If you’re reading this, you're using the internet. And the fact that you have the internet means things may suck, but they could probably be worse. You also probably have things like food, some political freedom, and a place to take a shit that isn’t the same place you get your drinking water.
A lot of what you have has a lot to do with where you were born. America has always been a pretty good option relatively speaking—at least as long as you were a white male. And even if you weren’t a white guy, things probably weren’t as bad as they were in, say, North Korea or Saudi Arabia. As President Barack Obama has noted, reminding listeners first of the poverty of his father’s upbringing in Kenya and his parents’ interracial marriage, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
That may be true. But, for most of us, is being born in America these days really all it’s cracked up to be? A new index produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of The Economist magazine, says America is still pretty good, but by no means the best. In fact, it’s tied with Germany for only 16th on the list.
The rankings are sure to be hotly contested. But they aren’t arbitrary. For its “Where-to-Be-Born” index, the EIU compiled data on 11 “statistically significant indicators,” taking a look at how a child’s life is likely to turn out based on birth country. That required looking at a few fixed factors, like geography, life expectancy at birth, divorce rates as a measurement of family stability, climate, crime and terrorism rates, gender equality, and per capita GDP.
The index also incorporated a bit of projection-making. For example, when measuring income per person, the EIU made projections regarding how that income might change between now and 2030, which is right about the time a baby born today would enter adulthood.
The strongest predictors are as predictable as they are inherently cynical. Per capita GDP accounted for two-thirds of the life-satisfaction variation between countries. In rich countries, people with higher incomes were more “satisfied” than their compatriots with lower incomes. Money, it seems, does buy happiness.
Not long ago, America was top dog. As Laza Kekic, director of country forecasting services for the EIU, points out, The Economist rated the United States as the best place to be born in 1988. That index was a bit less serious. It included indicators like a “philistine factor,” which measured cultural poverty, and a “yawn index,” described as “the degree to which a country might, despite all its virtues, be irredeemably boring.”
But culture notwithstanding, why does America rate so poorly today compared to its (mostly) European counterparts? Kekic’s analysis offers a few insights:
…over several decades there has been only a very modest upward trend in average life satisfaction scores in developed nations, whereas average income has grown substantially. The explanation is that there are factors associated with development that, in part, offset the positive impact. A concomitant breakdown of traditional institutions is manifested in the decline of religiosity and of trade unions; a marked rise in various social pathologies (crime, drug and alcohol addiction); a decline in political participation and of trust in public authority; and the erosion of the institutions of family and marriage.
Sounds about right. I can’t help but think of the Bruce Springsteen song, “Born in the U.S.A.,” released four years before The Economist ranked America numero uno, as prophetic in retrospect. It described perfectly the underlying social, economic and moral disintegration that would come to define greater and greater swaths of American society in the ensuing decades:
Born down in a dead man's town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground. / You end up like a dog that's been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up.
Just a few days ago, Steven Rattner, described as a “long-time Wall Street financier,” compiled his favorite charts of the year for The New York Times.A few of these charts shed some light on why it’s better to be born Swiss in 2013.
Take this chart depicting real (inflation-adjusted) median incomes:
And remember that quote from a few paragraphs ago which read that “there has been only a very modest upward trend in average life satisfaction scores in developed nations, whereas average income has grown substantially”? Something tells me the following graph goes a long way toward explaining that seeming paradox, which, as it turns out isn’t a paradox at all. Average income is going up, but only for some:
You’re reading right. In 2010, a full 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent of Americans. What’s more, 37 percent of those gains went to just the top .01 percent.
And, just for fun, let’s throw in this third graph chosen by Rattner, which shows how expensive healthcare has gotten since “Born in the U.S.A.” was written:
Which stings even more when coupled with the fact that the United States ranks 51st in average life expectancy, according to the CIA World Factbook.
There's a lot to be said for culture. I don’t know how America stacks up in the yawn and philistine departments today, but my feeling is America would fare a bit better again if they were taken back into consideration.
Still, if Pitchfork’s best-of list for 2012 is any indication, we may be in trouble. It’s almost become cliché to cite Edward Gibbon right about now, but his description of the cultural decline preceding the fall of the Roman Empire felt particularly relevant as I thought about what to write for this, another blog post among the millions that will be published today.
The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.
Hey, at least we aren't responsible for One Direction or Gangnam Style.
Lead image via Rock The Desert