The Social Science Research Council and Columbia University Press have published a remarkable and eye-opening book, called The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009, which could function as a companion and statistical supplement to The End of the American Century. In analyzing the domestic situation of the U.S., The Measure of America has many of the same themes, and similar (and supporting) evidence as my book. Like my book, it shows that on most measures of societal development, the U.S. has declined over recent decades, and lost ground compared to other countries.
The Measure of America is modeled on the annual Human Development Report published since 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme. That series attempted to get away from the raw economic indicator of Gross Domestic Product, and to determine the level of human development in each country. The “human development index” used by UNDP, an alternative to GDP, was “a composite index measuring average achievement in the three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.” (From the Human Development Report 2006).
The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen was instrumental in developing the Human Development Report, and wrote the Foreword to The Measure of America. There, he writes that
“we have to judge the success of a society, including its economy, not just in terms of national wealth or the ubiquitous GNP, but in terms of the freedoms and capabilities that people enjoy to live as they would value living” (p. xi).Sen observes that this approach has been “remarkably neglected in the United States in particular” and notes in this country “a major discrepancy between opulence and achievement.” The U.S. may be on some measures the world’s wealthiest nation, but “its accomplishments in longevity, secure health, fine education and other such basic features of good living are considerably below those of many other—often much poorer—countries.” He also notes, as I do in my book, that the position of the U.S. relative to other countries has been “steadily falling” over the years (p. xii).
The book itself assembles data in clearly presented tables on the three main “building blocks” of the human development index: a long and healthy life; access to knowledge; and a decent standard of living. In all three areas, the U.S. fares poorly in comparison to other countries. Compared to other wealthy countries, for example, the U.S. ranks #24 in life expectancy; #18 in high school graduation rates; and #2 in poverty rates (you don’t want to rank high on that one!).
The data shows the downward trend for the U.S. over time in most of these measures as well. And for the overall index, the U.S. world rank dropped from #2 in 1980 (behind only Switzerland) to #12 in 2005. Countries ahead of us include much of western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan.
(The American Human Development Project also maintains a useful website at this link.)
These are all trends and themes presented in The End of the American Century, where I also use authoritative data (including many of the same measures used in The Measure of America). They point out how far the U.S. has fallen, and how much work we have to do. The problems of the U.S., both economic and social, predate the disastrous Bush presidency, which simply exacerbated them all. It took more than eight years to dig us into this hole, and will take at least that long to recover. But we have to recognize these problems and understand them before we can begin to solve them.
The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009 (A Columbia / SSRC Book)