The Nation, 23 March 2009

Photographer Walker Evans collected picture postcards, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is exhibiting them.  Here’s one:


Evidently Calvin Trillin reads Los Thunderlads.  Here’s the first half of this week’s doggerel:

Republicans had hoped they might rekindle
Their party’s prospects through one Bobby Jindal.
But Jindal proved an easy man to mock
(He’s like the dorky page on 30 Rock).

Below find an excerpt from an article headlined “America is #… 15?” by Dalton Conley.  23-march-2009-nationThe article is about the Human Development Index, or HDI, a statistic that has since 1990 been used to gauge the relative well-being of people in various countries.  The American HDI was released for the first time last year.  As the article puts it, “The score consists of three dimensions: health, as measured by life expectancy at birth; access to knowledge, captured by educational enrollment and attainment; and income, as reflected by median earnings for the working-age population.”  The HDI was first developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq to enable humanitarian aid groups and development economists to gauge the relative well-being of people in poor countries.  “With some slight adjustments, the index was retrofitted to work for rich countries,” and the results for the USA are quite disturbing. 

The first bit of bad news is that America was slipping well before our most recent downturn. Whereas during the 1980s we were consistently No. 2 in the world (Switzerland occupied the top slot in 1980, while Canada did from 1985 to 1990), by the mid-1990s we had slipped to six. And by 2006 (the most recent year available), we had even fallen out of the Top 10 (to slot 15). Income clearly doesn’t capture every dimension, since the United States still holds the No. 2 position in terms of income per capita. Rather, other aspects of American society make it less “developed” than it should be, given the resources available here.

This decline proceeded apace through the Reagan and first Bush administrations, during the go-go Clinton ’90s, and through the regime of George W. Bush. We have slipped in periods of budget deficits and during the largest surplus in US history. So something deeper about the structure of American society is probably responsible.

Of course, there are some pretty good suspects. There is, for example, the issue of nearly 50 million people who don’t have health insurance. There is the fact that college completion rates have been flat since the ’70s despite an increasingly technological economy. And there is the wage stagnation for the bottom half, a problem that has dogged us since the oil shock of 1973. But there is one larger force underlying these trends that has been gaining steam over the past three decades, and that’s income inequality.

Income inequality has been rising since the late ’60s and is greater in the United States than in any other developed (i.e., rich) country. Income inequality can matter for general health, knowledge and our shared standard of living, for several reasons. First, the more that Americans have vastly different economic means at their disposal, the harder it is to generate political support for investments that would raise all boats. For instance, inequality often leads well-to-do people to abandon the public school system–or to move to particularly well-funded districts, where house prices are highest. Some scholars even posit that high inequality harms our health, as a result of the stress from relative deprivation and increased efforts to keep up with the Joneses (or, as the case may be, the Gateses). While this claim remains highly controversial among health economists, the observation that more-unequal countries generally display worse health than more-equal ones is not in dispute. Such high (and rising) degrees of inequality in the United States (we are closer to Turkey on such measures than we are to France) are reflected in the HDI scores. Some Americans are a full fifty years behind others in terms of their level of development.

Yet the relationship between inequality and overall HDI scores is not straightforward. For example, state-level inequality is not a reliable predictor. The District of Columbia, New York and Connecticut all have high levels of inequality–and are among the richest regions–yet perform at the top in their American HDI scores. On the other hand, another rich state, California, boasts three out of the top five Congressional districts in terms of HDI (including Silicon Valley, West Los Angeles and West Orange County) while also bearing the shame of the worst district in the United States (Kings County in the Central Valley, which includes Fresno). Kings County is further behind in human development terms than any district in rural Mississippi; it is equivalent to the US average during the 1970s, and it isn’t comparable to the scores of any of the rich countries we like to think of as our peers.


  1. cymast

     /  March 9, 2009

    They ought to change “Human Development Index” to “life expectancy at birth, formal educational enrollment and attainment, and median earnings for the working-age population,” and change “well-being” to, um . . “life expectancy at birth, formal educational enrollment and attainment, and median earnings for the working-age population.”

  2. cymast

     /  March 9, 2009

    I’m rooting for Burkanistan.

    Go Burkanistan!

  3. cymast

     /  March 9, 2009


  4. acilius

     /  March 9, 2009

    When I first posted this,I included a much bigger chunk of Conley’s article than I’d intended. I’ve cut it back.

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