UN ranks U.S. 4th, Israel 15th in report card on living standards

Each year, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) issues a voluminous report on human development progress and challenges among its member nations.  Unlike many other UN reports that are heavily politicized, the human-development reports have maintained a sterling reputation for dispassionate scientific and statistical objectivity.

The annual report's most popular feature is its "human development index" -- a table that ranks the "well-being" of nations, according to three main criteria -- health, based on life expectancy; education, based on years of schooling of adults, and personal income.

The 2010 HDI -- the most authoritative global report card on living standards -- ranks Israel in 15th place.  This represents a huge upward leap from its 27th ranking last year.  Israel's latest showing is by far its best yet.

Its 15th place puts it ahead of Finland, Iceland, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria and the United Kingdom.  Just ahead of Israel are Switzerland (13th) and France (14th).

The top 10 nations on the 2010 HDI are led by Norway (No. 1), followed by Australia, New Zealand, United States, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Canada, Sweden and Germany.

With its 15th ranking, Israel far outpaces the living standards of its Middle East neighbors.  The oil-rich United Arab Emirates come closest with a 32nd ranking, followed by Qatar (38th), Bahrain (39th) and Kuwait (47th).

Despite their vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia (55th) and Iran (70th) lag far behind Israel.

What makes the HDI unique as a snapshot of living standards is that it doesn't just measure a nation's overall financial wealth.  Instead, it delves into such basic quality of life factors as public health, how widely educational opportunities are spread among its citizens, and individual income levels.  Thus, countries that amass great wealth because of natural assets like oil can get relatively low marks if they fail to spread their wealth to all sectors of society, including minorities and women..

Countries that divert big chunks of their wealth to armaments or to favored ruling classes instead of spreading good schools, good medical facilities and adequate income to everyone also are apt to get relatively low marks.

Which makes Israel's 15th place among 169 countries around the global all the more remarkable in view of multiple security threats that require major defense outlays; yet Israel still manages to excel in ensuring basic living standards for all its people.