Thursday, 17 December 2020

How do we rank countries?

Economic Growth and Happy Electorate

Economic growth did not necessarily translate into a happy electorate.  

  • Political leaders around the world in the late 2010s were stunned to see that economic growth did not necessarily translate into a happy electorate.  Many political leaders were seeing public approval ratings reach record lows.
  • On the other hand, many authoritarian leaders of countries with declining economies were reelected with record levels of support.


GDP is the traditional measure of the total output of goods and services per year.  Basically, GDP adds up the money we as consumers and companies and government entities spend over the course of the year.

GNP - gross national product - picks up where GDP leaves off and includes international expenditures in its summary of economic growth.  

  • Money coming from foreign sales of products or services, make GNP a broader summary of a given economy.  
  • Also included are payments and income from foreign stocks or interest payments on bonds that one country's government has sold to another.  This is an important consideration in the twenty-first century economy, where exporting nations like China and Saudi Arabia hold trillions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds.


Sometimes GNP is bigger than GDP, and sometimes it is the other way around.  

  • Countries like Ireland, which has a lot of foreign-owned companies, tend to give the country smaller GNP than GDP because the payments to foreign owners are deducted from the GDP figures.  
  • On the other hand, since British, U.S. and Swiss residents tend to own a lot of companies abroad, their GNP is usually larger than their GDP because it includes income from foreign production that is not included in the domestic summary.

How do you compare GDP among countries with different currencies?  

It is difficult, because the value of economic activity in each country is denominated in currencies that are constantly changing in value.  

One method is simply take the value of each country's GDP at the end of the year and translate it into one common currency using official exchange rates.

  • Unfortunately, using official currency exchange rates gives a skewed idea of many countries economic health.  
  • Since the cost of similar goods and services isn't the same in every country, the total value of each countries' goods and services can vary widely.

Most economists and statisticians, try to adjust each country's GDP using a "real world" exchange rate.  

  • This is commonly referred to as purchasing power parity or PPP.  
  • It is an important calculation for anyone wanting to get a clear understanding of the real economic value of every country.  
  • To determine which economy is the biggest in the world, for example, you have to adjust nominal GDP figures using PPP; otherwise the figures are of little value.

PPP is a simple calculation.  

One country's currency, such as the U.S. dollar, is chosen as the base currency.  

The dollar value of a selected basket of goods and services is then compared to the value of the same items in another country using traditional exchange rates.  In most cases, the two values won't be the same.

It is often difficult to come up with a perfectly reliable PPP.  The choice of items to be included in the basket used to determine PPP has to be made carefully.

The Big Mac Index

The Economist magazine, somewhat jokingly, came up with a PPP using the costs of Big Macs around the world.  

Since the Big Mac is identical in every country, and sold all over the world, the Big Mac Index has now become a reliable tool to see how prices vary around the world.

GDP per capita

It can also be useful to relate a country's total GDP to the number of inhabitants, giving us a more realistic view of how wealthy a country really is.  

GDP per capita, is often used to compare economic power among countries.  

By dividing each country's total economic output by the number of people living in the country, we get a more accurate idea of who is richer.  

Impossible to capture the complete picture

No measure of economic growth and economic power, however, is able to capture the complete picture.  

Quality of life

Quality of life, for example, isn't included in traditional measures of GDP.  

The GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  

Neither GNP nor GDP gives us a truly complete picture of our economic health.  

UNHDI measures of Economic well-being (most popular)

The most popular accepted measure of economic well-being is the United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI), which rates countries according to their levels of health, education, and income. 

The UNHDI measures such areas as 

  • life expectancy, 
  • access to education and adult literacy, 
  • years of schooling, 
  • equitable distribution of income, 
  • GDP per person adjusted by PPP, 
  • health care and 
  • gender equality.  
Countries that pay a lot of attention to quality-of-life issues like education and health care - like Norway, Australia and Switzerland - appear high on the list.

Gross National Happiness Index

Some countries, such as Bhutan, have tried to look less at tangible measures and more at happiness, instituting a Gross National Happiness measure in 1972.  

Although happiness and well-being are notoriously difficult to measure, tracking opinion polls, search request data, and social media activity give us valuable information that can be used to determine which country can justifiably chant, "We're number one!"

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