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Kristof: For social progress, we're not No. 1

  • Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

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, 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 No. 1!

In some ways we indisputably are, but a major new ranking of livability in 132 countries puts the U.S. in a sobering 16th place. We underperform because our economic and military strengths don't translate into well-being for the average citizen.

In the Social Progress Index, the U.S. excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th 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 U.S. ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one in five Americans lacks Internet access.

"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, which oversees the index. The U.S. 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 No. 1, followed by Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands. All are somewhat poorer than the United States 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 U.S. competitiveness. Looking at this report, it seems that the opposite is true.


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