David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “February, 2021”

Technological Achievement Around the World

In 2017, authors Ahmet Incekara, Tugba Guz, and Gulden Sengun published a report in the Journal of Economics, Finance, and Accounting on the status of technological advancement around the world. The Technology Achievement Index (TAI) is a composite index that was originally used in 2002, to evaluate technological progress country-by-country. This latest report uses data from 2016 to evaluate the technological status of 105 countries.

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The index is built from a number of measures, including such things as the rate at which patents are granted, the pervasiveness of internet use, the pervasiveness of telephone use, and electricity consumption per capita. It also takes into account the level of educational attainment in the population. In this way, the TAI provides a picture, not just of how technologically advanced a country is, but how well that technology is distributed in its society.

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In the 2017 report, Switzerland ranks number 1 on the TAI. Ethiopia is at the bottom. America ranks 10th, behind South Korea and 2 of the 5 Scandinavian countries. It is worth noting that all 5 of the Scandinavian countries, as well as 8 other European countries, rank above America in the number of patents granted per million people. South Korea ranks higher than America in its percentage of high-technology exports. (Note that Samsung and LG are South Korean companies.) It should also be noted that most of the countries ranked above America, including Switzerland at number 1, have lower electricity consumption per capita than America does. China, incidentally, ranks a rather dismal 62nd on the TAI, reflecting the tremendous inequality in education and access to technology in this “technologically advanced” country.

There are other international indices of technological advancement. There is the U.N.’s Global Innovation Index. America ranks highly on this, at number 4, although still behind Switzerland at the number 1 position. But innovation is not a particularly good measure of the access to technology for a typical resident. The TAI would seem to give us a better picture of how broadly as well as deeply technology has manifested itself in the population.

There are other indices of human well-being by country. There’s the Knowledge Index, the Human Development Index, the Human Freedom Index, the Happiness Index, and so on. I thought it would be useful to see how the TAI correlates with some of these others. Let’s start with the Knowledge Index. This is an indicator used by the World Bank as a measure of a country’s ability to generate, adopt and diffuse knowledge. If we plot the TAI versus the Knowledge Index by country, we get this:

It is very apparent that there is a strong correlation between the two. In a way, this is unsurprising. Both indices take into account education levels. However, notice that the countries with the very highest TAI’s are not those with the highest KI’s. Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have the highest TAI’s. But some of the Scandinavian countries (the yellow dots) beat them on the KI. Notice also that America (the red dot) is by no means the most technologically advanced country by this measure.

The general pattern is obvious. Technologically advanced countries tend to have well-educated, knowledgeable residents.

The Human Development Index is a broader measure of human well-being by country, taking into account life expectancy, economic prosperity, and social support. The Inequality-adjusted HDI is an even better measure, giving us a picture of the typical person’s well-being. So let’s see how the TAI relates to the IHDI:

The correlation, if anything, is even stronger here. Residents of technologically advanced countries tend to be healthier, more prosperous, and have better social support. Again, the highest-ranking countries on the TAI, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, although they do rank highly on the IHDI, are beaten by some of the Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway and Finland.

Then there is the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index. It takes into account such things as the rule of law, religious freedom, property rights, trade freedom, and so on. Let’s see how the TAI relates to the Human Freedom Index:

Clearly there is a good correlation, although there is a lot of spread, particularly on the low end of the technology spectrum. High-technology countries score consistently high on the Human Freedom Index. Switzerland, which has the highest TAI, has the second highest Human Freedom Index. However, among the countries with moderate levels of technology, there is tremendous variation on the HFI. For example, out of 101 countries, Saudi Arabia, at 46th on the TAI, actually ranks a little higher than Portugal, at 49th. Yet Portugal ranks 25th on the Human Freedom Index. Saudi Arabia ranks a dismal 99th. This illustrates that moderate technology achievement in itself does not guarantee a very free society. Remember that the TAI takes into account how WIDELY technology is distributed in the society. This is why China’s TAI is so dismal. If technology is not widely available, human freedom may suffer.

Steps taken to end Saudi 'guardianship' system for women, 'encouraging'  start | | UN News

Finally, there is the Sustainable Solutions Network’s Happiness Index. Happiness may seem like a very subjective thing to try to measure. Feelings of sadness, lethargy, and distress are of course subjective, and together are called “negative affect.” The opposite is positive affect, and positive affect doesn’t vary that much among countries. A person living in a dictatorship and drinking out of a nearby gutter may be almost as “happy” in this sense as one living in a democracy and enjoying lots of modern conveniences. This kind of “happiness” is very much influenced by expectations. A person growing up in a society in which many children die before the age of 5 may be habituated to such tragedies, and consider them to be just part of normal living. A better measure of relative happiness across countries is what the SSN calls “life evaluation.” This takes into account such things as social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. They also incorporate objective measures such as life expectancy and GDP per capita. So let’s see how the TAI relates to the Happiness Index by country:

Another good correlation. The most technologically advanced countries tend to be the ones whose residents give good life evaluations. Among 99 countries, Switzerland has the highest TAI, and it ranks 3rd on the Happiness Index, at 7.56. Zimbabwe has the lowest Happiness Index, at 3.3, and ranks 90th on the TAI. The 5 Scandinavian countries rank highly on the Happiness Index, with Finland at the top, and all have TAI’s above 0.55.

Ethiopian farmer sues UK over our foreign aid handouts | World | News |  Express.co.uk

Notice that in all of these cases, there is not a sudden shift from low-technology, poor, unhappy countries to high-technology, wealthy, happy countries. The world cannot be split into technologically backward countries and technologically advanced countries. There is a continuum, and the continuum in technology is reflected in a continuum of human well-being. This can be better illustrated by examining 3 countries: Ethiopia, Romania, and Sweden. Ethiopia ranks last on the TAI. Romania is at 54th, and Sweden at 4th. Out of 100 countries, Ethiopia ranks 94th on the Happiness Index. Romania ranks 41st, and Sweden ranks 7th. 85% of Ethiopia’s labor force is involved in agriculture. The GDP per capita is only $858. The World Bank considers Ethiopia to be one of the most educationally disadvantaged countries in the world. Ethiopia has been plagued by wars and unrest. In Romania, about 26% of the population is employed in agriculture. Romania has a growing middle class and is one of the largest electronics producers in Eastern Europe. The GDP per capita is $12,920. Education to the secondary level is free but only 15% of the adult population has a college degree. Sweden has a highly developed middle class and only 2% of the population is employed in agriculture. Sweden is a big exporter of telecommunications technology and Sweden’s engineering sector accounts for half of output. The GDP per capita is $51,610. Sweden’s educational system is highly ranked. At least 40% of Swedes aged 30-34 have college degrees.

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This illustrates that technological advancement and its benefits fall along a gradient. Nor is it a matter of geography. Many technologically backward countries are on the African continent, but certainly not all. Out of 99 countries, Pakistan ranks 95th on the TAI, and Bangladesh 94th. And then there is India. India is a particularly interesting case, because it is often touted as a technological and economic powerhouse. In fact, India is ranked 88th on the TAI. Out of 135 countries it is ranked 110th on the Knowledge Index. Out of 153 countries it is ranked 105th on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. Out of 161 countries it is ranked 110th on the Human Freedom Index. And out of 153 countries it is ranked 144th on the Happiness Index. The problem with India is the same problem with many undeveloped and developing countries. Inequality. A few Indians are highly educated and prosperous. But the vast majority of its 1.3 billion people do not enjoy a high standard of living. About a quarter of the population and about 35% of females are illiterate. Only 8% of the adult population has a college degree. Huge numbers of people do not enjoy electricity or sewerage treatment. India’s total electricity consumption is the third highest in the world, yet if we look at consumption PER CAPITA, it is less than that of countries like Guyana and Jamaica. Technological achievement in India is deep, but not broad. Its massive inequality is typical of poor countries, and by many measures, India is still a poor, unhappy country.

South Korea reassesses its great imitator

Another interesting case is South Korea. Until 1987 it was still an autocracy. Over the next 10 years it transitioned to democracy, and is now rated as a full democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit. (America is rated as a flawed democracy.) Although it still suffers from political corruption, it has become a highly advanced country technologically, and an economic powerhouse. In 70 years, from 1950 to 2020, the mortality rate in South Korea for children under 5 dropped 99%(!) and is now less than half of that for America. South Korea ranks 8th on the Technology Achievement Index (above America), 31st on the Knowledge Economic Index, 24th on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, 25th on the Human Freedom Index. Out of 153 countries it ranks 61st on the Happiness Index. On healthy life expectancy it ranks 12th, well above America. It suffers on the Happiness Index from poor ratings on generosity and freedom to make life choices. South Korea still has a lot of work to do, but it has come a long way in a short period of time, due to its embrace of technology.

To illustrate one important aspect of human well-being, we can plot the TAI versus the mortality rate of children below 5 by country. This is a fairly straightforward, objective measure of human well being that virtually everyone can agree on. No one wants to see small children die. When we do this, we get this:

Among 100 countries, Cameroon has the highest mortality rate for children under 5. It ranks 93rd on the TAI. Iceland has the lowest rate. It ranks 21st on the TAI. The mortality rate for children under 5 in Cameroon is 38 TIMES that of Iceland. Many similar graphs could be generated, showing the relationship of various straightforward, objective measures of human health and well-being to technological advancement. Incidentally, 45 countries now have a mortality rate for children under 5 BELOW that of America, including virtually all of Europe and 3 Asian countries.

Architecture In Papua New Guinea | Habitus Living

The reason I have gone through this little exercise is that there seems to be a lot of moaning in America about the evils of technology. Most of it seems to come from people who have ready access to modern conveniences, not to mention 21st-century communications technology. Honestly, there is nothing stopping most anyone from emigrating to any number of third world countries, if they believe freedom from technology equates to some sort of paradise. They can live the way our ancestors did, without access to chlorinated water, refrigeration, sewerage treatment, or advanced weather prediction.

More than that, I find that many if not most Americans take all of this scientific advancement and technology very much for granted. Many seem to long for a “simple” life. In the 1960’s, many young people moved into very rural environments, establishing communes and living “off the grid.” They soon discovered the joys of hepatitis and painful (not to mention potentially dangerous) natural childbirth.

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Don’t misunderstand me. Henry Thoreau was a big influence on me. I have spent much of my life cavorting through fields, swamps, mountains, and deserts. I once had a job in which spent my time from sunrise to sunset in the woods, completely alone, so much so that I began to lose track of what day of the week it was. I live in a small town and would actually prefer to live in the country. But being close to nature and rejecting science and technology wholesale are two very different things. Science and technology have made us happier and healthier so that we can appreciate nature all the more.

The most disturbing thing about all of this is that despite the mountain of indisputable evidence for the benefits of science and technology, so many Americans seem to prefer magical thinking to scientific consensus. There has quite definitely been a failure of our educational and media system to give Americans a firm grasp of the results of centuries of scientific and technological advancement on their lives.

Another Robot at the Vanguard

As I have discussed previously (here), machines have been at the vanguard of space exploration from the beginning. The first artificial object was launched into space in 1957, just days before I was born. In 1959 a machine first struck the moon, and in 1966 a machine first soft-landed on the moon, 3 years before humans arrived there. In 1971, a machine first landed on Mars, and in 1973 a machine gave us our first close-up views of the outer planets. Machine explorers will probably always be at the vanguard of space exploration, because they are far more suited to the hostile environments out there than we are. And as they become increasingly sophisticated, the advantages humans have over them will slowly disappear.

A few days ago a new robot arrived at Mars. The Mars 2020 rover, more popularly known as Perseverance, flew itself masterfully into Jezero Crater. Spectacular video (below) of its arrival was posted by NASA. The rover and its accompanying hardware almost made it look easy. It was only the second time this landing system has been used, and the whole thing came off beautifully, the rover depositing itself exactly where it was supposed to. At any one of a number of points, the whole thing could have come crashing to the ground.

First there was the entry process, with the vehicle experiencing about 11 g’s as it plunged through the atmosphere. The heat shield worked of course, that was a pretty safe bet. The vehicle steered itself to its landing site in Jezero Crater. Then came the parachute, which had to deploy at supersonic speed. It worked perfectly, slowing the vehicle down to subsonic speed. A short time later the heat shield was released, giving the camera and the radar a clear view of the surface. The rover established a radar lock with the surface and sophisticated computer programs quickly generated solutions for rocket firing. It examined the terrain with its vision system and prepared to navigate itself to a suitable landing spot. Seconds later the sky crane rockets were primed. At an altitude of about 8000 feet, the rover, still attached to its skycrane, was released from its backshell. The skycrane rockets immediately fired and the rover began to navigate itself to its landing spot. As it approached the ground, the skycrane began to hover and the rover was lowered on cables. The rover was then slowly lowered to the surface. Within moments of touchdown, the cables were released and the skycrane flew away.

All of these events happened in rapid succession, and an error at any point would have resulted in disaster. In the moon landings, the astronauts could talk to mission control as they descended to the surface. The moon is only about 1.3 light-seconds from earth. Mars, however, is currently about 12 light-minutes from earth. Even at its closest it is about 3.5 light-minutes away. As Arthur Clarke observed many years ago, it will never be possible to have a conversation with someone on another planet. Emails, yes. Text messages, that sort of thing. But a conversation is a rapid back-and-forth. The rover was carefully preprogrammed to do what it needed to do. Once it reached Mars, it was on its own. Flying yourself to a safe landing with limited fuel requires rapid responses. If something doesn’t go according to plan, it is quite impossible to “phone home” from Mars in mid-flight and get new instructions. By the time you get an answer, you’ve either solved the problem yourself – or you’re dead.


The whole maneuver to the landing site, using the skycrane system, has been performed twice now on Mars. Such a precise, delicate operation is only possible because these robots are incredibly sophisticated now. Computer vision systems enable them to pinpoint exactly where they are in relation to the landscape. Small, powerful computers enable them to rapidly calculate solutions. Backup systems and multiple layers of programming make them much more reliable. On 21 Jan 2004, only 17 days after arriving on Mars, the Spirit rover stopped transmitting data to earth. Over the next few days it sent only brief signals and would not respond properly to commands. The rover repair team was quite alarmed, and wondered if the computer hardware had failed. But they soon discovered that the rover was stuck in an endless series of failed reboots. It turned out that the flash memory had run out of addresses. During boot up, the rover tried to access the flash memory, resulting in a crash, followed by another attempted reboot, and so on. But the engineers had created a workaround. The rover could be commanded to reboot without accessing the flash memory. When instructed to do so, it booted up successfully. There was nothing wrong with the hardware. The flash memory was wiped and the rover returned to normal. The Spirit rover then proceeded to operate for another 6 years, climbing nearby Husband Hill, analyzing sulfates in the Martian soil, and finding rocks that had been altered by water.

8 years after Spirit arrived on Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as Curiosity, arrived there. 8 years later it is still there, exploring Gale Crater. This rover has performed almost flawlessly, and will probably continue to operate for years. America has had a continuous robotic presence on Mars for 17 years now, and will likely have robots operating there for centuries to come. The Perseverance rover carries a flying drone, called Ingenuity, which will be the first such device used on another planet. The robotic probes designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have demonstrated that robots are very reliable and very suitable for space exploration.

Elon Musk Announces SpaceX Mars Mission Prototype - InsideHook

There is quite a bit of talk now about human spaceflight to Mars. The private company SpaceX has said that it is confident of putting humans on Mars by 2026. I think that is highly unlikely, considering they don’t even have a reliable spacecraft for that purpose yet. Their Starship vehicle has failed twice in attempted landings. Only 5 years ago, SpaceX anticipated that it would have at least 2 of its Dragon capsules in Mars orbit by 2020. Obviously that has not happened. Probably the kinks will be worked out, but human flight to Mars and back is a very risky proposition. SpaceX is hoping for a robotic mission to Mars by 2024. I think that is more feasible, although still somewhat optimistic.

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While SpaceX is to be admired for demonstrating the practicality of reusable rockets, something NASA should have done decades ago, I think it’s unlikely we will see significant numbers of people on Mars for many years to come. Instead, we will probably see “communities” of robots creating the infrastructure that will eventually support human colonies. Getting people to Mars is by no means the greatest difficulty. The difficulties are keeping them alive once they get there, and getting them back safely. This requires a lot of reliable infrastructure, and this will almost certainly be built and maintained by robots.

A quiet revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence has gone virtually unnoticed by the average person. Boston Dynamics has mastered natural locomotion in their robots, both bipedal and quadrupedal. Machine vision is approaching the capabilities of humans and the development of automated vehicles is proceeding rapidly. The military has already developed many autonomous vehicles and “boots on the ground” will soon be an obsolete concept. Automation will accelerate rapidly in the next few decades and force a radical rethink of our economic systems. For 70 years, the arguments for human spaceflight have revolved around capabilities that humans had which machines did not. Those positions will become increasingly difficult to defend. Where does that leave human space exploration?

The Space Race: how Cold War tensions put a rocket under the Moon shot -  BBC Science Focus Magazine

In the past, the human exploration of space was all about competition. There is still a common notion that space is waiting to be exploited, the way the earth was exploited by colonial powers in previous centuries, or the way the American West was exploited. It’s not gonna happen. Yes, there are resources out there. But by the time humans are able to overcome the difficulties and dangers, the robotic revolution will make our economic systems obsolete. Why would companies pay human explorers and colonists when they can extract, process, and distribute resources with machines more efficiently and cheaply? The automation we have seen on earth, in resource extraction, manufacturing, and distribution is only a hint of what is to come.

Other contenders are better/enough for us to not need Mars. | Kialo

Mars may well be colonized by humans, but not for profit. Space exploration by humans will almost certainly proceed, but not for profit. The hostile environments on other worlds are nothing like the American West, which was already inhabited when America came into being. For humans to survive on them, they will need lots of infrastructure and systems to maintain it. Those systems will be communities of self-repairing machines. Meanwhile, robots will continue to be the vanguard of space exploration, particularly the exploration and colonization of Mars.

Asian Americans in the “Melting Pot”

Whiteness in America is a default. By that I mean that in so many ways, large and small, obvious and not so obvious, American society considers white American culture to be THE American culture. Assimilation into “American” society has always meant assimilation into white American culture. Americans overwhelmingly choose those with the cultural trappings of white America to represent them. In 2007, Indian American Piyush Jindal ran for governor of the state of Louisiana, and won. Only his voters didn’t exactly elect Piyush Jindal. It is likely that many if not most of the people who voted for him were unaware of his birth name. He has been known by the nickname “Bobby” since he was a child. Americans with “ethnic” names have been using white-sounding names for decades. Although he was raised in a Hindu household, he converted to Christianity as a teenager. Would Indian American Piyush Jindal, as a Hindu, ever have been elected governor of Louisiana? I doubt it, considering that there has never been a Hindu U.S. Senator, from Louisiana or anywhere else, and only 3 of the 435 U.S. Representatives are Hindu (none from the South). Another example is “Nikki” Haley, former governor of South Carolina, who was born Nimrata Randhawa. She was born to Sikh parents but converted to Christianity when she was 25 years old, just a few years before she became active in civic affairs. Would Nimrata Randhawa, as a Sikh, have ever been elected governor of South Carolina? I guess we’ll never know. What I do know is that there is not a single Sikh in the U.S. Congress.

Gov. Bobby Jindal: U.S. Needs a Spiritual Revival - ABC News

White America is overwhelmingly Christian (70%). In a Pew survey in 2017, almost half of Americans with high school or less (which is a majority of the country) said that being a Christian was not just important, but VERY important to being a true American. (Not exactly a vote of encouragement for the 6 million Jewish Americans, among others.) America has never had a non-Christian president. No Muslim has ever served in the U.S. Senate, and there are only 3 in the House. 2 of them, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, are routinely trashed in the American media. There is only 1 Buddhist in the Senate (from Hawaii) and only 1 in the House. 86% of U.S. senators and 88% of U.S. representatives are Christians (compared to only 65% of the American population which is Christian). When Barack Obama was criticized, he was often tagged as a Muslim (even though he is in fact a Christian), in an attempt to paint him as an “other,” as not genuinely American. At least 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, and about 5% identify as atheists. Only 2 of the 535 members of Congress describe themselves as unaffiliated, and none as atheists. 7 states have religious tests that effectively prohibit atheists from attaining political office.

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More specifically, white America is Protestant. 50% of white Americans are Protestant, compared to only 20% who are Catholic and 5% who belong to non-Christian faiths. Only 28% of the American population as a whole is Protestant, yet 58% of the U.S. Senate and 54% of the House consists of Protestants. Only 2 American presidents have been non-Protestants. As I have explained before here, white Protestant American culture is much more than religion. It is a whole series of cultural trappings, not least of which is the Protestant work ethic, which gets folded into beliefs about who deserves and does not deserve support. It is much more about whiteness than about religion. The teachings of the Gospels are largely irrelevant. While devout black Protestants like William Barber call on all of us to take care of the poor and vulnerable, for explicitly Christian reasons, white Evangelical Protestants like Franklin Graham preach homophobia and islamophobia. 60% of white Protestants in America are Evangelical Protestants. In the Pew survey mentioned above, 67% of white Evangelical Protestants said that being a Christian is very important to being a genuine American. White American Christians, but especially white Evangelical Protestants, are far more likely to hold negative views of non-whites and immigrants than are other American groups. In a PRRI survey in 2018, more than half of white Evangelical Protestants favored a law preventing refugees from entering the country. By contrast, only 28% of black Protestants and 27% of religiously unaffiliated Americans favored such a law.

Diversity in America's counties, in 5 maps - The Washington Post

White Americans continue to dominate American political life, even as they slowly lose ground demographically. This is partly because whites comprise a huge majority in rural America, which has an enormous electoral advantage in Washington and in many state legislatures. It is also because the Republican party, which is now about 90% white, has gerrymandered many public offices to its advantage, a process that feeds on itself. 91% of U.S. Senators and 72% of U.S. representatives are non-Hispanic whites, despite the fact that only 61% of the American population consists of non-Hispanic whites. Only 2% of U.S. Senators and 4% of U.S. Representatives are Asian American, despite the fact that 6.5% of the general population is Asian American.

Sen. Mazie Hirono asked William Barr about sexual misconduct - Vox

Asian Americans, like all non-whites, suffer from discrimination and hate-mongering. In a Pew survey in 2012, no less than 19% of Asian Americans reported that they had experienced discrimination WITHIN THE LAST YEAR. It is easy to find examples of Asian Americans who have been subjected to racial epithets and even violence. Yet as a group, Asian Americans have achieved remarkable economic success. In fact, this is often used to gloss over or even deny the discrimination they face, and as a cudgel against African Americans. Asian Americans are the supposed “model minority.” “Asian Americans are doing just fine. Why can’t black people do the same?” That is a sentiment that has been expressed overtly and covertly by white Americans for decades.

Reporting on Asian Americans' views is a challenge even as polls evolve |  Pew Research Center

The median household income for Asian Americans is about $87,000, compared with about $62,000 for the general public. It is worth asking why Asian Americans as a group have been able to accomplish this, despite the fact that in many ways they have refrained from fully assimilating into white American society. For example, only 42% of Asian Americans are Christians. In the Pew study, only 14% of Asian Americans even identified themselves as American! The vast majority identified themselves according to their native country or that of their recent ancestors.

First of all, it’s important to note that Asian Americans are far from a monolithic group. Indian Americans are clearly different from Chinese Americans. If we look at the distribution, about 60% of the Asian American population is more or less evenly divided amongst Chinese (including Taiwanese) Americans, Filipino Americans, and Indian Americans. The remainder includes Americans of various heritages, including Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani, Burmese, Indonesian, and many others. The media household income for Indian Americans is a whopping $127,000. For Burmese Americans it is only about $46,000.

Asian population now growing faster than Latinos

It is also worth noting that Asian Americans as a group are very urbanized, and very much concentrated in specific areas. About 3/4 of Asian Americans live in metropolitan areas of greater than 2.5 million! The West Coast and Hawaii have very high Asian American populations. Asian Americans constitute 23% of the San Francisco metro area, 31% of the San Jose metro area, and a whopping 44% of the Honolulu metro area. For many Americans, their primarily contact with Asian Americans consists of interactions with them at family-owned Chinese restaurants. But in fact, enormous numbers of Asian Americans live in places like San Jose, California, in the middle of Silicon Valley, and home to tech companies like Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Adobe, and Western Digital. About 35% of the undergraduates at San Jose State University are of Asian descent. Only 18% are white.

Q&A: What does it mean to be Asian American in the geosciences?

Asian Americans are of course caricatured as “brainiacs.” It is certainly no stereotype that the average Asian American is better educated than the average American. In 2016, almost a quarter of all Master’s Degrees in STEM fields went to Asian Americans. This of course does not include the enormous number that went to international students, many of whom were undoubtedly from Asian countries. This is not difficult to understand. Historically, Asian American immigrants, at least in the last 100 years, have tended to be well-educated. Well-educated people tend to emphasize education for their children. This is without a doubt generally true of Asian Americans. 39% of Asian Americans believe that Asian American parents put too much pressure on their children to do well in school. This compares to only 9% who believe that Americans generally do this. The result is that 51% of Chinese Americans, 53% of Korean Americans, and 70%(!) of Indian Americans aged 25 to 64 have college degrees.

Jewish educational attainment around the world | Pew Research Center

There is a straightforward relationship between education and income in America, as I have previously explained here. I will go ahead and repost the graph of educational attainment by state versus household income:

The blue dot is California. The orange dot is Texas. The relationship between education and income is strong and well-documented. Ethnicity per se has nothing to do with it. West Virginia is a very white state. It has low levels of education and household income. New Hampshire is also a very white state. It has high levels of education and income. In the graph below, the dot in the upper right represents Indian Americans. The dot in the lower right, Vietnamese Americans. The tremendous differences in household income between these groups are a straightforward consequence of differences in educational attainment. The dots in the middle represent Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, and Pakistani Americans. There is no magical “brainiac” biology at work. Americans tend to caricature people of far eastern descent as high-income brainiacs, but in fact it is Indian Americans that have by far the highest average levels of educational attainment and income.

The high academic achievement of Asian Americans is reminiscent of another ethnic group that has faced discrimination, Jewish Americans. Like Asian Americans, Jewish Americans have been stereotyped as “brainiacs” (often with a connotation of shrewdness). Jews as a group in fact do tend to be well-educated. In America Jews average 14.7 years of schooling. 59% of Jewish Americans have college degrees. Again, this is no surprise. Jewish culture has always placed a strong emphasis on education. By contrast, only 26% of American Catholics, 22% of American Baptists, and 18% of American Pentecostals have college degrees.

If we look at the relationship between religious affiliation in America and education, we find that 77% of Hindus and 47% of Buddhists have college degrees. But in fact, only 10% of Asian Americans are Hindus, and only 14% are Buddhists. 42% are Christians, almost half of which are Catholics. Significantly, 26% describe themselves as unaffiliated. Half of all Chinese Americans are unaffiliated, and a large proportion of these are well-educated. On the other hand, about 1/3 of white Americans are Evangelical Protestants. Only 21% of Evangelical Protestants have college degrees. 43% of them have high school or less.

Image result for parental education correlation with children

It’s important to realize that there are plenty of poor and poorly-educated Asian Americans. I have been citing many averages. Only 26% of Vietnamese Americans have college degrees. There is a straightforward relationship between emphasis on education and educational outcomes among Asian Americans, just as there is among Americans generally. In America, 62% of people with two college graduates as parents said that young people today need a 4-year degree to succeed, compared with only 46% of those whose parents hold no college degrees. 80% of those raised by two graduates said their parents encouraged them to attend a 4-year school, compared with 29% of those raised in families without a degree. More than 1/3 of those raised in no-degree families said they were encouraged to take a job or enter the military instead of going to school. Parental education level is the single best predictor of the education levels of their children.

Key facts about Asian Americans | Pew Research Center

Asian Americans are the fast-growing ethnic group in the country. In 10 years, the Chinese American population grew 38%, the Korean American population grew 33%, the Indian American population grew 70%, and the Indonesian American population grew 70%. Much of this growth is due to immigration, and many of these immigrants are well-educated. While many Americans are distracted by immigration from Central America, huge numbers of immigrants are coming from Asia. Many of them come here to study at universities, live in cities, and work in growth industries such as advanced technology and e-commerce. They overwhelmingly vote democratic and will no doubt have an outsized influence on American culture and politics.

Cultural Rights and Wrongs

Americans have long conflated race with ethnicity. There is actually no such thing as race. The more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. Huge numbers of people do not fit neatly into traditional racial categories. The 2 women below are full siblings. Are they the same race? If not, how can 2 full siblings be different races, yet 2 people who are virtually unrelated belong to the same race? As more and more people intermarry and have children, the race concept, always nebulous, becomes ever more nonsensical.

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Race as a concept did not formally exist until the 19th century. Although the term race was used in the centuries before, it was usually applied to what today we would call tribes or linguistic groups. Every group of people that spoke a distinct language was often referred to as a “race” – the Italian race, the Irish race, and so on. What many people think of as race is in fact ethnicity. Notice that hardly anyone uses the term ethnicism – in fact there is no Wikipedia article devoted to this term. That’s because ethnicism and racism are the same thing. Even Hitler, despite his absurd preoccupation with “German blood,” quietly acknowledged that the Jewish “race” could not really be defined biologically.

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I grew up in southern Louisiana, and a lot of my ancestry is Cajun. Names like Doucet, Bergeron, and Guidry appear among my ancestors. Cajun culture, like most cultures, has a pretty positive image worldwide. But this has not always been the case.

It is not hard to find 19th century authors referring to Louisiana Cajuns as lazy, thriftless people. And well into the 20th century, Cajuns were often looked down upon, even by others in Louisiana (perhaps especially so). The term Coon-ass was frequently applied to Cajuns by outsiders prior to the 1980’s. Although it was not uncommon for some Cajuns to refer to themselves in this manner (much as the N-word is used by some African Americans), in 1981 the Louisiana legislature passed a resolution condemning the term. Today it is seldom heard in polite society.

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I certainly remember disparagement of Cajuns when I was growing up. Outsiders sometimes made remarks describing them as dirty, ignorant, and especially lazy. But starting in the early 1980’s, a love of Cajun culture became fashionable. National restaurant chains began to offer “Cajun” dishes (often ordinary items sprinkled with some pepper). Suddenly it seemed that every city in Louisiana wanted to present itself as “Cajun,” and host a Mardi Gras parade. Cajuns as a ethnic group became officially recognized.

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Cajun culture has many elements. Cajun food is world-renowned. Cajun music is upbeat in spite of its themes of romantic heartbreak and solitude. Cajuns are renowned for their joy of living and their hospitality. But like many cultures, Cajun culture has what I would call its negatives. Cajun society never put much emphasis on education. And cock-fighting has long been a significant element of Cajun culture.

Should we give cock-fighting a special dispensation, because it is a significant cultural element? Absolutely not. Covering it with the mantle of culture should not give it a pass. It is the same with any culture. “This is part of my culture, so you have to respect it.” If your culture demands infanticide or human cannibalism I have to respect it? If your culture demands that a woman be killed if she insults her husband, I have to respect it? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of examples can be cited across numerous cultures of traditions that cause human suffering and even death. Attempting to elevate them with the mantle of culture is unacceptable. Tradition for its own sake is not a valid argument in my book. Every tradition had to start somewhere, usually as a rebellion against a previous tradition.

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Conversely, because a culture contains elements we consider objectionable does not mean we should throw that entire culture in the trash. Because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and denigrated Native Americans does not mean we should throw the Declaration of Independence in the garbage. Why do we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Because Christopher Columbus committed genocide does not mean we need to dispose of “Western” civilization. Because the Bible contains scriptures advocating putting little children to the sword does not mean we should ignore the many powerful truths contained in its other scriptures.

I am convinced that identity politics is ultimately a pissing contest that will go nowhere. Every human being is a unique individual. If we do not respect each others’ differences as unique individuals we will not respect each others’ differences as members of groups.

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Since ethnicity is culture, not biology, it follows that ethnicity is something that is taught, not something you are born with. That is not to say that physical appearance cannot be an impediment to choosing a culture. It is far easier for a person with fair skin and straight blond hair to be taken as white in America than a person with dark skin and black curly hair. But this also illustrates the fact that ethnicity is primarily about how we are VIEWED by others, not how we view ourselves. A person living alone in the wilderness does not have an ethnicity, regardless of how they behave. I don’t think much about my identity, other than being a human being on the third planet. But it’s easy for me, frankly, because I have fair skin and straight blond hair, grew up in a white neighborhood, and am taken as white in America in the early 21st century, a position of profound privilege.

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Can non-whites have feelings of hatred toward whites? Of course. But for a white person to call this racism is like getting hit by a few drops of water and calling it a flood. Racism is the expression of MASSES of people, who wield POWER, directing SYSTEMS of ethnic supremacy. “Systemic racism,” in a way, is a very misleading term. The vast majority of racism IS systemic. It is the effect of a vast network of interconnected actions and policies going back centuries. Dealing with it requires some real national soul-searching, the same way the denazification of Germany involved some intense soul-searching.

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I don’t believe for a moment that America’s racism problem will be resolved without also resolving its problem of economic inequality. This will require some big changes in our economic system. Martin Luther King understood this well, which is why he was so critical of unbridled capitalism. But more than that, I think the underlying problem is supremacist thinking. “I’m better than other people. I belong to a group that’s superior to other groups.” This kind of thinking is very ingrained in many American minds. It underlies racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any number of other -isms. It produces pathological competitiveness and is diametrically opposed to the American ideals of justice, equality, and tolerance. I call it usandthemism.

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If your culture requires supremacist thinking, then that aspect of your culture needs to be discarded. Calling it your culture does not give it a pass. People are not superior to other people. IDEAS are superior to other IDEAS. The ideas of justice, equality, and tolerance are superior to the ideas of injustice, supremacy, and intolerance. Not because they belong to a particular culture or person. Because they work. They increase human happiness and human well-being.

America Ranks 17th on the Human Freedom Index

The libertarian Cato Institute produces an index of human freedom for countries around the world. This index is calculated from a number of components, including the rule of law, religious freedom, property rights, and freedom of trade, among others. In their first report on human freedom in 2008, America ranked 10th. In their most recent report in 2020, based on 2019 data, America is now tied with the U.K. at the 17th position. 11 European countries, including 4 of the 5 Scandinavian countries, are now ahead of America on this measure.

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One of the major components of the Human Freedom Index is personal freedom. Personal freedom consists of the rule of law, security and safety, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom in relationships, and related freedoms. On personal freedom America ranks 29th. (Actually, it ranks 33rd, if you take into account higher-ranked countries that are tied with each other.) America is behind 22 European countries, including 4 of the 5 Scandinavian countries, and 3 Asian countries, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

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It is worth comparing America’s ratings on personal freedom factors with those of Denmark, which is ranked 2nd in the world on the Human Freedom Index. Denmark, like other Scandinavian countries, is despised by American conservatives as “socialist.” America actually does well on freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom in relationships. Where is does poorly compared to Denmark is on security and safety and especially the rule of law. America gets a rating of 7.7 on procedural justice, 6.2 on civil justice, and 6.3 on criminal justice. These compare to Denmark’s 9.5 on procedural justice, 8.6 on civil justice, and 8.3 on criminal justice.

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The other major component of the Human Freedom Index is economic freedom. Here America actually ranks above Denmark. America ranks 6th, while Denmark ranks 11th. However, looking more closely, we see that Denmark does considerably better on its legal system and property rights, particularly judicial independence. Ironically, it is government integrity that puts Denmark at the 8th position on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, compared to America’s rank of 17th. But then the Heritage Foundation doesn’t produce a “human” freedom index.

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In any case, it is quite apparent that independent think tanks come to similar conclusions about where America stands on freedom compared to Denmark and many other countries. America has low taxes, low government spending, and healthy freedom of expression. Where is suffers is on the issue of justice and government integrity. Denmark has higher taxes and high government spending. It also has very transparent government and a very healthy rule of law. These lead to high rankings on overall measures of freedom. America lags behind and is slowly falling farther behind, year by year.

America Ranks 25th on the Democracy Index and is Classified as a “Flawed Democracy”

The Democracy Index is a composite index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, based in London. The index has been published since 2006. That year, America ranked 17th on the Democracy Index, among 26 countries classified as “full democracies.” Most of the full democracies were European countries, although some other countries like Japan and Costa Rica also qualified. By 2016, America had dropped to the rank of 21st and was now classified as a “flawed democracy.” In the most recent report of 2020, America remains a “flawed democracy” and has fallen to the rank of 25th, behind 15 European countries (14 of which are classified as “full democracies.”) All of the 5 Scandinavian countries are in the top 10. America’s democracy score has fallen rather steadily for the last 14 years.

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The Democracy Index is constructed from 5 basic components: electoral process, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. To get an idea of how things fall, it is worth noting that North Korea has the lowest Democracy Index, an absolutely dismal 1.08, while Norway has the highest, at 9.81. Norway gets a 10.0 on electoral process, a 9.64 on functioning of government, a 10.0 on political participation, a 10.0 on political culture, and a 9.41 on civil liberties. North Korea meanwhile gets a ZERO on electoral process, a 2.5 on functioning of government, a 1.67 on political participation, a 1.25 on political culture, and a ZERO on civil liberties.

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It’s worth comparing America to Denmark, a full democracy that ranks number 7 on the Democracy Index. America does quite well on electoral process and political participation. Denmark gets a 10.0 and 8.33 on these, respectively. America gets a 9.17 and 8.89. On civil liberties, America doesn’t do too badly, with a rating of 8.53 to Denmark’s 9.12. But it is on functioning of government and political culture that America really lags. It’s ratings on these are 6.79 and 6.25, respectively. Denmark’s are 8.93 and 9.38. What’s going on here?

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With respect to functioning of government, the EIU looks at things such as levels of corruption and independence of the judiciary. Denmark is well-known for its low levels of corruption. America has long-standing problems with this and recent events have done nothing to help. Politicians who use their positions to enrich themselves and their business buddies are virtually the definition of corruption. Nuff said.

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On political culture, the EIU examines things such as citizen apathy and disenchantment with government. Also, do political parties and their voters who lose elections accept the will of the voters? Denmark, like many European countries, has a parliamentary system. No less than 10 political parties are represented in its parliament. No single party has held an absolute majority in parliament for over 100 years. Denmark has a very strong public welfare system which receives wide support in parliament. The public reports high levels of satisfaction with government. America? Well, nuff said.

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It is worth noting that Denmark’s Democracy Index has actually dropped a bit since 2006, from 9.52 to 9.15. America was always behind it and has dropped from 8.22 to 7.92. Norway on the other hand has improved and is currently ranked number 1 in the world. But many European countries have lost some ground. Japan and South Korea have held fairly steady and are now ahead of America. Both are classified as “full democracies.” Only 23 countries now enjoy this classification.

The global decline of democracy is of great concern to the EIU. It is especially apparent in some countries, such as Turkey and Venezuela. Turkey is now classified as a “hybrid regime,” only one step away from an “authoritarian regime.” Nicaragua was classified as a “hybrid regime” in 2006, with a score of 5.68, and even reached the status of “flawed democracy” in 2007, with a score of 6.07. It is now considered an “authoritarian regime,” with a dismal score of 3.60. Venezuela has also descended into authoritarianism.

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It is not hard to find the source of anti-democratic trends. Globalization and automation left many behind. Increasing economic inequality, exacerbated by the massive recession in 2008, has produced a great deal of disenchantment with democratic governments. This has led to a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries, and a general dissatisfaction with government. In America, the young, college-educated, multicultural population is increasingly impatient with racism and socioeconomic inequality, while the older, whiter, more rural population is increasingly sympathetic to minority white rule. This is unsustainable and something will surely give.

America Ranks 28th on the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index

In 1990, a composite index of human well-being was developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, in order to have a measure by which to compare human development amongst the countries of the world. The basic idea is that development should not reflect mere economic prosperity, but other measures that factor into human well-being, such as health and education. The United Nations Development Programme adopted his basic methodology and produced the Human Development Index. It takes into account such things as life expectancy, education, and standard of living. The methodology has been adjusted somewhat over the years, but the basic framework remains the same.

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In 2010, America was tied with Canada at 10th place on the HDI. In the 2020 report (based on 2019 data), America is at 17th place. Norway was at the number 1 position in 2010 and remains there. The other Scandinavian countries have all advanced and all 5 are now ahead of America: Norway at the number 1 position, Iceland at number 4, Sweden at number 7, Denmark at number 10, and Finland at number 11.

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In 2010, the UN Development Programme introduced the Inequality-adjusted HDI, realizing that the HDI was a reflection of the average person in a society. But in a highly unequal society, the average can be a distortion. In a society of a 100 people, if 99 of them make 1 dollar and 1 person makes 1000 dollars, the average income is about 11 dollars, more than 10 times what 99% of the population makes. The Inequality-adjusted HDI is a more realistic measure of how a typical person is doing in an unequal society. In an equal society, the HDI and IHDI would be the same.

In the 2020 report, America ranks 28th on the IHDI, reflecting the considerable inequality in America. Norway ranks number 1. All 5 of the Scandinavian countries are in the top 10 on the IHDI. In fact, 19 European countries rank ahead of America on the IHDI.

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In 2010, America ranked 18th on the IHDI. In 9 years it has dropped to 28th. America is now behind South Korea and Poland on this measure. America lags behind most of Europe, as well as some Asian countries, in life expectancy at birth. This is not because America lacks high-quality medical care. The wealthy in America have very high life expectancy. American women in the top 1% of household income have an incredible life expectancy of 88.8 years. Men, 87.3 years. No country on earth does better than this. By contrast, American women in the bottom 1% of household income have a life expectancy of only 78.5 years. Men, 72.3 years. In the Scandinavian countries the life expectancy at birth is 82-84 years. America also lags behind many European countries in education. The expected years of schooling in America is 16.3. In Norway it is 18.1, in Sweden 19.5. Few countries exceed America in GDP per capita. But that is an AVERAGE that is pulled upward by a few very wealthy people. Median household income in America falls behind that of 3 of the 5 Scandinavian countries. And on almost every other measure of human well-being – education, health, social support – America falls behind much of Europe, more so every year.

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Of course, 28th out of 189 countries is a pretty high rank. In poor Niger, at the very bottom, the life expectancy at birth is only 62.4 years, and the expected years of schooling are only 6.5. But America is not competing on the world stage with Niger. Americans expect their country to meet the highest standards the world has to offer. And the simple, hard truth is that America is slowly falling behind. While the average American seems unaware of these trends, they have not escaped the notice of many policy-makers. America’s influence in the world is slowly declining. America is no longer seen by many as a shining example to emulate. A lot of the issue comes down to socioeconomic inequality, which has steadily increased in America for 40 years. Unequal justice, unequal health care, unequal education, unequal prosperity. The most prosperous, healthiest, and most highly educated in America can match their peers anywhere. It is the typical American that is slowly falling behind.

America is at 17th Place on the Economic Freedom Index

The conservative Heritage Foundation publishes an Economic Freedom Index for most of the countries on our planet. It has been doing this for a while now. The index is constructed using 3 basic factors: unburdensome government, freedom of trade, and the rule of law.

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America ranks 17th in the world on this index, behind 7 European countries (including 2 of the 5 Scandinavian countries), as well as Canada, Australia, and some others. Denmark ranks 8th. It is worth a closer look at why America lags behind these countries, particularly Denmark, which conservatives often complain is “socialist.” (Its current Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, is the leader of the Social Democratic Party.)

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Let’s start with government size and intrusion. Again, everything here is from the Heritage Foundation’s own report. In America, the top individual income tax rate is 37%, the overall tax burden is 27.1% of total domestic income, and government spending amounts to 38.1% of total output. So I guess Denmark must have lower taxes and lower government spending? I guessed wrong. In Denmark, the top individual income tax rate is 56%, the overall tax burden is 46% of total income, and government spending amounts to 51.7% of total output. The reason this has little impact on Denmark’s Economic Freedom score is simple. As I have explained before here, per capita GDP tends to INCREASE with increasing tax burden and government spending, not decrease. Economic prosperity has little to do with lower taxes or smaller government.

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How about trade? Well, America ranks a dismal 75th on trade freedom, partly due to the protectionist measures of our previous moron-in-chief. Virtually all of Europe ranks higher. Denmark ranks 22nd. In America, the total value of exports and imports is 27.1% of GDP, and the average applied tariff rate is 2.7%. In Denmark, the total value of exports and imports is 104% of GDP! The average applied tariff rate is 1.8%. Freer trade does indeed correlate with greater economic prosperity, although as I have pointed out before, it isn’t enough in itself. Some poor countries, like Armenia and El Salvador, actually rank ahead of America on trade freedom.

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Property rights are often cited as an item of major importance by conservatives. America ranks 26th on property rights, behind ALL 5 “socialist” Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, which ranks 18th. Finland ranks even higher at 5th. Why? One of the Heritage Foundation’s complaints about American property rights is that 28% of its land is owned by the federal government. Indeed, only 18% of Denmark is classified as “terrestrial protected areas,” but Denmark is a small country, with a population density of 352/square mile. It’s rather amazing that almost a quarter of the country consists of protected areas. America is a very big country, with a population density of only 86/square mile. Most of the federal land is in the West, which is even more sparsely populated. In my home state of Louisiana, only 4.6% of land is federally owned. In New York, only 0.3%. How about Finland? The Heritage Foundation heaps praise on Finland, telling us that “Finland maintains one of the world’s strongest regimes for the protection of property rights and ranked first among 125 countries in the 2018 International Property Rights Index.” Hmmmm….about 65% of Finland is covered in forest, and about 12% of that is “protected.” Most of this is state-owned. But in the northern, sparsely inhabited part of the country, a whopping 27% is protected.

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Property rights are considered by the Heritage Foundation as part of the bigger picture of the rule of law. This, as it turns out, is really the driver of economic prosperity, particularly what they define as government integrity, which means transparent government that operates for the masses. Countries with transparent governments that operate for the benefit of all of their citizens tend to be wealthy. Countries with corrupt governments that line their own pockets and those of their business buddies tend to be poor. The United States ranks 24th in government integrity. Denmark ranks 4th. In the Heritage Foundation’s own words, Denmark is “long known as one of the world’s least corrupt nations.” All of the Scandinavian countries are in the top 10 on this measure. 13 European countries rank ahead of America on this measure.

There is no question that the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index correlates with economic prosperity by country. The problem is that their methodology pays far too much attention to factors like taxes and government spending, instead of focusing on the real driver of prosperity, government integrity. Thus a country like Georgia, with a per capita GDP of $11,485, ends up with a higher Economic Freedom Index than Iceland, with a per capita GDP of $55,917. Even so, the “socialist” Scandinavian countries (the yellow dots in the graph above), come out looking pretty good, and some of the other European countries (the green dots) look pretty good too. By their own measure, the conservative Heritage Foundation considers these countries to have high levels of economic freedom. America (the red dot), with its lower taxes and lower government spending, doesn’t rate higher on freedom because it also suffers from lower government integrity (see below). Government integrity correlates even more highly with economic prosperity than the Economic Freedom Index, and the Scandinavian countries are hard to compete with on this measure. Not a single poor country rates highly on this measure.

American Happiness 2020

In previous posts (here and here) I discussed the Sustainable Solutions Network’s Happiness Index, which uses country-by-country surveys and objective measures such as GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy to estimate human happiness across the world. In its 2017 report, Norway led the world in happiness. Since 2018, Finland has displaced Norway in the top position, although all of the Scandinavian countries consistently rank very highly. In the 2020 report, all 5 of these countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) are in the top 10. Denmark moved up to the number 2 position, and now leads the world in freedom to make life choices.

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One very notable decline in happiness is India. In 2017, it ranked 123rd. As of 2020, it has dropped to 144th, ahead of only 9 other countries. China has also lost some ground, moving from 80th to 94th position. Russia has moved from 50th to 73rd.

America lost ground on the Happiness Index in 2018, dropping from 15th to 18th place. It remains in 18th place in 2020, below Costa Rica, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, and 12 European countries. In most of these countries, residents reported more freedom to make life choices than in America. Most of Europe in fact now leads America on this measure. Most of Europe now has a higher healthy life expectancy than America. Only a few Eastern European countries fall behind America on this. It is worth noting that China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are all above America in healthy life expectancy.

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In other words, it is the big military powers, America, Russia, China, and India that have lost ground. They have enormous international influence, but their people are less happy. Little Costa Rica, which has no standing army, ranks above all 4 on healthy life expectancy. It ranks above all 4 in freedom to make life choices. All of the Scandinavian countries except Norway rank below America in GDP per capita. Yet all of them are ahead of America in social support, healthy life expectancy, and freedom to make life choices.

Finland, rated the happiest country on earth, is a particularly interesting case, because in almost every measure of happiness it ranks above America. Its per capita GDP is lower, yet it ranks higher in social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, and freedom from corruption. As I have discussed before (see here) transparent government that is free of corruption correlates highly with economic freedom, even in surveys conducted by conservative think tanks. It is in fact the best predictor of economic prosperity.

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In their 2020 Economic Freedom report, the conservative Heritage Foundation gave Finland a rating of 96.1 in government integrity. (100 is the maximum.) Denmark, in 2nd place on the Happiness Index, received a rating of 93.0. Norway’s rating was 95.6. America’s? 77.2. 4 of the 5 Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway, have female Prime Ministers. All of them have universal health care and strong social safety nets.

It is also worth reiterating that wealthy countries tend to have less, not more, economic inequality than poorer countries. I have previously discussed this in detail here. In the graph above, European countries are green, except for the 5 Scandinavian countries, which are yellow. America, the red dot, is a notable outlier in this respect. Most poor countries have severe inequality, with corrupt politicians who enrich themselves and their business buddies. Wealthy countries tend to have less inequality, with transparent government that operates for the benefit of the masses. Wealthy countries have a vigorous middle class, which is the real source of economic prosperity.

The hollowing out of the American middle class is no secret. It cannot and will not continue. Reversing this will take time. But there is no viable alternative.

Assimilation – Into What?

For a long time there have been hopes amongst a large swath of America that we could one day achieve a “color blind” society. Martin Luther King famously said that he had a dream, that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But is a color blind society really desirable? What does that mean, anyway?


In 2016, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an editorial entitled “The Danger of a Dominant Identity.” In it he warns against the danger of both racism, which reduces people to caricatures, and some forms of anti-racism, which also reduce people to one-dimensional versions of each other. He reminds us that each of us is a complex individual, encompassing many identities. That tribalism is the path to tolerating dishonesty and terrorism.

As a society we are still dealing with the tricky question of diversity and its implications for equality. Diversity implies difference. It means I don’t want to live my life the way you live yours. How can we be different yet equal?

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It has been easy to conflate the American ideals of justice, equality, and tolerance with assimilation into “Western civilization,” because for all of its history, America was dominated, numerically, by white people. When the vast majority of the population has a common culture, it is not hard to persuade most of them that being white and Christian is pretty much the same thing as being American. With the browning of America that narrative can no longer be sustained. But well before that, there has been a steady decline in the legitimacy of assimilation into white society, with a corresponding rise in the value of tolerance.

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America will either become a genuinely multicultural society, or it will disintegrate. As with so many things, the American right wing fails to understand this. Trump’s last Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on his last day on the job, wrote, ““Wokeism, multiculturalism, all the -isms — they’re not who America is.” (I guess conservatism doesn’t count.) It did not escape the notice of some that this was an odd statement from someone who prided himself on his Italian ancestry. On his twitter feed just a few months before he wrote, ”As a proud son of Abruzzo, I’m honored to visit my ancestors’ birthplace and to meet the wonderful people of Pacentro. More than 18 million Americans share Italian roots, and they continue to contribute to the story of American Greatness.” I guess as long as you consider your “roots” to be European, it’s okay to take pride in them.

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Some would argue that there is a big difference between multiculturalism and attempts to call to account American icons like Washington and Jefferson. In a previous post (here), I mentioned an editorial by columnist Shaun King, who called Jefferson a “monster.” It has been pointed out that almost every historically significant white person who has been lionized by the press, from Abraham Lincoln to John Muir, has been found guilty of racist rhetoric. Should we classify them all as “monsters”? Is this the logical conclusion of multiculturalism?

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Frankly, I think what we call them is far less important than whether we teach an honest and unflinching American history, with all of its ugliness. To me America is like a family with an abusive father. Pointing out that he is abusive does not mean that we hate our family, or him for that matter. It means that we need to deal with the abuse and try to heal from it. Our country is much the same. It has inherited a legacy of systemic racism and cultural assimilation. For this there needs to be a reckoning and a healing process, not because we hate America, but the opposite.

I firmly believe that the reason African Americans as a group have had so much difficulty in America is that they, more than any other group, have resisted assimilation into white society. This is a straightforward legacy of slavery. American slaves stood together and maintained their cultural identity in the face of efforts to obliterate it. Their descendants continue to resist cultural assimilation, and are paying a price for it. Black leaders have repeatedly been at the vanguard of efforts to lead America to, as Dr. King said, “live out the true meaning of its creed.”

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People like Pompeo stand in the way. To me this is the essential element of culturally conservative America. They want to defend what to them constitutes “real” America, and this is undoubtedly the view of a large portion of the republican electorate. When they talk about “American” culture, it’s quite clear they don’t mean baseball, hot dogs, and Jazz. White America is quite accustomed to embracing all sorts of cultural elements, especially when it comes to food and music, as I have discussed previously (see here). What they mean is white Protestant culture. I say Protestant, even though many who embrace that culture do not go to Protestant churches. Some are even atheists. Protestant culture is not the same as Protestant religion. It is a whole array of trappings and beliefs, not least of which is a strong work ethic and a set of beliefs about who deserves, and who does not deserve, financial rewards. In American conservatism, religion has always been subservient to political ideology. That ideology is rooted in the Protestant work ethic.

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There was a curious article recently on the web site fivethirtyeight.com, entitled “In America’s Uncivil War, Republicans are the Aggressors.” In it the author points out multiple republican “aggressions,” including violent rhetoric against democrats, anti-voting measures, and partisan gerrymandering. Then the author starts to enumerate some democratic “aggressions.” This consists of “trying to enact what amounts to an equality agenda – to create a new America where LGBTO Americans can openly participate in any institution; women can join and lead any institution; and women, Black people, Native Americans and other traditionally marginalized groups can have as much power, wealth and representation as the shares of the population they represent.” Are you kidding me? This is an AGGRESSION? Apparently so, because “it’s important to understand that some liberal and Democratic policies will require conservative Christians in particular to live in a changed America that they simply do not wish to live in.” Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the segregated South I grew up in. White southerners absolutely did not want to live in a land where black people shared power with them. The author quotes Thomas Zimmer, a historian at Georgetown University, as saying conservatives “are reacting to something real. Their version of ‘Real America’ — a white, Christian America — is under threat.” And Vasabjit Banerjee, a political scientist at Mississippi State University is quoted as saying Black Lives Matter is a “form of status redistribution,” that might be threatening to non-Black Americans because the movement’s goal is to, in effect, make Black people truly “full citizens” in America, equal to white Americans.

So, just so we all understand, an “equality agenda” that seeks to give marginalized people their share of power, wealth, and representation, and make African Americans “full citizens” constitutes an aggression. Because white conservative Christians won’t want to live in such a place. They have lived their lives in a land where those who refused to assimilate into white Protestant culture have had to pay a price. Any attempt to throw a monkey wrench into that system is an “aggression.” Well, whatever we call it, the point is that America IS becoming a genuinely multicultural society. Resistance to this is entirely predictable.

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Don’t misunderstand me. I think it is essential for anyone to assimilate in order to function as an American. But America is not a culture. America is a set of ideas. The ideas of justice, equality, and tolerance. If you insist that your “culture” requires that women be subservient to men, we have a problem. If you insist that your “culture” requires that your religion gets favored status, we have a problem. Calling something your culture does not automatically elevate it above the American values of justice, equality, and tolerance.

I do not insist that we go into the jungles of the Amazon and demand that local tribes assimilate to these American values. HOWEVER – The United States of America is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among other things, it states that:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

….no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

Everyone has the right to education.

Are these “American” values? I suppose so, although it doesn’t really matter to me how they originated, any more than it matters where crawfish etouffee came from, or where baseball originated. Does the promotion of these “American” values mean that I wish to engage in “cultural colonialism”? If that’s what you want to call it. I don’t really care if these values are “Western.” I couldn’t care less what color the people were that came up with them and spread them around the world. I only care about the IDEAS and their effects on real people in the real world. I look at measures of human happiness around the world (see here), and I see the effects of political corruption, economic inequality, and the subjugation of women, on human happiness. I look at the 2 Koreas, North and South, and the effects of the adoption of these “American” values on human health and well being. And I don’t hesitate to say that these “American” values of justice, equality, and tolerance have a huge positive effect on human happiness.

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The rest of it I don’t really care about. What color you are, what clothes you wear, how you decorate your house, what music you listen to, what church you go to, what your sexual preference is, it’s all good. Even what language we all speak is irrelevant, as long as we understand each other. If you are different from me, that’s fine. In the ways that really matter, we are the same. We are human. As humans we should respect each other and try to get along with each other. I think we’ll get there. But we’re in a very fragile period right now. Things may get worse before they get better.

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!'”

Martin Luther King, Jr., 23 April 1963

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