Why Can’t America Be More Like Finland?

December 2, 2010

Life in America ... kinda sucks.

Well, at least in many places, and for many people.

That’s the conclusion “The Measure of America 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience” wants readers to reach. But don’t worry -- its authors recommend policy prescriptions that are sure to turn saggy-pants gangsters, meth-using hillbillies, and evolution-denying Jesus freaks into Merlot-sipping sophisticates.

The report is the latest edition of the American Human Development Index, a tool created by the left-wing Social Science Research Council. Using metrics employed by international-development researchers, the index “aims to breathe life into numbers, using data to create compelling narratives that foster understanding of and support for social change.”

Before we get to that “social change,” let’s highlight some data.

Attempts to more comprehensively measure well-being aren’t new. Bhutan established “gross national happiness” as a goal in the early 1970s, and has tracked it every since. For decades, analysts have looked beyond economic output to gauge how average men and women fare in countries both wealthy and impoverished.

“The Measure of America” computes where U.S. quality of life -- health, education, and wealth -- falls on a global scale. (For example, the citizens of 22 nations live longer than we do. Okay, but are a few extra golden years worth moving to long-lived but notoriously xenophobic Japan?) But its main focus is divergences within the U.S. -- between states and congressional districts, as well as the sexes, and racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Yes, you’ve already guessed where this is going.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York are the states that measure up best. The stinkers? Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and dead-last West Virginia. (Predictably, no mention is made of the fact that many denizens of the index’s state stars gleefully flee to fairly low-scoring Texas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.)

With longer lives, better educational attainment, and superior incomes, Asians outpace whites, Latinos, blacks, and Americans of pre-Columbian origin in “human development” -- often by hideous margins. An Asian living in Connecticut can expect to live a stunning 26 years longer than a reservation resident in South Dakota.

Pore over the study’s 300+ pages and you’ll find dozens of similar comparisons. Latinos in the Razorback State are at the bottom when it comes to time spent in school, while whites living in Washington, D.C. are at the top. (Explains a lot about the federal government, doesn’t it?) Hawaiian Latinos earn about half as much as Asians in New Jersey. By region, “the South is home to the bottom eleven states in terms of life span, and only two (Florida and Virginia) that are in the top half.”

No to worry! The “gaps” and “chasms” documented in “The Measure of America” can be fixed. All that’s needed is bigger government.

No, seriously: universal healthcare, universal preschool, universal Internet access, state Earned Income Tax Credits, “affordable child care,” unionization, “[t]argeting men and boys with public health campaigns that advocate healthy coping mechanisms and convey the message that asking for help is a trait of the strong, not the weak,” fat taxes, “expanding bans on smoking in public places,” paid leave “for sickness and caregiving” --  there are no Center for American Progress-approved ideas authors Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps don’t embrace.

And that’s why “The Measure of America,” notwithstanding its snazzy tables, charts, and graphs, can’t be considered serious research. It’s wedded to long-discredited notions of the ways “public investments” produce outcomes earnest Ivy Leaguers desire. Here on Earth, not only have behavior-modifying subsidies and regulations failed to manufacture virtue, they have contributed to social pathologies. (The policies’ fiscal impacts have been disastrous, too.)

Decades of welfare-state paternalism have inoculated the underclass from the consequences of poor decisionmaking. Fail to develop marketable skills? There’s a job-training program with your name on it. Raising kids outside wedlock? Food stamps, WIC, and Section 8 will substitute for a husband. Can’t pay for the damage drinking has done to your body? Medicaid will.

America is a vast, messy, wonderful, horrible country with over 300 million pious, selfish, prudent, and self-destructive souls. There are, and many of us hope there will always be, enormous differences in how we live, what we learn, and how we make a buck.

That too many of our family, friends, and neighbors choose risky behaviors -- violence, ignorance, obesity, unsafe sex, substance abuse -- is not a source of national pride. Nor is it a justification for limitless government that fosters unintended consequences even worse than the problems Deep Thinkers seek to solve.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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