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How the U.S. Performs in Recent International Rankings

04/15/2013 10:47 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2013

Two sets of international rankings were recently issued, one from UNICEF, "Child Well-Being in Rich Countries," and the other from the World Economic Forum, "The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013."

"Child Well-Being in Rich Countries" ranks 29 developed countries, according to the well-being of their children, on numerous factors.

The U.S. ranks #26 overall for "Child Well-Being." This overall rank includes: #26 for "Material Well-Being"; #28 for "Child Poverty Rates"; #25 for "Health and Safety"; #26 for "Infant Mortality Rates"; #26 for "Low Birthweight"; #22 for "Immunization Rates"; #27 for "Educational Well-Being"; #27 for "Preschool Enrollment Rates"; #25 for "Participation in Further Education"; #16 for "Educational Achievement by Age 15"; #29 for "Overweight"; #2 for "Exercise"; #29 for teen-pregnancy rates; #1 for "Alcohol" (U.S. receives the top rank for absence of drunkenness); #4 for "Smoking" (again, absence); #11 for "Fighting"; #12 for "Being Bullied"; #23 for "Housing"; #27 for "Homicide"; #3 for (lack of) "Air Pollution"; #23 for children's self-reported "Life Satisfaction"; and #28 for "Relationships with Parents and Peers."

The top-rated countries for child well-being, overall, in order, are: (1) Netherlands; (2) Norway; (3) Iceland; (4) Finland; (5) Sweden); (6) Germany; (7) Luxembourg; (8) Switzerland; (9) Belgium; and (10) Ireland.

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A much broader ranking-system, from the World Economic Forum, is "The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013," which ranks 144 countries, on a wide range of factors related to global economic competitiveness.

The U.S. ranks as #1 on only 4 out of the 117 different factors that are rated, and each of these 4 factors reflects merely the sheer size, the hugeness, of the U.S. economy. These four factors might thus collectively be identified as the Hugeness components: "GDP," "GDP as a Share of World GDP," "Available Airline Seat Kilometers," and "Domestic Market Size Index." Other than Hugeness, the results for the U.S. are not at all outstanding.

Health Care shows the U.S. ranking as #34 on "Life Expectancy," and as #41 on "Infant Mortality." (And, of course, unlike the "Infant Mortality" rankings from UNICEF, this ranking is among 144 countries. Thus: some underdeveloped countries actually have higher life-expectancy than does the U.S.)

Education in the U.S. is also apparently mediocre. On "Quality of Primary Education," we are #38. On "Primary Education Enrollment Rate," we are #58. On "Quality of the Educational System," we are #28. On "Quality of Math and Science Education," we are #47. On "Quality of Scientific Research Institutions," we are #6. On "PCT [Patent Cooperation Treaty] Patent Applications [per-capita]," we are #12. On "Firm-Level Technology Absorption" (which is an indicator of business-acceptance of inventions), we are #14.

Trust is likewise only moderately high in the U.S. We rank #10 on "Willingness to Delegate Authority," #42 on "Cooperation in Labor-Employer Relations," and #18 in "Degree of Customer Orientation" of firms.

Corruption seems to be a rather pervasive problem in the U.S. On "Diversion of Public Funds [due to corruption]," the U.S. ranks #34. On "Irregular Payments and Bribes" (which is perhaps an even better measure of lack of corruption) we are #42. On "Public Trust in Politicians," we are #54. On "Judicial Independence," we are #38. On "Favoritism in Decisions of Government Officials" (otherwise known as governmental "cronyism"), we are #59. On "Organized Crime," we are #87. On "Ethical Behavior of Firms," we are #29. On "Reliability of Police Services," we are #30. On "Transparency of Governmental Policymaking," we are #56. On "Efficiency of Legal Framework in Challenging Regulations," we are #37. On "Efficiency of Legal Framework in Settling Disputes," we are #35. On "Burden of Government Regulation," we are #76. On "Wastefulness of Government Spending," we are also #76. On "Property Rights" protection (the basic law-and-order measure), we are #42.

Investors evidently find somewhat shaky ground in the U.S. On "Strength of Investor Protection," we are #5. On "Protection of Minority Shareholders' Interests," we are #33. On "Efficacy of Corporate Boards," we are #23. On "Reliance on Professional Management," we are #19. On "Strength of Auditing and Reporting Standards," we are #37. On "Venture Capital Availability," we are #10. On "Intellectual Property Protection," we are #29. On "Soundness of Banks," we are #80. On "Regulation of Securities Exchanges," we are #39. On "Country Credit Rating," we are #11. On "Government Debt [as a % of GDP]," we are #136. On "Effectiveness of Anti-Monopoly Policy," we are #17. On "Extent of Market Dominance," we are #9.

Technology seems to be moderately good here. The U.S. ranks #14 on "Availability of Latest Technologies," #24 on "Internet Access in Schools," #20 on "Internet Users [%]," #33 on "Internet Bandwidth [per user]," and #8 on "Mobile Broadband Subscriptions [%]."

Infrastructure is apparently fairly good in the U.S. We rank #25 on "Quality of Overall Infrastructure," #33 on "Quality of Electricity Supply," #30 on "Quality of Air Transport Infrastructure," #19 on "Quality of Port Infrastructure," and #20 on "Quality of Roads."

Taxes also definitely don't qualify as being good in the U.S. We rank #69 on "Extent and Effect of Taxation," in which the "Effect" that's considered is reducing the "incentives to work or invest." We are #103 on "Total Tax Rate," #47 on "Number of Procedures Required to Start a Business" (which is an indirect tax), and #50 on "Prevalence of Trade Barriers" (both tariff and non-tariff).

The U.S, overall, is very far from being #1 - not really in contention, at all, for the top spot. The individual rankings suggest instead that this nation is sinking towards the Third World. The 15 nations that stand high in most of the lists here are: Finland, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Canada, Qatar, Netherlands, Iceland, Ireland, U.K., and Hong Kong.

The nations that generally rank in the bottom half of these WEF rankings are the ones that are typically considered as being "Third World," or poor.

However, the WEF applies a complicated formula (not fully explained), which weights each factor differently for different countries in order to produce their overall composite ranking for each country. As a result, the U.S. receives an overall ranking of #7, which is much higher than would have been the case if all of the individual component-rankings had been considered equally. Based upon the vague explanation that's provided, it seems that the factors on which the U.S. ranked the worst were treated as being relatively unimportant determinants of the overall rated economic performance of this country, when WEF came up with their (relatively meaningless) overall composite rankings.

Of the 117 different factors that were ranked, the U.S. scored among the top 7 on only 18 factors; and so, these 18 factors must have far outweighed, in their consideration, all of the other 99 factors combined. Here are these 18, the apparently overriding, factors, the ones that the WEF accentuated in order to have been able to grant the U.S. a #7 overall rank: GDP, Population, GDP as a Share of World GDP, Strength of Investor Protection, Available Airline Seat Kilometers, Malaria Incidence, Tuberculosis Incidence, Tertiary Education Enrollment Rate, Brain Drain (attractiveness to talented people), Redundancy Costs, Domestic Market Size, Foreign Market Size, Extent of Marketing, Capacity for Innovation, Quality of Scientific Research Institutions, Company Spending on R&D, University-Industry Collaboration in R&D, and finally, Availability of Scientists and Engineers.

By contrast, for examples: U.K. ranked among the top 7 on 20 factors but ranked only #8 overall; Denmark ranked among the top 7 on 22 factors but ranked only #12 overall; Canada ranked among the top 7 on 17 factors but ranked only #14 overall; and Norway ranked among the top 7 on 20 factors but ranked only #15 overall.

Here are the top-rated countries in WEF's overall composite rankings: Switzerland scored among the top 7 on 52 factors and ranked #1 overall; Singapore ranked among the top 7 on 62 factors and ranked #2 overall; and Finland ranked among the top 7 on 53 factors and ranked #3 overall.

Here are the numbers of #1 rankings for each of the top three countries in WEF's overall composite rankings: Switzerland 14; Singapore 12; Finland 9.

Perhaps the main reason the U.S. ranked as high as #7 overall is that this country is larger than most of its competitors. The only other large countries among the top 10 overall were #6 Germany, and #10 Japan. Germany ranked among the top 7 on 22 factors, and was ranked #1 on 3; Japan ranked among the top 7 on 25 factors, and was ranked #1 on 8. But, of course, the U.S. is even larger than either of those two countries.

The WEF rankings are definitely slanted so as to boost the overall ranking for large countries, at the expense of small countries.

The U.S. had an extraordinarily big number of very low rankings for a country that received such a high overall ranking as #7. For example, the #7-ranked U.S. scored #100 or worse, among all 144 countries, on 6 factors. By comparison, #6 Germany scored #100 or worse on only 4; #8 U.K. also scored #100 or worse on only 4; #12 Denmark scored #100 or worse on only 2 (even though it was overall-ranked far below the U.S.); #14 Canada scored #100 or worse on only 3; and #15 Norway scored #100 or worse on only 3. And, at the top-scoring end, Switzerland scored #100 or worse on only 2; Singapore on only 1; and Finland on only 1.

Perhaps because of America's sheer global political clout, the WEF wished to tilt this country's overall ranking, in order to keep the U.S. inside the top 10. Many of the factors where America didn't score high look substantial, not just minor.

Whereas the WEF's ranking on each of the individual factors might be reasonably accurate, their remarkably opaque, and obviously pro-large-country, overall composite ranking-system, certainly is not at all reliable, and can thus reasonably be ignored.

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Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They're Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST'S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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