Mis-Measuring Our Lives

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

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david power
6 years 11 months ago
Fascinating statistics.
The ground we rise from forms us for good and bad.Materialism breeds misery.I spent four years in Latin America and never failed to meet the unhappiness of those who measured their own lives and those of others in  monetary or material terms. The "Ignorant" who could sooner doubt the sun in the sky as God just got on with life and, without wishing to fall into idealism , saw more happiness in a month than a Westerm European sees in a year.
I know chinese teeth better than I do French or Italian teeth for the simple reason that the chinese laugh and guffaw more than either.People have lived and died and will live and die and the only hope is that the one ,true ,Holy and Apostolic catholic church will save us from the postivism lurking in this article. 
I "posit" as the pretensious say that there is an inherent conflict between the justice and peace brigade and Jesus of Nazareth.Those who seek the perfect society (no, just a more just one!) should get a one-way ticket to Babel.
A subtitle to most of these articles could be "the Abolition of Mystery". People writing about economics and politics and dental hygiene don't really massage the aching feet of this world.When Alberto Hurtado SJ was asked by a young seminarian what he should specialize in (moral theology ,ecclesiology-Wojtyla's answer, dogmatic theology,canon Law ) so many options.Hurtado said "You should specialize in Jesus Christ". A real saint know what the world lacks.Hurtado did more for the poor than probably anybody else in that part of Latin America in the last century.Hogar de Cristo.              
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 11 months ago
While there is much to be learned from the information in this article, there remains some need for clarification and, indeed, some need for questioning. For example, the statistic that 22 of the 34 OECD nations work fewer hours should be directly coupled with the statistic, given later and separately, that the US has the second highest per capita income of all these nations, save only tiny Luxembourg. It should surprise very few that Americans on average work harder than most and make more than almost all: on average, we are an industrious people. There are some other factors that are not covered here concerning comparisons and definitions of the poor, such as amount of protein available to those at the poverty level in different countries, that suggest limitations to the study.

The other point is perhaps even more relevant. This 2008 report ranks the US on amount and quality of education as #6, in the top quintile. But a 2010 report covering the performance of 15 year olds in the OECD countries ranks the US 19th overall, and 25th in the critical area of math performance. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, commenting on the study, said, "This is an absolute wake-up call for America." Far from the top quintile, this more recent study, the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, ranks the US in the bottom half of OECD countries.

The causes of poverty? Fr Coleman suggests a major one: the number of single mothers. The other most significant contributor to poverty in the US is failure to graduate from high school. I believe we, as Catholic Christians, are in a position to positively impact these two major factors contributing to poverty. One, to introduce moral and religious instruction into our public school system. Sweden, Germany, Norway, and most other countries of Western Europe include religious instruction in their public schools, developing a moral sense in the process. The US has to its detriment banished such instruction. We should all support some forms of religious instruction in our school systems as our less troubled Scandanavian countries do.

In addition, the failure to graduate/poverty numbers are most troublesome in our inner city schools. Since parochial inner city schools usually have a lower (as much as 15 times lower) failure to graduate rate than neighboring public schools, we as Catholic Christians should in good will attempt to extend that option to those inner city parents and their children who cannot afford it. Since self-discipline is involved in the difference in performance, likely vouchers would reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies and obesity rates as well, improving health and poverty numbers generally.

Ignoring inequality, especially poverty, is not an option, as stated. We should consider leaders who would seek to return religious instruction to our public schools and offer the decent educational opportunities of vouchers that would treat the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poverty in America. 
J Cosgrove
6 years 11 months ago
There is a question of how accurate are all these statistics, and where accurate, what are their true causes.

For example, we are hearing the mantra these days of inequality in the US but for whatever inequality there is and there is certainly some inequality, has it changed recently.  And if has changed recently what are the causes and is it having a negative effect on the society.  Kopczuk and Saez wrote a paper, Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916–2000:


and found that the top 1% share of wealth has not varied in the last 40 years of the study.  The top 1% share of wealth averaged about 21-22% and was down from earlier times in the 20th century.  That does not support the increasing inequality of wealth argument.

The top 400 richest people in the US is often used as an indicator of wealth and in one 5 year period starting in 1996 their share of the wealth rose 50%.  How could such a small number of people get so much richer in such a short time.  This was in the 1996-2000 years and their wealth rose mainly because of the huge rise in wealth calculated from stock prices.  In other words their worth rose 50% due to the dot com bubble.  It then dropped down to almost 1996 levels before rising again during the housing boom and then dropped again after the financial crisis.  In other words a lot of the so called inequality was due to short term stock price movements.  Not really a good measure of capital wealth especially one so voluble.

Here is an article showing this movement and in 2009 the top 1% share was back at the pre dot com levels.  A quote from this article ''The most recent published studies on income inequality use 2006 or 2007 as their end point, without fully correcting for the business cycle. ... It is deeply misleading to talk about income inequality without properly taking into account the business cycle.  Since the peak of the business cycle in 2007, personal incomes have collapsed to a degree not seen since the Great Depression.  The most dramatic collapse has been in high incomes, as the most recent IRS data shows. For example, since 2007 the number of millionaires has dropped 40%, while income reported by millionaires has dropped in half. ...''


Another article discussing iincome inequality and how it is often distorted is


The better question is to find out why some remain poor from generation to generation.  One of the factors quoted in the OP above was ''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.''

We might want to ask who and what caused all these single parent families in the US?

I know some of the other statitstics quoted in this OP are tainted as one compares apples to oranges.  The health care ones have been disputed in several places.  Also the US is a huge country of 300 million people of amazing diversity and a frequent immigration target from poorer areas of the world and it is then compared to small very homogeneous countries in Europe.
Shayne LaBudda
6 years 11 months ago
It is correct that we in the US are industrious and do work more than most others on this planet.  On one hand it does lead (not entirely though) to a higher per capita income.  But what else do we get for our labors?: high infant mortality, higher health costs with lower overall state of health (not even mentioning mental health), and higher rates and levels of incarceration.  I take the central point of this piece to be that there are others who are getting a bigger bang for their buck.  If it's not a matter of where we've gone wrong, at least let's ask how can we, all of us, make our lives better?

To me, one of the central reasons we have such disparity of wealth, an unwillingness to recognize a common good, and why you'd better not hold your breath for introduction of religion and/or morality into public schools, is our cultural heterogeneity.  Most of the countries that have more favorable rankings are still, despite recent immigrations, very homogeneuos.  We are a very self-centered culture.  Here, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."  Almost everywhere else, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down."

If we were more willing to adopt and emply policies that just might let someone get a little more than me, we'd go a long way to alleviating the negative rankings cited. 
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 11 months ago
Shayne (#4),
I appreciate your thoughtful and relevant comments.
There is no question that homogeneous societies such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have a different circumstance regarding what works and doesn't work in their countries. While these countries have fundamentally capitalist systems that are more mixed than ours, they respond to the marketplace and human nature in their own way: Denmark, for instance, has just cut in half the period of time citizens are eligible for unemployment; Sweden has just cut its corporate tax rate, etc. Even Milton Friedman noted the differences between homogeneous societies such as these and Japan and ours. But bear in mind that Norway, for example, teaches the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc, even secular humanism, in their public schools. As a result they share not only a common religious tradtion, but an insight into the cultures of other peoples. 
Germany, however, is not such a homogeneous society as the above, and though it lacks their common church heritage, Germans address religious instructions in their schools according to the democratic votes of those in the school districts in which they reside. 
In a larger sense, though, we might do well to address the causes, not the symptoms, of these problems. For instance, you mention our high infant mortality rates. Obesity, as the fattest people in the world our greatest health epidemic, contributes significantly to infant risk, as well as our top standing on illegal drug usage. So perhaps it is legitimate to relate our health care, whether Obamacare or something else, to those good health habits the citizen in most cases can control: his eating and exercise habits, his avoidance of drugs, etc. Then we would tend to correct the problem, not ameliorate an effect that will simply grow on us, costing us more and more by the year with mediocre results.
And so it goes with many things. The solutions we offer contain the seeds of rewards the growth of the problem. Extend or increase the payments for unemployment, you motivate the recipient to remain unemployed; offer rewards of citizenship and benefits to the illegal immigrant for charity's sake; you discourage legal immigration and encourage more and more illegal immigration. We must seek ways of dealing with problems that do not in the long run serve to grow those problems to unmanageable proportions. Otherwise our short term fixes of the problems' symptoms will fertilize and water their growth for the future. Vouchers, for example, can accomplish that aim in one small but significant area, without costing the treasury more money that it doesn't have.
6 years 11 months ago
I am sad to see the early responses to Fr. Coleman seem to be keen on proving that we are OK in the USA. I thought Fr. Coleman was raising (as he often and usefully does) the problem of how in our "getting and spending we lay waste to our powers" (Thoreau).

 What would your give up to spend more time fishing or coaching your children's sports or arts? I know men who give up access to more income so they will have time for these activities that are utterly non-signifying in the GDP.

But putting their activities in terms of a question, as I just did, is almost not permitted in American commercial and political discourse.What do cloistered nuns contribute to the economy? How many jobs did St. Alberto Hurtado create in Chile? Unless you are a job-creator (i.e., rich or getting rich as scored by money), your prime responsibility is to consume. We all join in the December cliff-hanger ginned up by the lazy media - will the Christmas shopper save the economy?

That, as Fr. Coleman implies, is not the only question we can ask about or well-being. In fact, it is not the most important one. The most important one is one we probably are not asking.

The second and third responses above challenge Fr. Coleman's sources. To which it must be noted that there are two kinds of economists: Those who try to learn something new and those who try to prove what they, or the people paying for their work, believe. Vast think tanks labor manfully and girlfully each week to prove we already know everything the first kind of economists discover - and that the new discoveries are wrong, wrong-headed and dangerous to the American way of life. Caveat emptor.


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