Catholic Social Teaching's notions of human dignity, solidarity and the common good. It said: " Growing inequality is divisive. It polarizes societies. It divides regions within countries and carves up the world between the rich and the poor. Greater income inequality stifles upward mobility between generations, making it harder for talented and hard working people to get the rewards they deserve[ or discouraging them from trying]. Ignoring Inequality is not an option!"
John A. Coleman