Civilization by the Numbers

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published the results of a study which evaluates 34 major countries around the world against a set of eleven criteria to produce what OECD calls its Better Life Index (it's a Eurocentric list; two glaring omissions are China and India; only two of the 34 countries are from Asia). The BLI basically indicates the best places to live on the planet. The USA does remarkably well in the study, and if there's a biggest loser amid the BLI results that nation is Russia.

The way OECD presents (or "visualizes") its data is as fascinating as the data itself. On its website, you can assign your own level of importance to each of the eleven criteria and produce your own customized list of countries ranked from one to 34 based on your personal set of life priorities. The visualization is fully animated, so the country rankings dance and reorganize before your eyes as you adjust them. 
Then, if necessary, you can call the moving van.

The eleven criteria can be organized into four groups: Group A would be the financial group, including housing, income, and jobs. Group B would be the security group, including safety, environment, and health. Group C would be the intellectual group, including education and civic engagement. And Group D would be the psychological group, including community, life satisfaction, and work-life balance.

If you maximize only the Group A financial criteria, North America rules the roost. The USA comes out on top with Canada in third place. Switzerland is between them.

Maximize Group B security criteria, and Canada still appears in the top three. But the USA and Switzerland disappear, replaced by Australia in the top spot and Sweden in third. The USA is in ninth place in Group B (still well into the top third of all nations under review).

Emphasize Group C intellectual criteria, and you'll see Australia and Sweden remain in the top three (Sweden moving up to second) while Canada drops out and Finland comes in third. Here again, the USA is ninth place.

And if you focus on the Group D psychological factors, Switzerland comes back into the picture at number three but now Norway tops the list followed by Denmark. Here the USA drops back the farthest, all the way to the middle of the pack at number 17. It seems that in order to maximize your financial prospects, a significant cost in the Group D area, which could loosely be called "stress," is required.

The USA is sixth overall, when equal weight is given to all eleven criteria. Doing this, Australia is revealed as the best country on earth to live in, followed by Sweden, Canada, Norway, and Switzerland. With a population nearly four times larger than all of the top five countries combined, the USA is by far the best large country on the planet to reside in. Nice job, Americans!

What's even more stunning, though, is the consistent noncompetitiveness of the major nations of Europe. Between them Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom don't account for a single top-three spot in any of the four groups or overall. What's more, their best finishes are all by one nation, UK. Its best result was #6 in Group B, followed by #7 in Group A, #10 overall, #12 in Group C and #14 in Group D. The major nations of continental Europe, by contrast, are exposed as dismal also-rans.

As for the worst countries to live in? The results are remarkably consistent.

In each one of the four groups, Turkey and Mexico rank in the bottom three, and they are worst and second worst overall. Brazil rounds out the bottom three in both Group A and Group C, while Russia does so in Group B and Greece fills the role in Group D.

Russia is an appalling #30 in the overall results, with only Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey below it. If, as I would, you choose one factor from each of the four groups as your litmus test (income, health, civic engagement and life satisfaction, the four I'd say are most salient), Russia stunningly emerges as the very worst nation on the planet to live in, something that's consistent with the experience of many foreigners who live in Russia. Doing this, Sweden is the best place on earth, followed by Australia and the USA.

As noted, Russia is in the bottom three in the Group B security group, its worst group result. For confirmation, Russia's score is remarkably consistent, the same bottom 10%, when reviewed for similar criteria on the much broader Vision of Humanity Global Peace Index. There, Russia is one of only ten countries out of 162 studied that are depicted on the global peace map in blood-red ink as the most violent and dangerous on the planet. It ranks a shocking #155 for violence. Just a few stunning examples bring the point home: One Russian woman is murdered by her spouse every hour; in 2008 Russia invaded its tiny neighbor Georgia and annexed two large chunks of its territory. Russia is even extremely dangerous when all you're trying to do is surf the web.

Thinking of taking a vacation in Russia? Think again. Know someone who's going there for the 2014 Olympics? An athlete maybe? Best to warn them what they're getting themselves into.

No matter what international survey you turn to, Russia's report card reads the same: not just failing grades, but miserable unmitigated disaster. Indeed, given Russia's advanced level of technology and its vast crude oil and gas holdings, the OECD data mean that pound for pound Russia is the palpably and clearly the most spectacular failure of all the nations being studied. Turkey, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico are not countries that can boast of space and military rocket programs or a top-ten GDP, but what is Russia's excuse for such an exceedingly poor level of social development, barely distinguishable from theirs? This cataclysmic Russian failure is borne out by perusing the details. 

Russians pride themselves on being well-educated, but if you isolate education on the BLI Russia is a shocking #30 out of 34 nations under review, not even slightly above its lowly overall position. The Kremlin brags about having low unemployment, but if you isolate the jobs criteria Russia is a miserable #28 on the list of nations, barely above its overall score. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin claims he has vastly increased Russian incomes, but isolating that criteria on the BLI leaves Russia third from last on the list, even worse than its overall position.

How can Russia, with such wretched results, possibly be considered to deserve a place at the table of the mighty G-8 nations? Clearly, the only reason Russia has that seat is because of its nuclear weapons. This is a dire and reckless message to send to countries like Turkey, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil: If you want to be taken seriously, acquire weapons of mass destruction. But the mere fact that Russia does have nukes only further emphasizes its total and willful failure to provide for the basic needs of its population, in preference to attaining the status of international bully by pursuing a highly sophisticated weapons program.

All this domestic failure, of course, is why Putin's popularity continues to deflate as time passes (polls show only about a third of Russians trust him and only a quarter want him to be reelected to a fourth term), and why his crackdown on the flow of information continues to escalate and expand rapidly. To maintain his grip on power, Putin needs to keep information like that in the BLI outside the ken of ordinary Russians as much as possible, to continue to bombard them with disinformation while at the same time making it clear what will happen if anyone challenges him.

Thus, we see opposition leader Alexei Navalny facing trial on highly dubious embezzlement charges. We see leading critics of the Kremlin like economist Sergei Guriev, author Masha Gessen and reporter Oleg Kashin seeking exile abroad. And we have seen other fearless critics, like Anna Politkovaskaya and Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Magnitsky, killed outright.

The irony is that the OECD data clearly confirms that Putin is exceedingly weak because of his failed economy (Russia is likely mired at present in yet another brutal recession). This means that Putin would never be able to survive a concerted effort by the much stronger nations of the West to stand up for human rights and democracy, as they are doing in places like Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

But Putin's ace in the hole is Barack Obama, whose "reset" policy is giving Putin plenty of room to continue his crackdown unfettered. Obama has consistently refused to put even rhetorical pressure on the Putin regime, and in fact has been far more willing to stand up to the U.S. Congress when it seeks to challenge Putin than to face down Putin himself.