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worldwide wednesdays :: peace and prosperity through... socialism?

every year an organization called the institute for economics and peace produce a highly regarded report that rates 163 countries on their relative level of peacefulness: the global peace index. i happened across an online post about this year's report that made me do a double-take. although i'm a frequent critic of the united states, i am aware that they are one of the most developed countries in the world; nearly all americans of all are functionally literate, most have access to healthcare, most have access to potable water, freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, etc. many, many countries can't boast these things. so imagine my shock when i saw in the summary of the report that the united states ranked 118th of 163 countries. i couldn't imagine how that was true and, indeed, it was wrong.

they rank 128th.

how the hell is it possible that the united states is less peaceful than countries like honduras [consistently one of the most violent places in the world due mostly to ingrained corruption and the central american drug trade], rwanda [which still suffers aftershocks from the genocide of 1994] and papua new guinea [where rape is pretty much a national health emergency]? for that answer, it's important to look at what's actually being reported.

first and foremost, peacefulness is not the same as safety. much of the reporting on the gpi report conflates the two terms but "peacefulness" includes factors beyond those affecting security of the person and property. if you want to evaluate just the safety of a particular country, you could look at the united nations data on global homicide rates. [write ups and interactive data tool] while homicide is hardly the only safety concern in the world, but it is the most basic measure when people think of how safe a country is. looked at from that perspective, the united states fares much better, with a homicide rate around that of kenya. ok, that might not sound great [especially considering that areas of kenya have seen terrorism and domestic conflicts spill over from neighbouring somalia] but it's at least better than finishing 128th out of 163.

among wealthy nations and regions, the united states has far and away the highest homicide rate, more than 50% higher than their closest "competitor". but they generally fare much better than lower-income countries. however, as the wealthiest country in the world [in terms of gdp], you would expect it to have one of the lowest [if not the lowest] homicide rates in the world. why? because according to the u.n., poverty is the single most common contributing factor to homicide in the world. now, it doesn't necessarily line up but other than the united states*, wealth [again, calculating by total gdp, see earlier link] does generally correspond to fewer murders. so why is the u.s. punching, stabbing and shooting so far above its weight in terms of homicides? the answer to this is linked to why the u.s. has such a terrible performance on the peace index.

class, i would like you all turn scroll to page 13, figure 1.2 of your global peace index. there you will find a list of the factors taken into consideration when calculating the relative peacefulness of a state. homicide rates, terrorist activity and internal conflicts- the things that many of us think of when we wonder how safe a place is- are among the criteria. and if you looked at those factors only, the united states wouldn't fare too badly. however, it's easy to identify places where the u.s. just tanks:

  • possession of nuclear and heavy weaponry
  • involvement in external conflicts
  • access to small arms
  • military expenditure as a percentage of gdp
  • armed forces enrollment rate 
  • incarceration rate*

the u.s. outperforms basically everyone in those categories. america might not be as involved in foreign conflicts as it was during the cold war but that's a pretty low bar. there's iraq and afghanistan, of course, but they also contribute troops to a large number of ongoing conflicts and security threats and they continue to play the role of team america: world police both because they want to and because others want them to. [and by "others" i mean not just other nations but other players like large corporations.] these conflicts and the importance of military involvement to the overall economy drives up the rate of investment in the military and drives the need for higher recruitment. so right there, you have a trifecta of things that drag america's rating down.

the number of people in american prisons, especially young men and even more especially young african-american and latino men, is a national embarrassment. other countries imprison people less often and for shorter periods of time and they still have lower crime rates. a criminal record excludes people from certain types of employment and can limit their ability to find housing. and the prison system in the united states is a whole ass mess that we can't get into here but the important thing is that it is not structured to break the cycle of poverty and crime or to prevent recidivism.

and that brings us to the guns. ok, if you look at other posts on this blog tagged "gun control" you'll be able to find a lot of things i've written on the subject. it's pointless for me to go through all the reasons that having easy access to firearms [and many would say that access doesn't end with "small arms"] is dangerous. and the u.s. wants everyone to have guns. blind people? check. crazy people? check. people on terrorist watchlists? yup, that too. firearms account for the majority of homicides in the u.s. [see p. 20 of the u.n. report linked above] and no one is surprised.

but how do those things make a country less peaceful?

i'm glad you asked. [they didn't, you just want to write about it. -ed.]

being involved in foreign conflicts makes enemies. people in other countries start to hate you and people in your own country hate people they think come from countries where americans are getting killed. canada has an increasing problem with domestic terrorism in the form of white nationalist groups but our reputation abroad is generally pretty solid because we haven't involved ourselves in external conflicts very often and when we have, it's often been in the form of relief and rebuilding work. yes, we did manage to fuck that up a bit in the 90s but not too many people around the globe stay up at night dreaming of how to punish canada for its transgressions. america can't say the same.

the so-called "prison-industrial complex" perpetuates cycles of poverty and makes little effort to rehabilitate criminals. both of those things make it more likely that people who commit one crime will commit others. ergo, the country is less peaceful [and less safe].

and yeah, a country where everyone is encouraged to have their own personal arsenal is going to be a country where people are a bit edgy about getting shot. [remember, the statistics above are only for homicides. they don't include accidental deaths by firearm.]

this presents an interesting conundrum: the united states is relatively safe, especially compared to less developed areas of the world, but it is not peaceful. in a way, this is a warning call that america will become less safe over time. the areas where the country takes a hit in terms of peacefulness are the areas that will ultimately make its people less safe. as things get less peaceful, of course, it's reasonable that people will start to feel edgier and threatened. [if you look at the gpi report, they specifically mention that people tend to judge peacefulness pretty accurately; they feel tense because they have reason to be tense. but that doesn't mean they understand what's making them feel that way, especially when they have supposed leaders who want to direct their fear and anger in a way that benefits their own agenda.

while researching this post, i came across another report, the legatum prosperity index, that touched on comparative safety and security around the world. this report touches on many issues, including things like the climate for business. interestingly, though, their view of prosperity isn't just about money; it includes a lot of information about elements of the social safety net that connect to a happier, healthier population. i found it particularly interesting because it gives a perspective on what elements tend to go together and what elements don't necessarily relate. [the linked page allows you to see each ranking by category, which is really cool.]

continuing our focus on security, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that a nordic/ scandinavian country tops the list: norway. the biggest surprise may be that the other nordic countries only rank 9th through 12th. japan and singapore, home to the safest cities in the world, finish second and third. in fact, if you look at all of the prosperity measures, they are dominated by what i like to call "the usual suspects": the five nordic countries [norway, sweden, finland, denmark and iceland] and new zealand, with honourable mentions to canada and australia. [i'm increasingly convinced that statistics of this sort could be compiled into a book called "scandinavians are just better than the rest of us".] when you compare these figures to the gdp per capita, it's clear that wealth is a major factor: norway and iceland, for instance, have among the highest gdp per capita in the world. personal freedom also seems to help: canada, new zealand, iceland, norway, and sweden are all in the top ten in that category. looking at overall prosperity, every single one of the "usual suspects" is in the top ten except iceland, who rank 11th.

so what doesn't necessarily correlate? a business-friendly environment. the united states wins this category, which should come as no surprise. they're all about being open for business. but when all factors are taken into consideration, they only finish 17th. consider that for a moment: the country with the most wealth ranks 17th in terms of prosperity. in their defence, the americans are fond of saying that it's the country is wealthy because they are business-friendly and because they reject the sort of socialist programs that exist in countries like norway, sweden, canada, etc. but look at the rankings for business-friendliness: every one of the "usual suspects" [including canada and australia] rank in the top fifteen overall and only two [sweden and iceland] are outside of the top ten. and when you look at the overall economic quality, which takes into account things like foundations for growth, every single one of the five nordic/ scandinavian countries outperforms the united states. new zealand finishes only one place below them [still in the top fifteen]. so far from being weighed down by the chains of socialism, the countries with the most socialist policies in the world are both prosperous and relatively business-friendly. the united states, which has placed all its eggs in the business-friendly basket, fails in other areas.

it's worth noting that it's the category of "economic quality" that takes into account the potential for future prosperity. once again, the most socialist countries own this category, meaning that even business people see more opportunity there than in the united states. [that should scare every american politician.] what's clear here is that catering to business interests isn't enough: in order to be prosperous, you need to lead in a range of categories. moreover, being a capitalist haven that's set up to favour private business doesn't make you safe: countries that are safe tend to take care of their own. they avoid getting bogged down in foreign conflicts, imprison fewer people and they don't make firearms readily available to the general population. the result? those countries are both more peaceful and more prosperous**.

the bottom line here is that the united states is not at all peaceful and, given the size of their economy, not particularly prosperous. its people should absolutely demand more but to do that, it's important that they have the proper information. i highly encourage anyone reading this to share the reports i've linked here but here's my statement on the matter:

america, your economy is larger than any other country's but there are still more than a dozen nations where people are better off than you are. what's more, those countries lean more towards socialism; i don't mean communist russia and china, either. people are happier, healthier and more able to enjoy their after-tax income because the money they give back to the government is used to fund programs that make their lives easier. you're going to hear a lot in the coming months about "socialism". the fact is that there isn't a single socialist running for the presidential nomination in either major party but those who lean towards what your president and his party call "socialism" espouse views that reflect those of countries whose citizens are the happiest and healthiest on earth. and those countries don't stifle business and innovation: they prioritize it, it's just that it isn't the only thing they prioritize. so if you're sick of hearing about how scandinavia just does absolutely everything better, think about the benefits of being a social democrat. it works.

let's bash on someone other than the u.s. for a moment: in terms of large economies with high homicide and incarceration rates, a number of sources [like this one] call into question the statistics provided by china. the fact that the world's second-largest economy is lying about its internal security and peacefulness does not let the united states off the hook for its failings. however, it is at least worth knowing that china's rankings should bear an asterisk like the one at the beginning of this paragraph.  

** if americans want a country to look at for the future, they might want to consult their first lady rather than their president: slovenia leads the pack in terms of environmental measures and performs exceptionally well in education. it finishes in the top twenty in terms of security, personal freedom and "social capital", which measures things like the quality of community relationships and personal networks. despite being a tiny and still relatively new country, slovenia finishes just one place below the united states in the overall prosperity rankings. 


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