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Do you live in the world’s most advanced nation? Or is it next to yours, or nearby?
Leaders from many nations are apt to declare theirs exceptional – perhaps the most prolific, the most righteous, the best positioned, or indeed the most advanced. Such declarations are often good politics, frequently are viewed internally as self-evident or sacrosanct, and naturally play well to local audiences, especially ones that have not considered these claims too carefully.
But which modern nation really is the best, or most advanced? It’s a question I take up in my book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life, and one I think is quite important and productive.
One answer of course is to hold that the question makes no sense, that it is impossible to answer, notably since nations are all complicated, distinctive, and thus incomparable. Other responses might involve the idea that the question is divisive and unhelpful, that none are foremost and therefore all are similar, or even that all are similarly flawed and unworthy of the label of most advanced. Importantly, each of these answers involves the assumption that such comparisons or rankings – whether involving nations or other complex entities – are inherently unreliable, dubious, or absurd.
By considering the specific question of the world’s most advanced nation, I will demonstrate that this thinking is generally unwise, dismissive, superficial, or naïve. Overall, and building on my recent piece Answering Hard Questions, I believe it overlooks the practical power and enormous natural learning opportunities reliably available to us by considering just these sorts of comparative (and comparatively hard) questions, even if our answers to them are always imperfect, controversial, and debatable – but thereby also improvable.
After all, we routinely compare things, even complex things, and often quite usefully, beneficially, and instructively. Our level of information and rigor in making these comparisons can of course vary widely, influencing the quality of our judgements. But this fact suggests the need and opportunity for care with our comparisons, rather than avoiding or downplaying them altogether, especially in crucial areas – and again especially since incisive comparisons can be quite helpful, even as they are always naturally incomplete or imperfect.
A more constructive, and ultimately more learning-rich, way of answering the question of the most advanced nation on earth today, or the most advanced anything at any point in time, is to begin from the idea that the answer inevitably depends on our criteria, our decision factors, or what is often called the foundational framing of our analysis. Not only does this approach at once aid, and wisely temper, comparisons of all kinds, the process of making our comparison criteria explicit and subject to review can be as instructive and beneficial as the specific conclusions we ultimately draw when employing them.
To make these important ideas, useful in many domains of life, more concrete, consider a hypothetical comparison of different fruits (or any other category of things). Once again, we might take the position that judging the relative merits of different fruits is impossible or ridiculous – that it is literally comparing apples and oranges.
But once we surface and decide on specific comparative criteria (for example, cost, calories, vitamins, and freshness) comparing fruits, or nations, becomes a relatively straightforward procedure – if always an imperfect and debatable one. And often, both the process of surfacing decision criteria and then considering the judgments they engender, can prove enormously insightful, revealing, and useful to us.
Highlighting the natural power and broad applicability of this approach, which we might call the process of conscious judging – or the making of judgments via clearly stated criteria, using objective information, and with the expectation of criticism and debate – I would like to take on the important, revealing, and even illuminating question of the world’s most advanced nation in our time.
For brevity, I’ll do this via a series of top-10 lists, each with different and explicit comparison criteria or factors. As you will see, the exercise or approach is more than intellectual. It can lead us to consider quite deeply any nation’s, and indeed any individual or collective’s, current state of functioning, relative degree of optimality or level of advancement, and needed or potentially superior sets of goals, values, and focus areas.
> Take #1: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – this metric is the monetary value of all final goods and services produced in a country, and is normally measured on a yearly basis. GDP measures the overall size or performance of a national economy. This metric is important to many investors, economists, and political leaders, but notably does not directly measure standard of living or quality of life. Based on 2015 International Monetary Fund data, the top-10 nations by GDP are (from Wikipedia List of Countries by GDP):
- United States
- United Kingdom
> Take #2: Gross Domestic Product Per Capita (GDPPC) – this alternative economic measure is a nation’s annual GDP divided by its average population for a year. Unlike GDP, GDPPC is expressly used as an indicator of a country’s overall standard of living. It’s an easy metric to calculate, but suffers from several problems. One is that it does not as accurately reflect living standards relative to other measures, such as the closely related metric of personal income. Another is it does not consider relative economic equality, which is known to affect not just standard of living, but also quality of life and even national stability. Based on 2015 International Monetary Fund data, the top-10 nations by GDPPC are (from Wikipedia List of Countries by GDP Per Capita):
- United States
> Take #3: Income Equality – in contrast to the previous two lists, which focus on economic output, income equality measures assess how equally the fruit of this output, or personal income, is distributed in a nation. Income equality measures do not assess overall national income levels, only how equally income is spread throughout a nation, regardless of whether the nation is relatively rich or poor overall. There are several ways of measuring income equality. The list below (from most to less equal) is based on the GINI Coefficient and uses 2012-2013 World Bank data (from Wikipedia List of Countries by Income Equality):
- Czech Republic
> Take #4: Happiness – turning from economic measures, the next list considers reported happiness, which can be understood as one of the principal reasons for promoting economic activity. Reported national happiness is just that, how happy people say they are on average in a country, during one of several annual happiness surveys. Based on 2012 Gallup World Poll data, the top-10 nations by happiness are (from New Economics Foundation HPI):
> Take #5: Longevity – in addition to being happy, most of us of course also want to live a long life. The next list considers life expectancy, or the average number of years a person may expect to live, which is often measured by birth year. Based on 2011 UNDP data, the top-10 nations by longevity are (from New Economics Foundation HPI):
- Hong Kong
> Take #6: Sustainability – it’s great to live well, and long, but many of us want to do so without harming the planet, or in ways that are sustainable and allow future generations of people to live happy and long lives too. The next list considers national sustainability, or how likely the average lifestyle of a nation can be sustained in perpetuity.
As you might imagine, such calculations are enormously complex and probabilistic, but ecological sustainability can be gauged simply (though crudely) as the inverse of the average consumption levels or (extractive) economic activities of a nation. Based on 2012 WWF Ecological Footprint data, which assesses land needs to maintain average national consumption patterns, the top-10 nations by sustainability, or at least by low resource use, are (from New Economics Foundation HPI):
> Take #7: Adaptivity – if the last list of countries left you wondering whether these nations were really first, or last, on a larger list, you’re not alone. While low consumption levels are ecologically more sustainable than higher ones, all other things being equal, other things rarely are equal. Indeed, several of the nations listed have low consumption levels because they are poor, buffeted by widespread poverty, or under significant ecological or social pressures. Thus, despite their low consumption levels, some of these nations in fact may be less rather than more sustainable, or naturally adaptive, than nations with higher consumption levels. And this may be especially clear if we take a long view and consider our potential for increased sustainability and adaptivity from (wealth and thus consumption-dependent) technological, scientific, and social advances.
To address these issues or problems with the previous criterion and list, the last list we will review seeks to explicitly and more fully consider national adaptivity, or the likelihood that a nation today will prosper and adapt over time – biologically, ecologically, socially, and technologically. Like assessments of sustainability, probabilistic calculations of adaptivity are of course difficult and cross-disciplinary, require long study periods to be validated, and really have not yet been taken up in earnest by scientists (but see Diamond Collapse for an important, if preliminary, example of an empirically based model of social adaptiveness).
As I have written about elsewhere, an indicative measure of national adaptiveness can be found via a combination of the last three measures we discussed – happiness, longevity, and sustainability (or low consumption levels). Together, these three measures offer a potential portrait or indicator of the world’s most naturally adaptive people today. Nations scoring high in all three measures are: a) relatively happy and thus perhaps socially cohesive and engaged in life, b) fairly long-lived and thus perhaps relatively rational and able to apply science (able to ensure public health, social security, etc.), and c) require fewer resources to achieve these outcomes, and thus perhaps are fairly resourceful or place fewer demands on their native ecosystems.
Based on a blending of the three previous data sets, via a formula created by the New Economics Foundation, a working (and imperfect but illustrative) estimate of the top-10 nations by adaptiveness are (from New Economics Foundation HPI):
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
So, did your own or a nearby nation come up in one or more of the top-10 lists?
Whether or not, I trust you can see the natural power of considering questions of the best nation, the best course of action, or the best anything, consciously and with express and then progressive criteria. Far from being unhelpful or ambiguous, approaching questions in this way can be enormously instructive – especially by illuminating the criteria or values we use in our thinking, and thus leading us to ask why and what criteria might lead to better or improved (or more beneficial or adaptive) conclusions.
By exploring, stating, and remaining aware of our decision criteria, or by making explicit the values or framing we are using in our comparisons and judgments, we create much more learning than might otherwise be possible and generally arrive at more useful, considered, and enduring conclusions. This approach to judging is sometimes called double-loop processing – since we engage not just in thinking or action from facts to conclusions (a single loop or line of thought or behavior) but also think about the quality of our thinking or functioning (a second, recursive loop of thinking or processing).
At the same time, and returning to the national comparisons, I also hope our discussion has inspired you to think more deeply about what it means to be and promote an advanced nation, and what values, goals, and aims should be most important to your nation, to any nation, and even to any person.
Leaders and others may sing the praises of your nation, or the flaws of another, but such judgements always involve a specific set of criteria. And often, the criteria that we and others use in our judgments, of nations and many other matters, are unstated, questionable, even far from ideal, and perhaps easily improved – benefiting us, others, the nation we call home, and perhaps all nations.
Health & best wishes,
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