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America bounces back, at least for a while

Rick Newman

We used to be No. 1. Now we’re No. 3. We probably ought to be satisfied with that.

The United States has recovered some lost ground in the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness rankings, which provide useful snapshots of what’s going right and wrong in 144 economies. The United States came in third this year, behind Switzerland and Singapore. As recently as 2008, the United States ranked No. 1. It dropped to seventh place in 2012 and has since bounced back. Rounding out the top 10 are Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Related: Rep. Paul Ryan: America is not as competitive as it needs to be

The WEF rankings are based on surveys of business leaders, so they’re weighted toward factors that might be more important to businesses than to ordinary people. Still, they tend to reflect important trends that matter to ordinary people, as Lauren Lyster and I discuss in the video above. The WEF breaks down its rankings into more than 100 indicators that provide insightful detail on each country’s economic performance.

Here’s what America is doing right. Innovation and technology adoption are close to the best in the world. Investor protections are strong. America still attracts and retains top talent from everywhere. U.S. businesses are sophisticated, with highly efficient logistics and distribution.

But there are three big problems with the U.S. economy that have been showing up in the WEF rankings for several years: Government, healthcare and education. It’s hardly a secret that the federal government is a sclerotic mess, especially to business leaders who can’t comprehend political pranks such as threatening to default on U.S. debt and shutting down the government.

Related: How the economy could change after the midterm elections

The biggest gripes about Washington involve a convoluted tax system, a thicket of regulations (including state and local rules layered upon those at the federal level) and bureaucratic inefficiency that can make things like permitting and licensing a nightmare. One way these problems have been showing up in the real world is a spate of corporate tax inversions—maneuvers in which a U.S. company mergers with a foreign one and relocates overseas, where taxes are lower and more rational.

Related: Moving overseas is a last resort for U.S. companies

But business leaders seem to think the U.S. government is a bit less lousy than it used to be. An improvement in America’s fiscal standing is the reason the United States rose from fifth in last year’s WEF rankings to third this year. That’s mainly because the U.S. budget deficit has been improving, although the national debt—the aggregation of all budget deficits—has continued to swell and is now a staggering $18 trillion or so.

Healthcare is a problem because it’s expensive in the United States, and access is far spottier than in nearly every other developed country. The Affordable Care Act that’s now been in effect for nearly a year was supposed to fix that, yet the United States still has a complex, hodgepodge system that puts a huge burden on employers. Proud Americans love to say we have the best healthcare system in the world, but that’s only for people who can afford great care; business leaders rank the United States 49th for health and education, combined.

America’s university system ranks No. 3 in the world, but the overall quality of U.S. education, at all levels, ranks 27th. And secondary education, aka high school, ranks 59th. That’s on account of dismal high-school dropout rates and poor student performance on math and science, compared with other countries. We should enjoy being No. 3 while it lasts.

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