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the greatest country on Earth?

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let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

The over-population clock

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a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

a pro-democracy demo in Egypt, 2011

Canto: From time to time I’ve shown my students the world population clock (WPC), because I’ve brought my discourse round to it for some reason, and they’ve been mostly fascinated. And I’ve usually told them that the world’s population will level out at about 9.5 billion by mid-century, because I’ve read or heard that somewhere, or in a few places, but is that really true?

Jacinta: So you’re wanting to investigate some modelling?

Canto: Well yes maybe. I was looking at the WPC the other day, and was shocked at how births are outnumbering deaths currently. What’s actually being done to stem this tide?

Jacinta: Looking at the WPC website, there’s a lot more data there that might enlighten you and calm your fears a bit – if it can be trusted. Ok we went past 7.4 billion this year and you can see that so far there’s 70 milliom births compared to around 29 million deaths, and that looks worrying, but you need to look at long-term trends. The fact is that we’ve added a little over 40 million so far this year, with a current growth rate of about 1.13%. That figure means little by itself, but it’s important to note that it’s less than half of what the growth rate was at its peak, at 2.19% in 1963. The rate has been decelerating ever since. Of course the worry is that this deceleration may slow or stop, but there’s not much sign of that if we look at more recent trends.

Canto: Okay I’m looking at the figures now, and at current trends the projection is 10 billion by 2056, by which time the growth rate is projected to be less than 0.5%, but still a fair way from ZPG. The population, by the way, was two point something billion when I was born. That’s a mind-boggling change.

Jacinta: And yet, leaving aside the damage we’ve done and are doing to other species, we’re doing all right for ourselves, with humanity’s average calorie intake actually increasing over that time, if that indicates anything.

Canto: Averages can carpet over a multitude of sins.

Jacinta: Very quotable. But the most interesting factoid I’ve found here is that the current growth rate of 1.13% is well down on last year’s 1.18%, and the biggest drop in one year ever recorded. In 2010 the growth rate was 2.23%, so the deceleration is accelerating, so to speak. It’s also interesting that this deceleration correlates with increasing urbanisation. We’re now at 54.3% and rising. I know correlation isn’t causation, but it stands to reason that with movement to the city, with higher overheads in terms of housing, and with space being at a premium, but greater individual opportunities, smaller families are a better bet.


Canto: You bet, cities are homogenously heterogenous, all tending to favour smaller but more diverse families it seems to me. That’s why I’m not so concerned about the Brexit phenomenon, from a long-term perspective, though we shouldn’t be complacent about it. We need to maintain opportunities for trade and exchange, co-operative innovation, so that cities don’t evolve into pockets of isolation. Ghettoisation. Younger people get that, but the worry is that they won’t stay young, they won’t maintain that openness to a broader experience.

Jacinta: Well the whole EU thing is another can of worms, and I wonder why it is that so many Brits were so pissed off with it, or were they duped by populist nationalists, or are they genuinely suffering under European tyranny, I’m too far removed to judge.

Canto: Well, if there were too many alienating regulations, as some were suggesting, this should have and surely could have been subject to negotiation. Maybe it’s a lesson for the EU, but you’re right, we’re too far removed to sensibly comment. Just looking at the WPC now – and it’s changing all the time – it has daily birth/death rates which shows that the birth rate today far exceeds the death rate – by more than two to one. How can you possibly extrapolate that to a growth rate of only 1.13%?

Jacinta: Ah well that’s a mathematical question, and I’m no mathematician but obviously if you have a birth rate the same as the death rate you’ll have ZPG, no matter what the current population, where as if you have a disparity between births and deaths, the percentage of population increase (or decrease) will depend on the starting population and the end-population, as a factor of time – whether you measure is annually or daily or whatever.


Canto: Right so let’s practice our mathematics with a simple example and then work out a formula. Say you start with 10, that’s your start population at the beginning of the day. And 24 hours later you end up with 20. That’s a 100% growth rate? But of course that could be with 1000 additional births over the day, and 990 deaths. Or 10 more births and no deaths.

Jacinta: Right, which indicates that the total number of births and deaths is irrelevant, it’s the difference between them that counts, so to speak. So let’s call this difference d, which could be positive or negative.

Canto: But to determine whether this value is positive or negative, or what the figure is, you need to know the value of births (B) and deaths (D).

Jacinta: Right, so d = B – D. And let’s set aside for now whether it’s per diem or per annum or whatever. What we’re wanting to find out is the rate of increase, which we’ll call r. If you have a start population (S) of 10 and d is 10, then the end population (E) will be 20, giving a birth rate r of 100%, which is a doubling. I think that’s right.

Canto: So the formula will be: r = S – E… Fuck it, I don’t get formulae very well, let’s work from actual figures to get the formula. It’s actually useful that we’re almost exactly mid-year, and the figure for d (population growth) is currently a little under 42 million. That’s for a half-year, so I’ll project out to 83 million for 2016.

Jacinta: So d now means annual population growth.

Canto: right. Now if we remove this year’s growth figure from the current overall population we get as our figure for S = 7,391,500,000 and that’s an approximation, not too far off. And we can calculate E as 7,474,500, approximately.

Jacinta: But I don’t think we need to know E, we just need S and d in order to calculate r. r is given as a percentage, but as a fraction it must be d/S. And this can be worked out with any handy calculator. My calculation comes out at 6.6% growth rate.

Canto: Wrong.

Jacinta: Yes, wrong, ok, a quick confab with Dr Google provides this formula. d = ((E – S)/S).100. But we already have that? E-S is 83 million. Divided by S (7,391,500,000), and then multiplying by 100 gives a growth rate annually of 1.1229%, or 1.12% to two decimal places, which is not far off, but significantly less than, the WPC figure of 1.3%. I must have stuffed up the earlier calculation, because I think I used the same basic formula.

Canto: Excellent, so you’re right, my fears are allayed somewhat. Recent figures seem to be showing the growth rate declining faster than expected, but let’s have another look at the end of the year. Could it be that the growth figures are higher in the second half of the year, and the pundits are aware of this and make allowances for it, or are we actually ahead of the game?

Jacinta: We’ll have a look at it again at the end of the year. Remember we did a bit of rounding, but I doubt that it would’ve made that much difference.

Some current national annual population growth rates (approx):

Afghanistan 3.02%

Australia 1.57%

Bangladesh 1.20%

Brazil 0.91%

Canada 1.04%

China 0.52%

India 1.26%

Iran 1.27%

Germany 0.06%

Morocco 1.37%

Nigeria 2.67%

Pakistan 2.11%

South Africa 1.08%

United Kingdom 0.63%

(These are not, of course, calculated solely by births minus deaths, as migration plays a substantial role – certainly in Australia. Some surprises here. The highest growth rate on the full list of countries: Oman, 8.45%. The lowest is Andorra with -3.61%, though Syria, with -2.27% on these figures, has probably surged ahead by now).


Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm

the rise of unbelief in the USA

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reason-rally signx-large

I’m always interested in statistics about religious belief and its decline in most western countries, and I like to keep up with the latest findings, so I want to post fairly regularly about this. This time I want to focus on that toughest nut to crack, the USA.

This is, of course another area where ideology influences or even creates facts – for example, the fanatical Christian theist William Lane Craig has trotted out claims that atheists represent 5% or sometimes 3% of the US population, and thus can be dismissed with impunity. He qualifies this by saying that the rising population of the non-religiously affiliated are not necessarily atheists, etc etc. It’s a tediously trivial point. Many individuals who clearly don’t believe in supernatural entities are uncomfortable with the term ‘atheist’ – Sam Harris among them – and I can identify with that discomfort. Some prefer to identify as secularists, sceptics, humanists or whatever, and their identification with atheism can vary with the time of day – as mine sometimes does. This has little bearing on the fact that this non-believing, uncomfortable-with-labels sector of US society is increasing in number and in proportion of the total. As to Craig, as I’ve written before, he will always be in as much denial of the truth as the flat-earthers of a previous century, and I guarantee that he will be saying on his death-bed, after as long a lifetime of fanaticism as I could possibly wish for him, that the number of atheists in the USA is down to 2% or possibly less, with most of them being drooling mental defectives. He is truly the Don Quixote of evangelical Christianity.

So let me start with this point of inquiry podcast from 7 years ago. It described a 2001 study, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), by a group based at the City University of New York. According to Tom Flynn, reporting on the study, the number of ‘Nones’ (people who answered the question ‘what is your religious affiliation?’ with ‘none’) increased from just under 9% in the early nineties (in fact the ARIS website puts Nones at 8.2% in 1990) to just over 14.1% in 2001. The podcast explores the implications of this shift as well as the more detailed findings of the study, which I’ll explore shortly, but first let me provide an update to this finding, because another ARIS study was carried out in 2008, which put the proportion of Nones at 15%, a considerable slowdown in growth. My own reflection on this is that possibly this reduction in the speed of growth may be partially accounted for by the incumbency of the republican party during the period. I suspect that the next survey, presumably around 2016-2017, will show an increase in growth during the Obama presidency.

Much time is spent in the podcast on why this ‘rise of the Nones’ is occurring – and I should say that other independent surveys have also reported this trend. One reason for non-affiliation with traditional religious denominations (while not necessarily disavowing ‘spirituality’) is the loosening of old authoritarian ties, begun back in the sixties and seventies and still continuing, backed by an education system that encourages the questioning and challenging of establishment thinking. In keeping with this, it’s the more liberal protestant religions that, as in Australia, have been the biggest losers over the last fifteen years or so. In the USA, though, there has been a burgeoning pentecostal movement, essentially conservative in nature, which has gained much ground at the expense of the traditional churches. They appear to constitute a backlash against the many societal changes of recent decades, adding to the well-recognised polarisation of US society.

The University of Akron in Ohio also does regular surveys on religious trends in the USA. They did one in the run-up to the 2004 election, which recorded 16% of the nationwide sample as being not religiously affiliated – essentially Nones. Different questions were asked of course – and I suppose this raises the issue of how you might write a question or a series of questions which will provide you with the biggest percentage of Nones possible, without actually resorting to threats and intimidation. That was a joke. And yet… In any case, the Akron study asked further questions of this 16% group and found that more than two thirds of them were ‘non-spiritual’, that’s to say, definitely atheist, agnostic and/or humanist. That’s to say, more than 10% of the US adult population, if this study is to be trusted are explicitly non-religious, and in fact that mark was passed a decade ago. Ten percent is a bit of a magical number for minorities in the US, as Tom Flynn explains.

So what about the most recent data? There’s not much that’s really recent that I can find. The Pew Forum on religion and public life did a survey in 2007 that found 16.1% were Nones, but they broke that percentage down differently, and it gave the explicitly non-religious less of a share than the Akron survey.  As I’ve mentioned, the 2008 ARIS survey had the Nones at 15%. However, a biannual poll called the General Social Survey, probably the one discussed at Evolutionblog recently, and treated in more detail here, had the Nones up at 20% – up from 8% in 1990. There are obvious doubts about how exactly such percentages are arrived at, but there’s surely no doubt about the direction of the trend. This survey as with others, shows that liberals are more likely to be Nones than conservatives (by a long way), the youngest adults are more likely than the oldest (also by a long way) and men are more likely than women (by a small but substantial margin). May this overall trend continue, and may I long continue to observe and report on it.

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2013 at 10:22 am