The United States Is Probably Not the Worst Developed Country in the World

Is the U.S. "better" than Sweden, or "happier" than Denmark? It all depends on what you value.

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This week we published a big article on the OECD's recent comparison of work-life balance in 23 developed countries. There are two criticisms in the comment section that are worth visiting -- whether or not you happened to read the piece.

First, people said the three variables OECD used to calculate work-life balance -- overtime hours, leisure hours, and share of mothers who got back into the work force -- weren't sufficient to fully capture the ultimately unquantifiable measure of work-life balance. True enough! Different cultures have different ideas about what is the proper balance between work and life. Who's to say that 50 hours a week is overworking? What if Italian mothers prefer to stay home after they have kids? Is the earned income tax credit good because it encourages higher employment, or bad because it makes families work for their welfare? All good questions. National values differ by nation. More on that in a second.

The second question I'd sum up as: How come these studies keep hating on the U.S.? America ranked 23rd out of 34 in work-life balance, particularly because of our underinvestment in family welfare. Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe dominated the top ten. The United States, the greatest country in the world, doesn't crack the top 15 in most of the OECD's rankings.

Readers shouldn't come away with the impression that the OECD rankings exist exclusively to make Americans feel crappy about ourselves. We rank in or near the top five in income (second only to outlier Luxembourg), housing (a measure that includes rooms per person and basic amenities), governance (don't tell Congress), and education. We beat Germany in self-reported health and life satisfaction. We beat Sweden and Denmark in education, income, and housing. We're doing alright!

The most important aspect of the OECD Better Life Initiative online is an interactive tool that lets you rate one-to-five each of the survey's variables. If you rate money and housing space over all else, it turns out that U.S. really is number one! (Oh, forget you, Luxembourg). If you reduce income and room space's significance and instead make air pollution, life expectancy, and homicide rates your most important criteria, the outcome looks totally different: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Sweden become the highest-rated countries in the world.

So, is the U.S. "better" than Sweden and Canada? It all depends on the variables you value. That the U.S. is ahead in income and housing and behind in environment is the result of the geographic hand we've been dealt and the choices we've made. The U.S. is an enormous country that borders Mexico, and while you could say that we chose to make it big by fighting for and buying all this land in the 19th century, we don't really have an option to move or shrink the country. As a result we have much more space on which to build homes, and drive between suburbs, than, say, Switzerland. We also have a much healthier flow of immigration. As a result, we score better on home size and population growth than most of northern Europe, but also worse on pollution on account of all the energy it takes to move around this big space.

On the other hand, we explicitly chose to not build a universal health care system and we tied the big health care subsidies to employment. Perhaps as a result, we score lower on health. We chose to subsidize oil and gas and not pass a carbon tax or raise the gas tax. Perhaps as a result, we score lower on pollution. We also chose to tie more welfare to the tax code, which meant families have to work (or show they're trying to work) to get their welfare support. Perhaps that incentive to work is why we score lower on work-life balance.

It's not that these choices are right or wrong. I have my preferences, and so do you. It's that there were choices we made, and the strengths of the U.S., even in these oversimplistic international surveys, reflect the strengths that we've imbued in it -- at the ballot box, in our communities, and on Capitol Hill.