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Does the UK deserve second place in Harvard and MIT’s Social Progress Index?

enjoying the life together

Researchers from Harvard Business School with economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have published a Social Progress Index (SPI) that ranks countries in terms of their desirability as places to live.  Breaking away from measuring only gross domestic product (GDP), the team looked at other factors including health, crime, housing, civil liberties and opportunities.  The UK came second to Sweden in the ranking, despite having the lowest GDP per head of the top five.  It comes out ahead of the US, Germany, France and Japan.  The authors say that although other European countries might have more generous welfare arrangements, the UK has more opportunity.  The UK’s comparative success is ascribed to its ‘mid-Atlantic’ stance, combining elements of both American and European approaches.

It’s certainly a good idea to look beyond GDP for the other things that make a country good to live in.  The UK scores high on health, apparently, but fairly low on affordable housing.  And in terms of access to information and communications we come out ahead of the US and France, though behind Switzerland, Germany and Sweden.  Does the UK deserve the number two slot?  I am not convinced, although I do not grudge the Swedes their top spot.  Their fairly high taxes are compensated for to some extent by light regulation and social services that can be tailored to suit individual needs rather than put out in a one-size-fits-all way.  Their once state pensions have been privatized into personal funds, and their school system allows parents to use the state’s funding at private schools.  I rather think that people living in the UK might be more critical of everyday shortcomings than foreigners looking on from afar.  However, a really useful feature of the new index is that it shows us how to improve the quality of living, sometimes in fairly easy ways.  For example, our shortage of low-cost housing simply derives from a shortage of total housing, and that it caused almost entirely, if not wholly, by restrictions on building that can be overturned.  And we could copy the Swedes in their pension and school reforms.  I would hate this SPI to be the only non-GDP survey, because I think the values of the researchers will tend to be incorporated in what they choose to look at.  But it’s a good start, and I look forward to others.  I wonder if they looked at our weather?

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