The Right Coast

February 09, 2004
The city on the hill
By Tom Smith

I should have known better than to have started an argument with Professor Leiter about how to rank things, let alone about ranking the relative luckiness of someone born into the US compared to someone born into Norway, the Netherlands or Germany. Brian points to statistics that suggest poverty, infant mortality, and various other measures make the US worse off.

The measures are notoriously tricky, and I do need to get on with my own little life. But just to suggest how much salt must be taken with these numbers, take a look at the table that is supposed to be about poverty (and are from the site Brian directs us to). The numbers come from the Luxembourg Income Study, which of course makes me immediately skeptical, but nevertheless.: Scanning down the columns we do indeed get to about 17% poverty in the US, while Sweden has only about 6.5%. Oh dear! Are we really that bad? But wait a second. In 1992 the poverty rate in the Slovak Republic was only 2.1%? In Russia, where misery is an art form, only 18% in 2000? I don't think so! What are these numbers, anyway? Looking to the top of the chart we find the "poverty line" is defined as a percent of the median income. If you are below 50 percent of the median income, that's it, you're poor. Shut up and go back to watching your color TV. In other words, if you come from a poor country, such as Slovenia or Russia, you have a much better chance of not being poor. Geez. I hope the angel that guards the veil of ignorance explains this to people, or does s/he say, "No, really, you have a better chance of not being "poor" in Slovenia!" I think we need a measure of the poverty of poor people in the US that does penalize us for being so rich.

As to infant mortality, we don't look so bad on this UN chart from the site Brian links to. We are a 7 compared to UK's 5, whatever that means. The Central African Republic is about 100, which I take it is very, very bad. More to the point, I'm not sure how one should compare US infant mortalities with countries that seem to be getting out of the baby-making business as fast as they can. Europe is going through a birth rate collapse, a singularly odd and disquieting thing, I should think. We know from long experience with the French that they know how to make babies. So why don't they? Maybe humans are like other organisms that don't reproduce well in captivity. (Oh, OK, just kidding. Mostly.)

I would also want to hold out for some better numbers on actual wealth (not just distribution), such as some based on consumption (we ought to have an edge there!). Also, I think numbers on self-reported happiness would not be irrelevant.

And there are some other things to bear in mind. If you were a poor Hispanic family looking for a place to live, you would have better luck getting to Mars than getting into Sweden. They have this thing about people with dark skin. To get even with them for opposing the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon, who had nothing if not a wicked sense of humor, appointed an African-American ambassador to Sweden. They were furious. The new ambassador was greeted at the airport by Swedes brandishing signs bearing the N word. Those darn Swedes. How about some numbers on alcoholism and suicide? Would those be relevant?

My work is not done. But I need to read for my contracts class tomorrow, since in the morning I must testify against the miscreant who has been hanging phony checks around San Diego with my name on them. I am trying to get him a deal where the state will pay all of his expenses.