Statistician Howard Steven Friedman has put together a book that ought to be useful to policymakers, The Measure of a Nation. Whether it is used will say something about our “competitive intelligence.”
Friedman systematically presents indicators of quality of life for the U.S. and 13 comparable nations – that is, populous nations in our wealth class, such as the UK, Netherlands, South Korea, and Australia. (I conducted a similar but miniature version of this exercise in this post.)
Friedman also directly addresses the resistance many Americans have to making such comparisons, a resistance based on our notion that U.S. is so different – so “exceptional” (see this post) – that it is literally “incomparable” and shouldn’t be compared.
This attitude, combined with Americans’ conviction that the we are Number 1 in everything (this earlier post), is self-defeating. In the corporate world, Friedman points out, companies engage in “competitive intelligence”: Find out what the other guys are doing; see what works for them; adopt it yourself. He cites IBM as a company that came back to strength just that way.
It seems obvious that comparing ourselves to our peers is a sensible way to measure how well we are doing and, more important, to pick up on “best practices.” Yet, it is striking how little such analyses appear in our public discussions. Efforts to make comparisons are often slapped down by charges that the speaker is trying to “Europeanize” the U.S. (post here). But Friedman shows us, with many easy-to-read graphs, some of the things we can learn from our competitors.
Health: Friedman takes the conventional claim that we have the “best health system in the world” and shows that, measured by the actual health of citizens in the 14 nations, ours is pretty mediocre. And, when you take a look at the health we get per health-care dollar spent, ours performs exceptionally poorly. (Granted: If money is no object and you can afford, say, to fly to the Mayo Clinic for check-ups, you can probably find the best health care in the world in the U.S.)
Safety: No surprise, but Americans suffer from abnormally high rates of criminal violence, despite incarcerating an abnormally high percentage of the population.
Education: While Americans are more educated than people in comparable nations, that edge is the result of having once been leaders in education, 50 or more years ago; our senior citizens and baby-boomers are better-educated than seniors and boomers elsewhere. But our youth are rapidly falling behind as other nations pass us by in secondary and college education. Again, on a per-dollar basis, we are getting a relatively lousy return on our education dollars.
Democracy: The U.S. has notably low levels of voter participation, political competition, and representation. (Each American shares one national representative with 580,000 people; in no other comparable country is that number higher than 200,000.) Our government is about average in effectiveness.
Opportunity: The U.S. is very high in economic inequality and also high in the difficulty individuals have to move up economically. Citizens elsewhere are both more equal and have a greater chance of advancing economically.
If we take the competitive intelligence model seriously and search for “best practices,” what is to be done?
Friedman makes many concrete suggestions, such as raising taxes on cigarettes nationally, moving toward a single-payer health care, gun control, longer school years, enlarging the House of Representatives, and raising the minimum wage. Whether these are the most effective policies and whether they have any political chance are other matters. At the least, Friedman argues, they derive from the sort of sober comparative intelligence that rational businesspeople expect.