Judging a country is not easy or free of controversy. Political perspective and the norms of the person doing the judgement are likely to be involved. However, their influence can be limited by the range and nature of criteria employed, and especially by the breadth of comparison.
There can be no evaluation without comparison. It may not always be explicit, but issues of good or bad are invariably replaced by better than or less desirable than something else.
I'm led to this note from numerous comments, mostly from Americans, who object to the notion that they are not living among the best, as well as doing the best for the rest of the world.
In these notes, the frame of reference is likely to be on Israel, the American elephant in the world's living room, and a set of countries "in their league," with whom they may fairly be compared.
The best choice of a comparison group are members of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). They are generally well-to-do and democratic, with comparable standards of living. You can find the membership list here.
Well-to-do is of crucial importance. In study after study of social conditions, the most powerful explanations of national differences are measures of economic resources, corrected for population size. GDP/c is the most widely used for the purpose.
Some will quarrel with the criteria, measurements, and statistical tools employed here. In defense, the data employed are widely used as key indicators for social conditions. The statistical tools are simple to understand and widely used. And the members of the OECD are the countries most likely to be honest and professional in reporting information.
We'll start with some hard data reflecting economic and social conditions, and then dip into some murkier issues of politics.
The hard stuff will be measures of health (life expectancy and infant mortality), education (percent of the population with tertiary education), violence (murder rate), and traffic deaths (per kilometer of driving).
All of those indicators correlate, as expected, with countries' economic levels. The wealthier the country, the longer the life span, the lower incidence of infant mortality, the higher the incidence of population with a college education, the lower the murder rate, and the fewer traffic deaths per kilometer driven.
Israel does well on all of those measures. It scores above or below (in the desirable directions) the OECD averages on all the measures. Moreover, the results of regression analysis show that it does better than is usually associated with its economic level.
Traffic deaths may not compare with the other measures for encompassing large slices of what is termed the quality of life. It came to the list in response to the claims heard, mostly from Americans, about the dangers on Israeli roads and the poor quality of Israeli drivers.
More than a few of the country's drivers may be wild, as they move from lane to lane looking for elusive advantages on crowded highways, but the data show them to be less dangerous than Americans and in many other OECD countries. Perhaps the explanation is that there is less alcohol and drugs on the roads here than elsewhere.
It can always be better. I've encountered Israeli physicians who lament the shortage of specialists, and the lesser quality of medicine in small towns. I suspect that their colleagues in other countries are also complaining. But outcomes are the bottom line, especially when compared across countries.
The United States, in contrast to Israel, does less well than the OECD average on all of the measures except for the incidence of college graduates. Regression analysis shows the US falling below the levels usually associated with its economic wealth.
Why the differences? opens up a discussion without end.
American apologists (and patriots) begin with the population's complexity, by which is generally meant the incidence of underprivileged minorities. However, the incidence of Arabs in Israel is comparable to the incidence of Blacks and Hispanics in the US.
The majority-minority differentials in Israel are less than in the US.
We're left with the cultural differences between US and Israeli minorities, somehow associated with less desirable US scores on crime and health. Black murder rates, and Black rates of incarceration, are substantially higher than those of Israeli Arabs.
There's also more extensive health care in Israel, which lessens majority-minority differentials on measures of longevity and infant mortality.
On some health measures, the Israeli Arab minority, while scoring in a less desirable way than the Jewish majority, scores better than both US white majority and minority populations.
In short, the American minority appears to be more problematic than the Israeli minority.
We cannot leave the US without indicating, for the nth time in these notes, that life there for the privileged ranks close to the best in the world.
Now for the murky field of politics.
There are claims by various organizations to measure government performance, and indices of corruption. However, they rely on judges, selected in different ways, usually individuals with claims of expertise in only one or a few countries. The results are nothing like the quality of information in the conventional measures of social and economic traits used above.
Most of the OECD countries are on the credible lists of democracies, with open politics and unfettered media. Both the US and Israel qualify on all counts.
It's possible to fill library shelves with comparisons of the political features of Israel and the US, even leaving out the rest of the OECD membership.
We'll leave to those library shelves, or perhaps a later note, the complex judgement of US foreign policy since World War II.
What's currently most fascinating for a watcher of American and Israeli politics are the two men at the top of each government. Bibi and Donald amuse, annoy, infuriate, and puzzle on account of striking similarities and differences.
In terms of experience and accomplishments, Bibi is head and shoulders above Donald. Much of that is traceable to Netanyahu's staying power and accumulated tenure over the course of more than 30 years in significant government positions. Donald may be close to a similar number of weeks in governmental service.
What's especially tantalizing is that the strange newcomer to government seems to be providing a model for the man with a much greater record.
Some of the peculiarity may reflect Bibi's desperation. The police are pressing, the prosecutor may not be far behind, and there may be dreams of prison in the nights of Mr and Mrs Netanyahu. What Bibi and his friends seem to be taking from Donald's evolving record are notions of fake news and the enmity of media. Like the American President, the Israeli Prime Minister has been claiming that what is said about him simply isn't true.
While the populations of the two countries differ considerably in ways noted above, the constituencies of Bibi and Donald are similar to one another. While both appeal to some individuals in the upper reaches of their countries' economic and educational elites, he bulk of their voters are below the averages on those traits. Perhaps for this reason, both share a strategy of denigrating the news and commentary coming from what they term as elite media.
Both have worked to limit the media, either by threats or proposals for organizational change.
Bibi has also worked to buffer his office with protections approaching those provided to the President by the US Constitution. An idea to forbid the ouster of a sitting Prime Minister has fallen by the wayside, but still with some life are proposals to forbid the police from making a formal recommendation to prosecute a Prime Minister, and expanding parliamentary immunity to provide greater protection to Netanyahu and other MKs.
The summary of this note is that the US scores near the top of OECD members on the crucial economic indicator of GDP/c, 37 percent above the average, while Israel scores 17 percent below the OECD average on the same indicator. Yet Israel has better scores than the US, especially when viewed in conjunction with its economy, on virtually all of the indicators considered here.
At the same time, the more highly skilled and experienced Israeli Prime Minister, has been copying the American's behavior in several prominent ways. While the two nations' populations differ greatly, the constituencies of the two leaders show some striking similarities. The Israeli is in trouble, and may be grasping for what he sees as a useful friend and model.
Comments welcome, including cheers and jeers.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem