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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wealth and Happiness American-Style

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released an up-dated version of its Better Life Index in May 2012. The U.S. ranked first in income, with average household wealth at $102,000, as well as in housing (Americans spending about 20% of their disposable income on it—the OECD average being 22%). These figures for the U.S. could have been pushed upward by the fact that at the time, the very rich were richer than their counterparts in other countries, for the gap between rich and poor was relatively high in the U.S. For example, 30 million Americans were without health insurance and a record number of Americans were receiving a governmental subsidy for food. Rather than assume that the middle and lower economic segments in the U.S. were better off than their counterparts in other regions of the world, I suspect that the statistics reflect the higher relative pay of American executives and professionals (lawyers, physicians and CPAs). The typical CEO in the E.U., for example, made less than his or her counterpart in the U.S.  This caused trouble in the Chrysler-Daimler merger because the Chrysler executives enjoyed higher compensation even though Daimler was in charge.

Interestingly, the rank of the U.S. in life satisfaction was above average, with 76 percent of people reporting having more positive than negative experiences in an average day (the average in the OECD index being 72%). In other words, the gap between the rich and poor does not appear to have gotten in the way of life-satisfaction. Although economic reductionism is particularly salient in the U.S., such satisfaction does not reduce to dollars and cents. Even in economic terms, the large gap between the rich and poor includes geographic distance. For example, court-orders have had to be used to force some cities and towns to allow subsidized (low-income) housing. Meanwhile, it is not uncommon, particularly in Florida, for people with money to live in gated communities. With the rich out of sight, the poor are less likely to be aware of the economic inequality, which could otherwise put a damper on their life-satisfaction.

As a final observation, my reference to Florida suggests that the OECD should not generalize all of the American states into one figure. For example, life-satisfaction is likely to be higher in Hawaii than in Alabama or Michigan for climatic or economic reasons (or in North Dakota during the winter even considering the economic boom). Housing in New Hampshire is, in general, better than in Mississippi. Income in Connecticut is higher on average than in Arkansas. For states, whether in the U.S. or E.U., to be in a union is not to say that they are identical and thus readily grouped together. In other words, a general statistic in housing or income has less real meaning when applied over such a large area. It is like saying that the average temperature in the U.S. in 2011 was 56 degrees (I don’t know the real figure). It is unlikely that figure applies in any state—certainly not in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, or Maine. The figure has no real meaning, other than relative to other such figures over time (e.g., to assess global warming). For the OECD to compare the U.S. as a whole to E.U. states such as Denmark, Belgium and Spain suggests that the organization is content to engage in category mistakes. If the figures are relevant on the state level, the OECD should be consistent rather than selectively over-generalize.

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