13 May 2010

We're not number one!

I'm a patriot, but we need to work harder on some things.


  1. Where's income? Seems like a pretty important one.

    And more importantly where are the controls? You can't compare life expectancy without controlling for genes. You can't compare education without controlling for IQ. You can't compare infant survival rates without controlling for abortion. You can't compare...

    What a crock.

  2. @outsider -- do you want inputs or outputs? I care about lifespan, not how much money I have. Your other complaints are nit-picking, but I'll give you #1 for complaining!

  3. I don't think it's important to be "no. 1" in any of these fields, so long as you have outcomes that are reasonably high from an absolute measurement rather than a relative measurement.

    And the truth is that the US is pretty good compared to most nations.

    And the truth is also that there are plenty of nations better than the US - nations that aren't always viewed as being "good" ones.

  4. Iceland is near the top in lots of categories, has a very small GDP, a tiny homogeneous population, very little industry, and is almost bankrupt.

    Is that something that the US should strive for?

  5. Since there is no uniform standard for taking many of these measurements, sometimes the comparisons are misleading. For instance, "infant mortality" includes miscarriages in some countries, other places exclude miscarriages and deaths of children younger than 10 days, and so forth. Life expectancy should probably be normed for ethnicity mixes and dietary habits, if one is to conclude that a country with high life expectancy is doing a better job. Mobile phone ownership is proportionately higher in LDCs, because thy never built land lines in the first place. These are all interesting and sometimes surprising pieces of information, but ones that are easy for those with a prior agenda to pounce on. Personally, I think measuring the percentage of a country's population with access to potable water is revealing. There are certainly more challenges for a country like Nigeria to do this, compared to Switzerland, for instance. However, even us libertarians think that broad access to wholesome drinking water, whether made possible by private industry or public utility, is a basic societal function.

  6. Complaining? Harrumph!

    David, I care about outcomes, of course. However, I have no idea whether the benefit of more mobile phones is higher than the cost. As such, I'll make the standard economist's assumption that people with more resources will be better able to make decisions that improve their own outcome -- as measured by their own standards. So income seems like a pretty important measure.

    I'm not sure why you think my other observations are nit-picking. I'm simply pointing out that we're not really comparing apples with other apples, here. Would you be interested in a study that showed the number of murders in a city varies directly with the number of kindergarten teachers? Of course not. You'd point out immediately that you've got to control for population size. That's all I'm getting at.

    Is that complaining? If so, point me toward Customer Service.

  7. Well, the USA is at or near the top in quite a few other categories, I will have you know!:

    "Ringing in at 1st place for fertilizer use, this country’s excessive application of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) fertilizers can result in the leaching of these chemicals into water bodies and remove, alter or destroy natural habitats. The USA also ranks in 1st place for CO2 emissions, 2nd place for water pollution, 3rd place for marine captures, and 9th place for threatened species."

    PLoS ONE: Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries

  8. My, goodness! The USA sure is terrible. I guess that explains why nobody ever wants to come here and why so many Americans are clamoring to get out and move to Japan -- where the infant survival rate is higher. Or Norway, where they'll have a chance to get a cell phone. You can barely even get them in America, you know. I once knew a guy whose twelve-year-old daughter had to use his old phone when he upgraded. It's like the third world, really.

  9. @Outsider -- when the alternative is Mexico, the US rocks! (But note how many Mexicans would prefer to make money here and go live there...)

  10. @Outsider - Until you mentioned Norway, it hadn't occurred to me that I know almost nobody my age or younger who emigrated to America from Scandinavia. Lots in my parents' generation, hardly any recently. Wonder why that is?

    I've got a really sweet spot here that makes it hard to leave, but in a few years, I might be clamoring to get out and move someplace with decent, accessible health care for ordinary people.

  11. Albionwood, you're making my point for me: The standard of living in Scandinavia has risen to about the same as level in the US, so there is less incentive to leave there and come here than there was for previous generations. By the way, I know lots of recent Scandinavian immigrants. And there'd be be even more if (legal) immigration to the US were more accessible.

    David, you're helping my case, too. Assuming the phenomenon you're describing is real, what does it take to get Jose to leave his family in Mexico? The chance at a better life, of course. Once he's achieved it, he wants to go back with them.

    I fail to see how either point invalidates my contention that income is an important metric. Perhaps even more important than renewable energy use, if you can imagine. And I'm still not sure why pointing out that the other metrics shown lack even the most basic controls is nit-picking.

    There's a certain breed of cat who gets a cheap, little thrill from taking the big, bad US of A down a couple pegs. Is that what you guys are doing? Just to show you I'm not a blind defender of the US, I'll give you my list of areas where the US is falling behind:

    Corporate tax rates.

    Complex and arbitrary regulation.

    Marginal tax rates on personal income.

    Class-warfare rhetoric.

    Commitment to educating the very brightest students.

    Rotary phones per capita.

    Openness to free trade.

    Lack of local control of (and responsibility for) schooling. This leads to absurdities like NCLB, lawsuits about whether there can be a prayer before football games, and the teachers' unions.

    That's just off the top of my head. A good-faith effort.

  12. @Outsider -- depending on your demographic category, I'd say that the US is better or worse for you, compared to Scandinavian countries. I am aware of the higher income burden in these places, but I am ALSO a big admirer of social cohesion and security. I know that SocSec is bankrupt, that my health care depends on ME, and that many people are not well educated. There are spill overs from this that I dislike. They are mentally and financially costly to ME. I am especially worried about the quality of life of my fellow citizens -- in that sense, I am an "irrational economist" since my definition of self interest is much broader than normal. (Of course, I work all day in the public interest, so you can imagine...)

    Norway or Sweden vs the US? Good question. My GF is from NL, and I have ZERO worries about moving there to work. I have much BIGGER worries about staying here, and I'd be paying a high price (culture, friends, income, etc...)

    The point of the OP is that we can do better. If you think that 20th rank is GOOD and should NOT be improved upon, than you are hopeless. If you agree that improvement is a good idea, then we agree.

  13. I don't think a broad view of your interests in irrational. What I think is irrational is supposing you know what others' interests for themselves ought to be.

    In other words, the idea that you could -- based on my "demographic category," no less! -- tell me whether the US is good or bad for me is pretty presumptuous.

  14. @Outsider -- well, then good. Let's assume a Rawlsian veil: Where would you rather live? Without culture and history as a constraint? Iceland or the US? Denmark or the US? France or the US? In all of these OTHER places, the "common man" is better protected from downside risk and reasonably rewarded for upside effort.

    (sorry, I didn't mean to pigeon-hole you, just to point out that winners and losers in the US are farther apart...)

  15. Presumptuous and Hopeless are heading for a Tea Party. Presumptuous asks for directions at a gas station.
    Hopeless yells at his wife that he doesn't need any stinking directions and drives aggressively through a pedestrian zone.
    Presumptuous arrives a little early to the Tea Party and finds out the tea is a filthy swill. PHTTTTOOOie--he spits out the rank tea. He is amazed that the other people can stomach such vapid crud.
    Hopeless pulls into an Arby's after using many gallons of premium in his giant SUV driving in circles and getting hopelessly lost.
    Presumptuous gets back on his bike and heads for home. The tea has left a bad taste in his mouth, but he washes it away with good tap water from his water bottle.
    Hopeless never finds the Tea Party, but his favorite talk show host assures him the tea is very very good, and that anyone who doesn't like the tea is very very bad.
    Since Hopeless is so comfortable in his life, he believes the talk show host.
    Since Presumptuous actually tasted the tea, he knows the talk show host is a liar.

  16. "Without culture and history as a constraint"?

    What do you mean here?

    Without biology as a constraint, would you rather be an eagle, a man, a woman, or a ground sloth?

    Unless I misinterpret your meaning, those constraints are critical.

    Physicist get teased when considering biology because they do not look at the constraints.

    The joke goes.

    Physicist talking, 'Consider a spherical cow.'

  17. David, that's my point about controls. Would I rather be a Swede in Sweden or a Swede in Duluth? Would I rather be an African in Atlanta or on in Nigeria? It matters. In other words, the winners and loser in America may be farther apart than they are in some other places, but that's not the same as saying the winners and losers in America are farther apart than they would be otherwise.

    I'm not sure who you are to say what is a reasonable balance between risk and reward for somebody else. It's not at all clear to me that Western Europe has achieved a better balance than the US, let alone an ideal one. But it does seem that it's more possible in the US to achieve whatever balance you'd like.

    (There's an argument, put forth by Nassim Taleb among others, that the apparent lack of downside risk is an illusion; that we've traded some high-probability, low-consequence risks for some low probability, very-high-consequence ones. If that's right, then my position is doubly strong.)

  18. @Eric -- I mean that some people prefer a shit hole b/c it's *their* shit hole.

    @Outsider -- no, downside risk weakens your point, since the social net is weaker here. You can go bk in the US health care system; you kids can get shot in US schools. I agree that someone who is careful can do better in the US (I love the cheese and wine in Berkeley), but the average person, with an average education, and average overweight is in trouble -- either in fear to come or pressure that's arrived.

    In some instances, they would not have got into this trouble; in others, they would be helped out.

    Remember my first point -- we can do better. I haven't heard anyone say anything against that. All I've heard is that they are worse than we are. Ultimately, that may be up for opinion, but better is better.

    Are some people saying that our "low" ranking in education or health is the result of a useful tradeoff for something else we value? What is it, please?

  19. My suggestion is that those supposed safety nets are a cause of major downside risk. So I'm sticking to my guns.

    I have pointed out that outcomes in health care and education depend on inputs outside the control of any policy or spending level -- genetic inputs, for example. Doesn't that count as an argument against? Even if that weren't true, it's always possible to spend another dollar to improve, say, education, but that doesn't mean it was worth it. I assume education and health care are like every other good: they produce diminishing returns until eventually the marginal unit is not worth it. My argument is that a free society (which I'm assuming we agree the US is relative to Western Europe or Japan) allows people to identify the optimal level of spending on these items.

    So maybe the trade-off for education is flat screen TVs. Or Hummers. Or McDonald's french fries. I have no idea. It doesn't matter.

  20. @outsider -- genetics matter, but they are known unknowns. US healthcare sucks; wrong incentives, etc. Doesn't even get close to diminishing returns. I agree that moral hazard can matter, but we are not even in the relevant range.

    I'd argue that the US is LESS free in several ways; our corruption makes us a better candidate for crony capitalism (not worse than JP, but DK, S or N for sure...)

  21. Hm. I think we're going in a big circle, here. I'll add one point, then you can have the last word if you want and maybe we'll meet up somewhere else.

    There is evidence that the we've long since passed the points of diminishing returns for both education and health care. There is no noticeable improvement in the outcomes for either for an incremental increase in spending. I think you read Robin Hanson's blog, so you'll know what I'm getting at.

    That said, I fully agree that the US health care system is a dog's breakfast. Unfortunately, all the so-called reforms we're seeing promise to make matters worse: more expensive, less responsive the consumers' demands. More equitable, perhaps, but at what seems to me a very, very high cost. That's my basic point about a lot of the items on that list.

    Okay, thanks for an interesting discussion.

  22. @Outsider -- my last word is that we agree about the screw ups in health and education. I wish -- and you wish -- that they were better. Looks like we disagree on diminishing returns; I don't think we are on the same "technological path" as other countries :)

  23. Good stuff. Thanks again, I enjoyed it.

  24. @Outsider, if I understand your argument correctly, you imply the US cannot improve its standings in things like education or health care. If so, that's a lot more anti-American than DZ's position. (FWIW, I too am pessimistic, because I don't see much evidence that Americans are willing or even able to change in any fundamental ways; or even that they are capable of recognizing the need to for change. We've become profoundly reactionary.)

  25. Wow. Reactionary? I have no idea what you're talking about. This might be the most progressive moment in American politics in the last hundred years.


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