The Exchange

Where the U.S. Economy Is Still No. 1

There’s a familiar litany of problems with the American economy: Our schools stink. Our tax system is labyrinthine and wasteful. College grads can’t find decent jobs. And too many of our politicians are mouthy hypocrites who get nothing done.

But America still excels at a few things, which are evident in the details of the “better life index” released recently by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the OECD’s 2013 rankings, Switzerland came in first in overall life satisfaction, followed by the Scandinavian countries that frequently top such surveys. Australia ranked highest when all 11 categories were weighted equally, prompting some media outlets to call the land down under the world’s “happiest” country. By that standard, the United States ranked sixth.

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But declinists shouldn’t say “I told you so” just yet, because the U.S. is still No. 1 in two important categories—income and housing. On income, the U.S. has the highest average level of household wealth, at $116,000 per household. Americans also have the highest level of personal earnings (which the OECD defines as average annual earnings per full-time employee), at $54,450, and the most disposable income, at $38,000 per household per year.

Ordinary folks who feel like this must describe some other country might be right, in a way. Though incomes are high in America, so is income inequality, which means the wealthy claim a disproportionate amount of all income, compared with other nations. By one OECD measure, in fact, the United States has the worst income inequality of 27 nations measured. So the wealthy in America really do inhabit a Luxembourg-like land of plenty that’s foreign to the majority of their countryfolk.

Housing in the U.S. is more egalitarian, even if it seems like the rent is too damn high. Housing affordability ranks eighth out of 36 nations, according to the OECD, while the quality of housing—measured by the portion that have basic facilities such as indoor plumbing—is tied for No. 1 (along with Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands).

Americans also enjoy more spacious living quarters than people in most other places. The typical American household has 2.3 rooms per person, bested only by Canadian households, with 2.6 rooms per person. That may not seem lavish, until you visit a home in Korea or Japan or even some European countries, where there’s not nearly as much open space.

The U.S., of course, has generally been losing ground in various types of rankings that compare quality of life among countries. In the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness survey, for instance, the U.S. has fallen from first to seventh since 2008. Another study found that even Cyprus had more appeal to foreign investors than the United States, before a financial crisis there nearly wrecked the entire economy.

But there are usually a few discrete factors pushing this country down in global rankings, rather than wholesale decline of the entire nation. The most prominent is an exorbitant and ineffective health-care system that costs far more than in any other country on Earth. Health-care spending in the U.S. is 2.5 times the average for other developed countries, yet life expectancy is still well below average.

In the WEF’s latest study, the United States ranked 54th in the trustworthiness of its politicians and 76th in the efficient spending of government resources; if America was once the paragon of democracy, it is no more. And in the OECD survey, the U.S. homicide rate ranked a pitiful 32nd out of 36 nations, ahead of only Estonia, Russia, Brazil and Mexico.

To broaden it out, we remain a place with a vibrant economy and a lot of opportunity. But pathways to success may be narrowing, the wall between haves and have-nots may be getting higher, and the safety net for those who stumble may be fraying. You can still build a better life in America, it’s just not as easy as it used to be.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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