The World’s Most Livable Cities

Which cities are the best places to live? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has set out to answer this question with its livability survey, which asses 140 cities based on such factors as overall stability (25% of total score), health care (20%), education (10%), infrastructure (20%) and culture and environment (25%) — the sorts of things most people agree are fundamental to individual and collective quality of life.

Here are the results for 2014, courtesy of Mic.com:

For the fourth year in a row, Melbourne took the top spot with a total score of 97.5 out of 100. The impressive score can be partially attributed to their perfect scores in the health care, infrastructure and education classifications. Several of Melbourne’s fellow Australian cities filled out much of the top 10, along with a handful from the Great White North. Combined, Australia and Canada scored big, claiming 7 out of the top 10 cities.

The remaining three cities were Vienna, Austria (2nd place), Helsinki, Finland (8th), and Auckland, New Zealand (10th).

As the article notes, while these top ten performed well in all the indicators measured, health care had a particularly strong impact:

A common factor of these livable cities was a high score in the health care category. The top nine spots all garnered scores of 100 in that category. To determine health care, the EIU looked at the availability and quality of private health care, availability and quality of public health care, availability of over-the-counter drugs, and general health care indicators.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer a variety of very livable cities, thanks in large part to their great health care, education, culture and environment, affording the countries general stability. Plus, as all English-speaking countries, they’re especially attractive destinations for any Americans considering a move.

Not only does being healthy have the obvious benefit of improving an individual’s mood, comfort, and longevity — all vital to life satisfaction — but in the aggregate, it improves entire communities. Healthy individuals are likelier to be more economically and socially productive, helping businesses and societies at large. They will be less burdensome to more expensive emergency services, and will have more disposable income on hand, since pooling the costs of health care through socialized insurance is less costly then spending a lot per person on expensive treatments.

But this study also highlight that there is more to quality of life than the bare necessities. Each of these cities offer an abundance of recreational and leisure options — well-kept green spaces, cultural centers, community events and facilities — that enliven individual lives and cultivate a sense of shared community. Good infrastructure provides access to these areas and events while helping to create more cohesion and interaction between various neighborhoods and enclaves. It is also telling that all the top cities are medium-sized, which suggests that being too big could present challenges to accommodating residents optimally.

All of this should be pretty obvious. But unfortunately, not enough municipal governments in the world, including in the U.S., have the vision and/or finances to make it happen, and too many city residents are apathetic, disenfranchised, or lack the community spirit to come together. Sub-national and national governments could be doing more to help local communities as well, especially as most countries, and the world at large, are either highly urbanized or becoming rapidly so. As cities begin to house more of the world’s population, and become the main drivers of economic, social, and cultural life, we need to work on making them as ideal for the human condition as possible. We have much to learn from the like of Melbourne, Vancouver, and other successful polities.

Melbourne, Australia — by some accounts, the best city in the world to live. Source: Getty Images / Mic.com

Restless Americans

To add insult to the injury of a stagnating economy, a report by economists Dan Hamermesh and Elena Stancanelli found that Americans are not only working longer than before (partly because they are making less per hour), but are increasingly more likely to toil outside of work hours, particularly at night and on weekends. As The Atlantic reported:

They found that on a typical weeknight, a quarter of American workers did some kind of work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. That’s a lot, compared with about seven percent in France and the Netherlands. The U.K. is closest to the U.S. on this measure, where 19 percent work during night hours. On the weekends, one in three workers in the U.S. were on the job, compared to one in five in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

All of this adds up: According to the OECD, the U.S. leads the way in average annual work hours at 1,790—200 more hours than France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. That works out to about 35 hours a week, but a recent Gallup poll found the average to be much higher than that—at 47 hours weekly. And perhaps that’s not surprising, when 55 percent of college grads report that they get their sense of identity from their work.

As usual, technology serves as the double-edged sword: in many respects, it has made work a lot easier, not to mention all the new leisure activities (video games, Netflix, game apps, etc). But technology also allows work to be more accessible from home or even while on vacation, making it harder for employees to ignore emails, calls, and assignments — and easier for employers to expect, if not demand, such extra labor.

The consequences of such a work-centered culture are dire: strained social life, reduced sleep, frayed romantic and sexual activity, increased stress and, with all that, worsening mental and physical health. With the boundaries between work and leisure increasingly blurring, will jobs come to dominate our lives in the same way they once did during the early Industrial Era (when child labor, 12-hour workdays, and other such practices were the norm)?

If that is the case, then the solution is more or less the same now as it was then: more solidarity and activism among workers in all the relevant spheres — economic, public, and political. There is no sense in making people work more for less, especially when employers themselves stand to lose a lot in terms of reduced productivity, moral, and health among their employees.

We also need a serious assessment of how our business culture — and culture at large — operates counter-productively for human flourishing. It is becoming accepted practice, once again, for companies to squeeze out more and more from their beleaguered workers while simultaneously offering little to nothing to recompense (on the contrary, the trend is for ever-meager benefits, raises, and upward mobility).

More distressingly, it seems that far too many Americans consider this arrangement to be, at the very least, tolerable, if not acceptable. Ours is a work-obsessed culture that celebrates sacrificing leisure and even health for the sake of being productive at some task, even if it is for a company we hate and for benefits that do not make up for it. I can devote a whole other blog to assessing why it is that the U.S. seems especially enthusiastic about toiling at our own expense, but for now I ask that we at least question what it is we value in terms of quality of life; separating work from leisure is the very least we can do to that end.

A Quick Guide to the Guaranteed Basic Income

Although not a new idea, the concept of a guaranteed basic income — also known as a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income — seems to be gaining a lot more traction lately. Amid concerns about rising poverty and inequality, as well as greater scrutiny on the failings and inefficiencies of current welfare programs, the allure of a more streamlined and equitable income for all seems obvious; hence why thinkers and activists across the political spectrum — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Milton Friedman — have advocated one form of it or another.

If you would like a great breakdown on what this idea entails and how it would be implemented, check out this article on Vox.com. It does a pretty good job of introducing the subject in a balanced and holistic way, including analyzing the various arguments for and against a basic income by conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. What do you think?

 

 

Chart: Poverty in Asia

Much has been made of the rise of Asia and the subsequent arrival of an “Asian Century“, whereby the continent will become the dominant economic, cultural, and political force in the 21st century world. Setting aside the sheer diversity of this massive landmass — in terms of both culture and fortune — most Asian nations still face tremendous challenges, namely in the area of poverty reduction. Consider the following chart:

Courtesy of The Economist.

As The Economist goes on to note:

Asia’s rapid economic growth has put it on track to eradicate “extreme” poverty, defined by the World Bank as daily consumption of less than $1.25 per person, by 2030. However, the Asian Development Bank reckons this is too low given that nowadays, things like mobile phones are seen as necessities; so it has calculated a more suitable daily minimum of $1.51.

This lifts Asia’s 2010 poverty rate to nearly one-third of the population, adding 343m people to the ranks of the poor. The ADB believes food insecurity, and the risks of natural disasters, global economic shocks and the like, should also be taken into account when measuring poverty. This would further raise Asia’s 2010 poverty rate, to nearly 50 percent.

As with so many other parts of the world, Asia holds tremendous promise but faces daunting challenges. As the continent grows richer and more powerful, despite millions being left behind in squalor, it may be wracked by the same strife and instability that historically bedevils most unequal societies.

Happy Women’s Equality Day

A good friend of mine reminded me of an anniversary I should have remembered: on this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, prohibiting any citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which for decades fought at both state and national levels to achieve the vote (indeed, the amendment had first been introduced by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton many years earlier in 1878).

Prior this amendment,  suffrage for women varied across the country, as the U.S. Constitution allows states to determine qualifications for voting. Since the nation’s independence, only New Jersey had allowed a limited form of women’s suffrage, which was revoked in 1807; the majority of states did not start granting some form of suffrage until the turn of the 20th century, not long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced legislation designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day; since then, every president has issued a public proclamation for the commemoration.

The full text of the resolution is as follows:

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and [3]
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and 
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place

The U.S. was among the earliest nations to allow women to vote, but not the very first. Several polities that were briefly or questionable independent had allowed women suffrage for a time, including the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands(1838), the Isle of Man (1881), and Franceville (1889). Moreover, there were some localities within particular realms, such as in Sweden and Colonial America, as well as among Amerindian groups like the Iroquois, that allowed some form of political participation for women.

But to keep it simple, we will start with what most scholars consider to be the first country to grant women suffrage: New Zealand, then an autonomous British colony, which granted allowed women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed two years later by fellow self-governing British colony South Australia; when Australia was formed in 1901, it allowed female suffrage one year later.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in 1907. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. It was not until after the First World War that many European, Asian, and African countries allowed women to vote, including most of the Western Hemisphere. Several countries did not adopt such measures until the mid to late 20th century, including France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952 ,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.

Among the most recent nations to join the trend are Namibia (1989), Samoa (1990), Qatar (1997), Bahrain (2002), Oman (2003), and finally the United Arab Emirates (2006, although suffrage is limited for men and women alike). Saudi Arabia remains the only country — unless you count Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy — where women cannot vote nor run for office, although it will presumably allow for both in 2015.

In any case, we have come a long way, even though voting is hardly the only area of concern for women’s rights. Check out this Atlantic article to see where women stand in various metric of well-being — from longevity to reproductive rights — across the world.

Another Study Finds U.S. Healthcare System Among Worst

I know reports like these are a dime a dozen, especially in post-recession America, but it bears reaffirmation, if only because a fair number of Americans still seem to think that our system is vastly superior to any existing or hypothetical alternative — even though the social and economic costs are vast and growing.

Let us start with this chart, courtesy of i09, which comes from a new report by the Commonwealth Fund, a private U.S-based foundation that promotes a more efficient healthcare. It compares the results of an extensive survey of patients and physicians across ten developed countries, looking at several relevant metrics.

Notice that by all measures, the United States is either middle-of-the-road or dead last , despite spending the most per person by far — $8,508 compared runner up Norway at $5,669 (incidentally the latter also does not perform all that well). Canada, while comparatively more efficient at nearly half the cost, does not perform all that impressively either.

By contrast, the highest ranked country on average, the United Kingdom, spends just $3,405 per person on health care. Taken as a whole, it appears that per capita spending has little bearing on the overall quality and effectiveness of the healthcare system (something that has been noted in similar international studies). Another chart from the report confirms this:

Despite such astronomical spending, in both proportional and absolute terms, the report sums up the America’s performance thusly: “[the country] fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last or near last on dimensions of access, efficiency, and equity.”

The culprit for such inefficiency? The very fact that many Americans lack access to reliable health care (including those who are technically insured).

Not surprisingly—given the absence of universal coverage—people in the U.S. go without needed health care because of cost more often than people do in the other countries. Americans were the most likely to say they had access problems related to cost. Patients in the U.S. have rapid access to specialized health care services; however, they are less likely to report rapid access to primary care than people in leading countries in the study. In other countries, like Canada, patients have little to no financial burden, but experience wait times for such specialized services. There is a frequent misperception that trade-offs between universal coverage and timely access to specialized services are inevitable; however, the Netherlands, U.K., and Germany provide universal coverage with low out-of-pocket costs while maintaining quick access to specialty services.

However, as i09 notes, the study’s conclusion points to more than just broadening access:

The authors believe that the problems inherent in the U.S. healthcare system are so pervasive that it will take more than better access and equity to solve them. According to Karen Davis, lead author of the study, overall improvement “is a matter of accountability, having information on your performance relative to your peers and being held accountable to achieving a kind of care that patients should expect to get.”

But it’s not an intractable problem. The U.K.’s excellent result can be attributed to a number of reforms, including the hiring of more specialists, allocating bonuses to family physicians who meet quality targets, and adopting health system information that allows physicians to easily share information about their patients. Moreover, every citizen (apparently) has a doctor.

If there is any silver-lining, it is that the U.S. is moving in the right direction, if ever so slowly. In addition to the flawed but still impactful Affordable Care Act:

The U.S. has significantly accelerated the adoption of health information technology following the enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is beginning to close the gap with other countries that have led on adoption of health information technology. Significant incentives now encourage U.S. providers to utilize integrated medical records and information systems that are accessible to providers and patients. Those efforts will likely help clinicians deliver more effective and efficient care.

Indeed, all of this attention towards the inefficiency of our healthcare system is leading to changes in both the political and private spheres. However, it will take a lot more than this piecemeal and hodgepodge approach to rectify what is very clearly a failing system. The solutions, while often difficult to implement, are clear, and both the necessary capital and public will is available. When will that be enough to spur necessary change?

Inequality in a Global Context

When it comes to wealth and income inequality — a subject I have discussed at length here –  the news is rarely positive. As the following graph makes succinctly clear, the issue has worsened dramatic over the last few decades.

Income includes household wages and government transfers. Source: Census / Colin Gordon. Credit: Quoctrung Bui / NPR

While the most recent data in these sorts of graphs are around seven years old, newer evidence suggests the problem is still prevalent, if not worsening — at least in the United States.

According to an interesting new paper on global income distribution conducted by economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner, the global pictures regarding income inequality is far more nuanced, if not positive. As NPR reports, the study found that globalization — the same mechanism that plays a large, though hardly solitary, role in rising inequality — has had the opposite effect, broadly speaking.

Essentially, they look at inequality at a global scale, accounting for the world’s population as a whole rather than breaking it down country-to-country (as is usually the case).  S what happens if you look at the change in income over the past few decades for everyone on Earth? Here’s what the graph of the data shows:

Income is defined as per-capita income. Source: Milanovic and Lakner (2014). Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

So what does this mean? Basically, people in the middle of the global income distribution — mostly concentrated in China and India, as as well as a few other developing Asian countries — have had the biggest gains in come by percentage. In fact, the average American, like most others in the developed world, would fall at the far right of this graph, at the top of the global income distribution.

So in a global context, the typical developed-world individual is capturing the lion’s share of income growth. Assuming this is truly the case (I await for more research and scrutiny to be certain one way or the other) that does not make inequality any less worrisome, now and especially in the long-term. Worldwide, we are still finding far too much wealth concentrated at the top amid austere policies, insufficient investment in the public good, and the persistent absolute poverty of hundreds of millions of people.

An increasingly transient global elite is still capturing the lion’s share of investment — as made depressingly clear by the revelation that 85 individuals hold more wealth than 3.5 billion people. Too many countries are mired in the same old problems despite the ever-growing generation of wealth that never seems to be reflected in higher wages, incomes, or public investments. Even if some people in this arrangement have it worse than others, the fact that many have it worse than they should given the capital potential is a problem, for most individual countries and the world at large.

Those are just my brief thoughts. What are your opinions?

U.S. Welfare Statistics

Few things seem more misunderstood and misconceived in the U.S. than the welfare system, by which I mean public aid programs that include Medicaid, food stamps, special payments for pregnant women and young mothers, and federal and state housing benefits (even the term is used loosely enough to merit debates about semantics, with some using welfare to refer solely to one or some of these programs, and others going so far as to include public education and other goods to be a form of welfare — right now I am concerning myself with my aforementioned definition).

So with all that in mind, I figured that I would share some detailed and objective statistics regarding the welfare system: how many Americans are on it and for how long, the demographics of said recipients, the cost of the program, and so on. Sources include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, and the CATO Institute (a prominent libertarian think-tank).

In essence I have copy and pasted the data from Statistic Braina well-regarded and extensive source for those who love raw data; the original page can be found here.  Note that this report was updated July 8th of this year, so this is as relevant as it gets. As you look through the details, take into account the various myths regarding the sheer cost of the country’s welfare system, how many people are on it, the predominant racial demographic of recipients, and so on.

Welfare Statistics
Total number of Americans on welfare 12.8 million
Total number of Americans on food stamps 46.7 million
Total number of Americans on unemployment insurance 5.6 million
Percent of the US population on welfare 4.1 %
Total government spending on welfare annually (not including food stamps or unemployment) $131.9 billion
Welfare Demographics
Percent of recipients who are white 38.8 %
Percent of recipients who are black 39.8 %
Percent of recipients who are Hispanic 15.7 %
Percent of recipients who are Asian 2.4 %
Percent of recipients who are Other 3.3 %
Welfare Statistics
Total amount of money you can make monthly and still receive Welfare $1000
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than an $8 per hour job 39
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than a $12 per hour job 6
U.S. States where Welfare pays more than the average salary of a U.S. Teacher 8
Average Time on AFCD (Aid to Families with Dependent Children)
Time on AFDC Percent of Recipients
Less than 7 months 19%
7 to 12 months 15.2%
1 to 2 years 19.3%
2 to 5 years 26.9%
Over 5 years 19.6%
Top 10 Hourly Wage Equivalent Welfare States in U.S.
State Hourly Wage Equivalent
Hawaii $17.50
Alaska $15.48
Massachusetts $14.66
Connecticut $14.23
Washington, D.C. $13.99
New York $13.13
New Jersey $12.55
Rhode Island $12.55
California $11.59
Virginia $11.11

Mapping the Militarization of Law Enforcement Across the Country

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have brought to light not only the systemic racial disparities inherent in the U.S. law enforcement and justice systems, but the now decade-long trend of creeping militarization of police forces across the nation.

While the Defense Department program that allows state and local police to freely obtain some military-style equipment has been around since the early 1990s, it has largely been since the September 11 attacks that the practice has intensified (notably, this is despite the precipitous decline in violent crime that started before the trend picked up and that has continued concurrently to this day).

The New York Times has helpfully provided a series of maps showing which countries have received guns, grenade launchers, vehicles, night vision or body armor through the program since 2006. The following map highlights those counties that have received at least one category of these items:

screenshot-by-nimbus (33)

 

If you visit the original article, you can click on any country to see a breakdown of what they have acquired. Although the portion of their gear coming from the program is relatively small (most of it is paid for through department budgets and federal grants), this data details just how widespread this militarization has been.

As Alex Kane of Moyers & Company (among otherspoints out, this trend is concerning for many reasons: from risking the likelihood of death and serious injury, to alienating the public from the public servants that are supposed to be protecting them, this needless practice will have dire consequences in a society where public trust is political and legal institutions is already at an all-time low.

The Economic Sensibility of Housing the Homeless

It goes without saying that addressing the problem of homeless on all levels is a moral imperative. The ethical merit of keeping people off the streets, and helping uplift those already there, requires no argument (at least I should hope).

But unfortunately, in our world, morality is apparently not a good enough incentive. Even with all the capital that is available — whether it is wasted on the military industrial complex, sitting in offshore banks, or poured into pork-barrel projects — policies and solutions need to be cost-effective to gain any sort of political currency and public support.

Thankfully, there is a solution to alleviating homelessness that can bring together both moralists and cynics, providing the cost-efficiency that is so imperative to policymakers while legitimately helping those in need. 

Vox.com reported on a study by the Central Florida Commission that compared several approaches to addressing homeless in that region of the state (Florida has one of the highest rates of homeleness, not to mention poverty, in the country). 

[The study indicated] that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.”

Unsurprisingly, just dealing with the problem ad hoc or in a superficial sense is both costly and ineffective. But by contrast…

[Getting] each homeless person a house and a caseworker to supervise their needs would cost about $10,000 per person.

This particular study looked at the situations in Orange, Seminole, and Osceola Counties in Florida and of course conditions vary from place to place. But as Scott Keyes points out, there are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless.

The general line of thinking behind these programs is one of the happier legacies of the George W Bush administration. His homelessness czar Philip Mangano was a major proponent of a “housing first” approach to homelessness. And by and large it’s worked. Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of homelessness in America declined 17 percent. Figures released this month from the National Alliance to End Homeless showed another 3.7 percent decline. That’s a remarkable amount of progress to make during a period when the overall economic situation has been generally dire.

Here is a visual picture of the state of homelessness in the U.S.

Screen_shot_2014-05-30_at_9.26.15_am

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness / Vox.com.

Keep in mind that this statistical success has taken place during some of the toughest economic times in our country’s history (and Florida’s economy was especially hard hit). As the article notes, there is a good reason why housing the homeless is more tenable than many would think:

When it comes to the chronically homeless, you don’t need to fix everything to improve their lives. You don’t even really need new public money. What you need to do is target those resources at the core of the problem — a lack of housing — and deliver the housing, rather than spending twice as much on sporadic legal and medical interventions. And the striking thing is that despite the success of housing first initiatives, there are still lots of jurisdictions that haven’t yet switched to this approach. If Central Florida and other lagging regions get on board, we could take a big bite out of the remaining homelessness problem and free up lots of resources for other public services.

There you go: a win-win for everyone, especially (and most importantly) he hundreds of thousands of homeless people across the country whose plight needn’t be ignored for either ethical or practical reasons. 

Your thoughts?