The US is the most powerful colossus in the history of the world: Our nuclear warheads could wipe out the globe, our enemies tweet on iPhones and kids worldwide bop to Beyonce.
Yet let us get real. All this has not benefited all Americans. A newly released global index finds that the US falls short, along with other powerful countries, on what matters most: assuring a high quality of life for ordinary citizens.
The Social Progress Index (SPI) for 2015 ranks the US 16th in the world. We may thump our chests and boast that we are No. 1, and in some ways we are. However, in important ways, we lag.
The SPI ranks the US 30th in life expectancy, 38th in saving children’s lives, and a humiliating 55th in women surviving childbirth. OK, we know that we have a high homicide rate, but we are at risk in other ways as well. We have higher traffic fatality rates than 37 other countries, and higher suicide rates than 80.
We also rank 32nd in preventing early marriage, 38th in the equality of our education system, 49th in high-school enrollment rates and 87th in cellphone use.
Ouch. “We’re No. 87” does not have much of a ring to it, does it?
Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who helped devise the SPI, says that it is important to have conventional economic measures such as GDP growth. However, social progress is also a critical measure, he notes, of how a country is serving its people.
“We’re not now No. 1 in a lot of stuff that traditionally we have been,” said Porter, an expert on international competitiveness. “What we’re learning is that the fact that we’re not No. 1 on this stuff also means that we’re facing long-term economic stresses.”
“We’re starting to understand that we can’t put economic development and social progress in two separate buckets,” Porter said. “There’s a dialectic here.”
The top countries in the 2015 SPI are Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand and Canada. Of the 133 countries rated, the Central African Republic is last, just after Chad and Afghanistan.
Sri Lanka does better than India. Bangladesh outperforms Pakistan. The Philippines and South Africa do better than Russia. Mongolia comes in ahead of China. And Canada wallops the US.
One way of looking at the index is to learn from countries that outperform by having social indicators better than their income levels. By that standard, the biggest stars are Costa Rica and Uruguay, with New Zealand and Rwanda also outperforming.
“This takes time,” said Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which produces the index. “Costa Rica is an overperformer because of its history.”
Green notes that Costa Rica offered free, universal primary education in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it disbanded its military forces and invested some of the savings in education. One payoff: Some surveys have found Costa Ricans among the happiest people in the world.
Then there are the underperformers that do worse than would be expected from their income level. Saudi Arabia leads that list.
The SPI, now in its second year, might seem a clarion call for greater equality, but that is not quite right. Porter and his number-crunchers found only a mild correlation between economic equality (measured by Gini coefficient) and social progress. What mattered much more was poverty.
Of course, wealthy countries with high poverty tend to be unequal as well. However, inequality at the top seems to matter less for well-being than inequality at the bottom. Perhaps we should worry less about reining in the top 1 percent and more about helping the bottom 20 percent.
On the other hand, one way to finance empowerment programs is to raise taxes on tycoons. And when there is tremendous inequality, the wealthy create private alternatives to public goods — private schools, private security forces, gated communities — that lead to disinvestment in public goods vital to the needy.
In any case, the 2015 SPI should serve notice to Americans — and to people around the globe. We obsess on the wrong measures, so we often have the wrong priorities.
As an American, what saddens me is also that our political system seems unable to rise to the challenges.
As Porter says, Americans generally understand that we face economic impediments such as declining infrastructure, yet we are frozen. We appreciate that our education system is a mess, yet we are passive.
We can send people to space and turn watches into computers, but we seem incapable of consensus on the issues that matter most to our children — so our political system remains in gridlock, even as other countries pass us by.
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