Measuring the world

Today the latest Human Development Index has been released. It is in many ways our best bet at estimating how well countries do in terms of average quality of life. There are many things this index doesn’t measure – income equality or human rights, for example. Not because anybody denies that these matter when it comes to quality of life, but because they are difficult to measure. It is already pretty complicated to make the data from different countries commensurate, as the authors themselves point out.

What is the point of such a report? It seems unlikely that many of us are going to move to Iceland to improve our quality of life. And it would seem unlikely that this  would in fact improve our quality of life. So the Index is not actually going to help us to make immediate practical decisions.

This even remains true on the national level. Even if, as a nation, we decide that we want to improve our standing on the Index, simply copying what other countries have done typically won’t do. Initial conditions are too different, economic and educational networks too fragile and complex to perform ad hoc changes.

But the Index does give you a measure of what’s possible. If countries have similar economic conditions to your own, the populations a similar level of education, yet one of them is doing significantly better than the other, this should give you reason to pause and rethink whether you are really making the most of your potential.

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