We’re Number Thirteen!

Driving to work this morning, I heard a radio news report on a United Nations statistical compilation that purports to measure what countries are best to live in. It’s called the “Human Development Index” and has been produced by the U.N. for some years now. The network news reader said portentously that the best place in the world is Norway, followed by Australia. The United States, he concluded somberly, is number thirteen.
The U.N. and many other organizations produce statistics of this sort. Their purpose, generally, is to promote the types of governments (i.e., liberal or socialist) that they like. If you go behind the numbers, you invariably find that they are meaningless if not outright misleading. The U.N.’s HDI is typical of the genre.
Those few who actually read the U.N.’s report will find that the Human Development Index has three components, equally weighted: life expectancy, an “education index” that is a combination of adult literacy rate and the “combined gross enrolment ratio in education,” and GDP per capita. Each of these measures is misleading in some way.
Life expectancy at birth depends on how one defines “birth.” In the United States, we save an extraordinary number of premature and “defective” babies. Not all of them survive for long or attain normal life expectancies, but they are counted as live births. In nearly all other countries, such babies are not saved and are not counted as live births. I have never seen any attempt to quantify the effect that our effort to preserve high-risk infants has on life expectancy figures.
The adult literacy rate is essentially 100% in all developed countries, so this factor isn’t a differentiator in the U.N.’s rankings of those countries. What does make a huge difference is the U.N.’s “combined gross enrolment in education” column. What does that mean? The U.N. explains:

The ratios are calculated by dividing the number of students enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education by the total population in the theoretical age group corresponding to these levels.

So, according to the U.N., the more people you have going to school, the better off you are. Some countries (Australia, for example) somehow achieve a “combined gross enrolment in education” score in excess of 100%. If a young person has a job, or is in an apprenticeship program, that’s a negative. If he or she is pursuing a degree of some sort, of whatever quality or utility, that’s a positive.
The last factor is per capita GDP. There are two problems with this as a measure of societal well-being. First, it penalizes countries where there are children–like the U.S.–since the numerator, GDP, is divided by the total population, not the working-age population. Second, the U.N. takes the view that when it comes to money (unlike education), enough is enough. Thus, the top 13 countries in per capita GDP tie with a GDP index of 1.000, even though their actual per capita GDPs vary from $85,382 to $40,658. (Apparently the U.N. couldn’t bring itself to say that the best place in the world to live is Lichtenstein.)
The point is that statistical compilations of this sort are always misleading and politically motivated. Their purpose is to convince the rest of us that people who live in very liberal or socialist countries are best off. The methods are transparent, but organizations like the U.N. are secure in the knowledge that news outlets who read their press releases over the air or reproduce them in newspapers will not actually read their reports to assess whether they have any validity.