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What Would Minnesota Be Like If…

June 06, 2011 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

If Minnesota was truly committed to helping improve life for all its citizens, what would our state look like? We don’t have to imagine it; we just have to look at certain countries around the world already doing it.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a tool to help nations, or other regional political entities like U.S. states, to comparatively shop for models that effectively combine economics, education, health care and other factors to improve quality of life.

On May 24, the Paris-based international research organization launched its Your Better Life Index, which compares 11 socio-economic and political sectors as measures of the good life in its 34 member nations. By using the interactive media tool, the index shows people how the different nations compare on these different sectors. And more than that, it allows readers to rate those sectors’ importance to themselves and see which nations come closest to meeting their own priorities.

While the tool measures nations, Minnesota 2020 also finds it useful to evaluate smart public policies to adapt on a state level. Some of the index’s sectors are admittedly subjective assessments, but they do give a clearer picture of what enlightened public policies can achieve. And this is possible without the muddled policy debates over taxation and public investment that hold back progress in America and Minnesota.

For comparison, Australia, Canada and Sweden top the Better Life index. Turkey, Mexico and Chile bring up the bottom of the list.

The United States comes in seventh—an improvement from the 10th and 11th place finishes it recorded on similar international studies in past years. The U.S. follows New Zealand, Norway and Denmark. Close behind the U.S. are Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands to round out the top 10.

A more complete study based on the index findings is to be released in October. But consider these U.S. rankings in the 11 categories:


Income – Despite great disparities, the United States ranks second for average household income ($37,690 compared with an OECD average of $22,284), behind Luxembourg. Chile is at the bottom of the list, and it should be noted that the world’s poorest countries are not members of the OECD.

Governance – This measure comes from trust in institutions and transparency from such government actions as freedom of information laws. The U.S. came in third; Australia topped the index and Israel came in last among member states.

Housing – Space per person is a big determinant here, and home ownership is a factor. The U.S. ranked fourth (2.3 rooms per person against a 1.6 room OECD average) with Canada again leading the list and Turkey (0.7 rooms per person) on the bottom.

Education – OECD said this was difficult to measure, but it used high school degrees or equivalents and literacy testing among 15-year-olds for comparison. The U.S. came in sixth. Tied for first place were Canada, South Korea and Finland; Mexico was on the bottom.         

Nothing to brag about

Life Satisfaction – Among related matters, this sector asked two big questions: “Are you satisfied with your life at present?” and “Do you believe your life will be satisfying five years from now?” The U.S. came in thirteenth with 70 percent of polled Americans saying they are satisfied with their lives. Denmark led the list, and Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland all got 85 percent approval for current satisfaction. Hungary held the bottom rating.

Health – This is one area that is fairly easy to measure in most parts of the world, but everything becomes confusing in America where demagogues and demographics don’t mix. But by international standards, the U.S. ranks 16th, helped by above average “good health” measures but harmed by obesity rates and below average life expectancy (77.9 years to an OECD average of 79 years). Switzerland had the best health ranking, the Slovak Republic the worst. Nationalized health care systems ranked both above and below America’s rankings, with Canada’s ranked third and the United Kingdom’s ranked 17th, a notch below the U.S.

Jobs – Better than average numbers of working Americans but higher than average long-term unemployment, of a year or longer, left the U.S. in the middle at 18th place among the 34 countries. Norway topped the list while Turkey landed on the bottom.

Environment – This category should simply be called “air quality” at this point, but the OECD will likely expand on this category going forward. The U.S. again ranked 18th, Sweden led the list, and Chile came in last.


Community – This is a tough category that the OECD is just starting to ponder and measure. Questions about having someone to rely on in time of need, helping strangers and spending time with friends and colleagues in social settings may not be easy to assess, but they do reflect on quality of life. The U.S. ranked 20th while little Iceland led the field and Turkey, unfortunately, again came in last.

Work-Life Balance – This is a larger category that measures hours spent working, hours for personal care and leisure, employment rates for mothers, and similar aspects of the modern workaday world. The U.S. ranked 23rd, Denmark was No. 1 and Turkey was again on the bottom.

Safety – Ouch. This sector measured such things as crime statistics, murder rates, and poll results of people who feel unsafe after dark. There were five countries lower than the U.S., which ranked 29th, including Mexico on the bottom. Japan came in on top.

The OECD was started by developed countries 50 years ago to do research aimed at helping member states develop, adapt and refine public policies for the betterment of their people and especially their economies. This new, broader look at impacts on people came at the urging of France and a few other countries that rightfully noted Gross Domestic Products (GDP) and similar economic indices and indicators don’t really measure quality of life.

This initial Better Life Index does shed light on quality of life and, by extension, on quality of public policies and taxation. The interactive medium will allow you to prioritize that which is important for you and Minnesota.

Finally, if you know anything about the world around you, you might be able to weigh Minnesota arguments over public policy options against what works in the most successful countries. The “less is still too much” ideologues battering state and local policies here don’t hold sway in the nations where life is good.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    June 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Lee you are using Socialist standards to measure our country and then crying because we don’t measure up on their scale. Just how ignorant do you take us for? This is an apples and oranges comparison that puts us at an extreme disadvatage before we start and only serves to justify your further push for more socialism. A prime example of the old adage, “figure don’t lie but liars can figure”.