The World’s Improving Economic Prospects

Positive news about the trajectory of the world is hard to find these days. From climate change to inequality to the rise of political authoritarianism, it seems that humanity is backsliding in just about every area of progress — what a way to kick off the 21st century and all its alleged promises.

Our World In Data is a web-based initiative that provides infographics about changing trends in a wide variety of subjects, from living standards to economics. Operating out of the Institute of New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, it is a reliable source for those wishing to document how humanity has changed over the course of decades, centuries, or millennia.

Fortunately, the data collected by OWID clearly show that for all the grim circumstances our species faces, we have broadly made vast improvements in socioeconomic prosperity, especially by historical standards. Compare GDP per capita — which serves as a rough, if imperfect, approximation of average living standards — in year one C.E. to 2008.

GDP per capita in 1 C.E. (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

GDP per capita in 2008 (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

You don’t have to go too far back to see how much progress there has been. Even over the last two centuries, there has been a marked and unprecedented improvement in the economic circumstances of most humans.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

Moreover, while much of the world remains very poor (albeit far less so than two centuries ago), it is largely these impoverished nations that are leading the way in economic growth and development, thereby progressively lifting more of their people from poverty.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

To be sure, none of this means that we should be complacent: these advancements are both tenuous and far short of what is needed to ensure a better life for all (indeed, the website concludes with this warning as well). However, it is still important to recognize how much we have achieved: incomes are growing across the world, poverty is rapidly declining, and the world’s poorest nations to continue to chalk up the highest rate of growth.

Granted, much of this progress is being felt unevenly; a lot of fast-growing countries are seeing their newfound wealth concentrated in relatively few hands, or invested inefficiently, if at all. Plenty of developed nations are lagging behind, too, with stagnating incomes and growing inequality. But all these challenges and shortcomings aside, we should be encouraged by how far we have come, and recognize the incredible potential for improvement of the human condition.

To see more data about the changes in socioeconomic development, click here. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

Canada: The World’s Freest Country?

A recent article at Foreign Policy makes the provocative case that our neighbor to the north has overtaken us as the world’s leading beacon of liberty and prosperity (a claim that, to be sure, was always suspect in practice, yet has remained a bedrock of American identity, prestige, and soft power).

The claim is based on the results of the newly published 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual report issued by the Legatum Institute that measures countries’ performance in eight categories of human flourishing, such as personal freedom, safety and security, and governance.

While Canada did not reach the top spot — that honor went to Norway for the seventh consecutive time — it did rank a very respectable sixth place, compared to the United States’ 11th place. Aside from seventh-place Australia, Canada was the only medium sized country to make it to the top ten; the rest were small European (mostly Nordic) and Anglophone nations.

Canada shined mostly on account of its people’s attitude towards immigrants and the trajectory of their country. It is all the more impressive given the many woes and troubles attributed to the much-disliked Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, which over the last decade has been accused of making the country increasingly authoritarian, intolerant, and socially backwards (a development that some Canadians tellingly, only half-jokingly, called “Americanization“) . Continue reading

The Most Prosperous Countries in the World

Based in London, the Legatum Institute is a global think tank and charity focused on promoting prosperity around the world. Among its signature tools to that end is the Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual publication that ranks 142 countries in terms of both total wealth and overall societal well being. The report determines its findings based on 89 variables spanning eight categories: Economy, Entrepreneurship & Opportunity; Governance; Education; Health; Safety & Security; Personal Freedom; and Social Capital.

The newly published 2015 edition can be read here (PDF), with full rankings and data available at Norway topped the list for the seventh year in a row, with its consistently high performance being attributed to the “freedom it offers its citizens, the quality of its healthcare system and social bonds between its people”.

2015 Prosperity Index. Legatum Institute /

2015 Prosperity Index. Legatum Institute /

Switzerland ranked second place for the third consecutive time, while Denmark came in third, one spot higher than last year. Runners up, in descending order, were New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland — e.g., the usual suspects when it comes to metrics of economic, social, and political well being.

The United States came in at 11th place, having been just barely denied the top spots due to its poor showing in one category: personal safety and security. Most other major developed countries landed within the top thirty, including Germany (14th place), the U.K. (15th), Japan (19th), and France (22nd). Singapore, which is almost always in the top ten in these sorts of list, ranked 17th due its shortcomings in personal freedoms.

The BRICS countries, with the notable exception of India, broadly landed in the middle, reflecting their rapid transition towards greater development: China led the pack at 52nd place, followed by Brazil at 54th, Russia (58th), South Africa (75th), and India (99th). Among the other countries cited as being rising powers were Vietnam (55th), Mexico (67th), Indonesia (69th), Turkey (78th), Iran (106th), Egypt (110th), and Nigeria (125th).

So if the index is to be believed, most of the future major players in the world have a long way to go to bring prosperity to their people. Granted, a country does not need to have a wealthy and flourishing populace to be a political, economic, and military force in the world, but it certainly helps.

With seven years of data to compile and compare, the Prosperity Index has also been able to track national progress.

Among the report’s official “headline findings” are the following:

  • Indonesia has performed better than any country in the world over the past seven years, rising 21 places up the rankings to 69th this year. The country’s success is the result of a vibrant economy, rising 23 places in the Economy sub-index and 14 places in the Entrepreneurship & Opportunity sub-index. Start-up costs have fallen from 26% to 21.1% of gross national income per capita, the number of secure internet servers has increased by 5.3 (per 1 million people), and the number of people satisfied with their living standards has increased from 63% to 71%.
  • Another strong performer since 2009 is Rwanda, which has risen 17 places up the Prosperity Index and now ranks 101st.
  • At the other end of the scale the poorest performers have been Syria (down 23 places), Tunisia (down 28 places) and Venezuela (down 16 places).
  • This year Singapore ranks 1st in the Economy sub-index, up from 2nd last year, displacing Switzerland. The country has the second highest capital per worker in the world: $240,750 per worker. 47% of the country’s manufactured exports are classified as ‘high-tech’, the third highest in the world.
  • This year the United States ranks 33rd on the Safety & Security sub-index, down from 31st last year. Safety & Security is the only sub-index in which the US ranks outside the top 30. It is also the only Western country to register high levels of state-sponsored political violence. According to Amnesty International the country has the same level of political violence as Saudi Arabia.
  • This year the UK ranks 6th on the Entrepreneurship & Opportunity sub-index, up from 8th last year. The country now ranks the best in Europe for people starting businesses and 88% of Britons believe that if you work hard you can get ahead in life, up from 84% last year, and 78% in 2010.
  • Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, and Ireland are the five most tolerant countries towards immigrants. The UK comes in at 17th. 92% of Canadians believe that their country is a good place for immigrants; this figure is 90% for Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland; and 89% for Ireland.
  • Canada is now the freest country in the world, having risen five places to 1st in the Personal Freedom sub-index. The country is the most tolerant of immigrants in the world. 92% of people think the country is a good place for immigrants. It is also the fifth most tolerant of ethnic minorities. 92% of people think that the country is a good place for ethnic minorities. 94% of Canadians believe that they have the freedom to choose the course of their own lives — the fifth highest in the world.
  • Three of the five Nordic countries have slipped down the Economy sub-index rankings since 2009 and the one that has improved, Iceland, remains low at 29th. The countries are failing to address unemployment. Unemployment stands at 7.8% in Sweden, 9.4% in Finland, and 6.3% in Denmark. Across all the Nordic countries employment is only 59.3%.
  • The Prosperity Index shows that the world has become a more dangerous place since 2009. In the last seven years there have been dramatic declines in the Safety & Security sub-index in Africa and the Middle East, and all other regions except Europe have witnessed some decline. This has been driven by increased tension, violence, and displaced people.

What are your thoughts about these results?

The Best Countries To Do Business

The World Bank publishes an annual Doing Business report that looks at which countries offer the most optimal conditions for entrepreneurship. The ranking takes into account eleven indicators, including the ease of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting power, and obtaining credit.

According to the most recent report, Singapore claims the top spot for the tenth time in a row. The city-state of 5.5 million is universally recognized as one of the world’s leading economic and financial centers, scoring favorably in everything from competitiveness and fiscal stability, to quality of life and human development. While it is a de facto one-party state with strong, if subtle, authoritarian tendencies, its government manages to be one of the least corrupt and most efficient in the world —  a rarity for most autocracies.

The following is a full list of the top ten:

World Bank. Doing Business 2016: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency. Via Bloomberg Business.

The worst performing countries were Eritrea, Libya, South Sudan, and Venezuela; unsurprisingly, nations with little or no rule of law, despotic governments, and chronic civil strife tended to do poor. There were a few more takeaways courtesy of Bloomberg Business: Continue reading

The World’s Most Corrupt Countries in 2014

Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit that monitors and reports on political corruption, has recently published its most recent edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a comparative list of corruption worldwide.

Defined by the organization as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, corruption takes many forms — such as bribery, cronyism, embezzlement, and political repression — and is the scourge of the human condition, undermining everything from economic development to social cohesion.

Unfortunately, this age-old problem remains a pervasive challenge across the globe, as the most recent results show.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The CPI ranks countries on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). It is immediately clear that much of the world struggles with corruption on a vast scale — shades of red, signifying political malfeasance, dominate the map, punctuated by only a few pockets of blue, mostly concentrated in North America, Europe, and parts of East Asia and Oceania. (Although one should note the island of clean governance that stand out in certain regions, such as Chile and Uruguay in Latin America, Singapore in Southeast Asia, and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East.) Continue reading

The Countries Most at Risk of Genocide

The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a think tank connected to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has created a tool called the Early Warning Project that aims to forecast the risk of state-sanctioned mass killings around the world. The following map displays the countries with the greatest probability of succumbing to genocide.

Courtesy of Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Washington Post

Most of the countries at risk of government-sponsored murder are in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The ten most troubling hot spots identified by the center are as follows: Continue reading

How Income Relates to Life Expectancy

It is no surprise that wealthier countries, like wealthier people, tend to live longer. But how strong is this correlation? In a video released by The Gapminder Foundation, Swedish academic and professor Hans Rosling uses detailed but digestible visual data to explore the link between a nation’s wealth –namely its gross domestic product, or GDP — and the average longevity of its people.

To check out the two minute video, click here. (Sorry, I cannot embed it.)

Ultimately, the findings do indeed confirm that rich societies live longer. But what the data also show is that those countries in the middle range of GDP — e.g. the developing world — display a broad range in life expectancy, from low to surprisingly high. This illustrates the discrepancy in how states invest their growing wealth, and whether the fruits of their development are going to their people.

Video courtesy of Aeon. 

The World’s Countries, Ranked By Tree Wealth

Friends and longtime readers are no doubt well away of my fondness for international rankings of all kinds. So it is nice to spice up the usual indexes of social, economic, or political performance and instead compare countries by the interesting new metric of tree wealth.

A team of researchers led by Thomas Crowther of Yale University recently published a study in Nature that looks at where the world’s over 3 trillion trees are located, and how this compares with a country’s geographic size, population, and more.

This might seem like an odd attribute to look at — perhaps suited for nothing more than an amusing fun fact — but as the Washington Post points out, trees are an often vital natural resource well worth studying and preserving.

[Having] lots of trees in a country provides a huge host of benefits — trees are both a natural resource and an asset to humans. They filter water, combat air pollution, sequester huge amounts of carbon that would otherwise reside in the atmosphere, and even, it appears, contribute to human psychological and health benefits. Indeed, large parts of the world population depend on forests for food.

And then, there’s just the emotional connection to nature. “I think people inherently value trees”, said Clara Rowe, a co-author of the study and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, by e-mail. “In the days since our study was published, we’ve heard from individuals all over the world who are concerned about forest resources in their countries.”

Amid widespread environmental degradation and worsening global climate change, such scientific and public interest in the health and abundance of trees is well founded. Where they naturally exist, they are a barometer for the health, vitality, and sustainability of the local ecosystem. So those nations that have managed to preserve as many trees as possible have much to gain, as well as a lot to offer the world at large. Tree wealth is an apt description.

Starting with the most basic measurement, here are the countries with absolute most trees. (The researchers note that these estimates are more accurate with larger countries and less so with smaller ones.)

Total Tree Count

Source: Nature / Washington Post

You can find an interactive version in the Post article, which allows you to select an individual country to see its estimated number of trees.

As one can plainly see, the countries with the most trees in total are, unsurprisingly, the largest ones.

Based on this approach, the world’s overall tree leader is clearly Russia, with 642 billion total trees, followed by Canada with 318 billion and Brazil with 302 billion. The United States is actually fourth overall in this ranking, with 228 billion trees. Other countries with over 100 billion trees include China, with 140 billion and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 101 billion. Indonesia comes in 7th, with 81 billion, and Australia 8th, with 77 billion.

Adjusting for territorial size, the next measurement looks at tree density, e.g., the number of trees within a square kilometer (roughly equal to a little over a third of a square mile). 2015-09-16 14-20-03

Source: Nature / Washington Post

The difference is dramatic: countries with lots of trees in absolute numbers rank low once you adjust for size. Naturally, this applies most strongly to drier countries, such as the desert nations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each with just 1 tree per square kilometer.

Relatively large countries like Finland, Sweden, Bolivia, and Indonesia still fare pretty well, as do smaller countries like Gabon, Laos, New Zealand, and Slovenia. As the researchers note in the study:

…in “northern latitudes, limited temperature and moisture lead to the establishment of stress-tolerant coniferous tree species that can reach the highest densities on Earth”. There is more total forest in the tropics, they found, but it isn’t as dense. So the type of forest that a country fosters has a big influence on this metric.

Next up is the number of trees per person. One could imagine that countries with large populations would have a lot less tree wealth to go around, especially with the subsequently high need for space, shelter, and farmland.

Trees Per Person

Source: Nature / Washington Post

[Once] again … vast northern countries like Russia and Canada are surprisingly “tree rich”, with thousands of trees per resident. There are a whopping 8,953 trees per person in Canada. But tropical countries of the southern hemisphere can also hold their own. Here, Bolivia (5,465 trees per person), Gabon (8,131), and the Central African Republic (5,152) also fared quite well.

By contrast, desert countries once again were quite low – Egypt was  estimated to have only about one tree per person. The metric is also highly sensitive to population size, meaning that India, with a population of 1.27 billion and a tree population of only about 35 billion, had just 28 trees per person.

Very high tree-to-person numbers were clustered in the northeast of South America: Suriname had 15,279 trees per person, Guyana 14,692, and French Guiana a stunning 20,226. Of course, these countries all have populations under a million people.

So we have gone over the number of trees as they relate to size, density, and population. But what about wealth? Intuitively, fast-growing poorer countries would seem likelier to strip their forests clean, given the greater need for readily available farmland, fuel, and construction material. Most industrialized nations have moved on to other sources, or have the luxury of more efficient (and thus less land-intensive) agriculture; urban parks and tree planting are also a hallmark of greater wealth and development. Various reports and studies seem to bear this out, too.

Let the data do the talking.

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Source: Nature / Washington Post

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that “it was not clear that there was any meaningful difference overall”.

Rather, it was simply the case that one emerging country grouping, “Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan” was quite low on trees — but then, that’s not surprising given the prevalence of desert in these countries. So it seems odd to relate this to economics, rather than simple geography. Simply put, some countries, due to their environments and climatic regimes, just can’t host as many trees as others.

“If you said to me, okay, the GDP per capita of Costa Rica is $8,000, I would have no way of telling you how many trees there are in Costa Rica or how dense those trees are”, said Yale’s Clara Rowe. She said that the most meaningful way of looking at the relationship between a country’s wealth and its tree resources would be to calculate a nation’s “forest potential” — how many trees it is actually capable of supporting — and then compare that with how many it actually has, which would then reflect how much the country has exploited those resources, as opposed to preserving them.

“That can really give us a better sense of what percentage of forest can be lost in every single country, and then maybe we can start relating that to things like GDP”, Rowe said. But the researchers haven’t done that analysis on a country-by-country level yet.

Studying “forest potential” would definitely be the next step. Granted, it is important to keep in mind that there is a big difference between having lots of trees and having lots of forest; a country’s cities might have plenty of trees in its parks, medians, and public spaces, but these would not support the sort of thriving ecosystem as an unspoiled forest would. While trees are important in their own right, for reasons specified earlier, they need to be in abundant number and left undisturbed to support certain wildlife. That would be a whole different sort of wealth to look into.

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading

Slavoj Žižek Weighs In On The Refugee Crisis

I recommend reading the entire article at the London Review of Books, but the following pretty much sum up his points, with which I am personally in agreement.

Humankind should get ready to live in a more ‘plastic’ and nomadic way. One thing is clear: national sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new methods of global co-operation and decision-making devised. First, in the present moment, Europe must reassert its commitment to provide for the dignified treatment of the refugees. There should be no compromise here: large migrations are our future, and the only alternative to such a commitment is renewed barbarism (what some call a ‘clash of civilisations’).

Second, as a necessary consequence of this commitment, Europe should impose clear rules and regulations. Control of the stream of refugees should be enforced through an administrative network encompassing all of the members of the European Union (to prevent local barbarisms like those of the authorities in Hungary or Slovakia). Refugees should be assured of their safety, but it should also be made clear to them that they must accept the destination allocated to them by European authorities, and that they will have to respect the laws and social norms of European states: no tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence; no right to impose on others one’s own religion or way of life; respect for every individual’s freedom to abandon his or her communal customs, etc. If a woman chooses to cover her face, her choice must be respected; if she chooses not to cover her face, her freedom not to do so must be guaranteed. Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality. These rules should be clearly stated and enforced, by repressive measures – against foreign fundamentalists as well as against our own racists – where necessary.

Third, a new kind of international military and economic intervention will have to be invented – a kind of intervention that avoids the neocolonial traps of the recent past. The cases of Iraq, Syria and Libya demonstrate how the wrong sort of intervention (in Iraq and Libya) as well as non-intervention (in Syria, where, beneath the appearance of non-intervention, external powers such as Russia and Saudi Arabia are deeply involved) end up in the same deadlock.

Fourth, most important and most difficult of all, there is a need for radical economic change which would abolish the conditions that create refugees. Without a transformation in the workings of global capitalism, non-European refugees will soon be joined by migrants from Greece and other countries within the Union. When I was young, such an organised attempt at regulation was called communism. Maybe we should reinvent it. Maybe this is, in the long term, the only solution.

These approaches apply to more than the present crisis;

What are your thoughts?