Measuring up to the good society

Weighted Index of Social Progress, WISP, is an attempt to measure the amount of well-being in different societies. WISP was developed by professor Richard Estes of the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied citizens’ well-being on an international level since the 1970’s.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) regularly publishes international statistics over GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, a measure of material wealth. However, GDP per capita only indicates the average material wealth in a country. It doesn’t take into account whether this wealth is relatively evenly distributed among the citizens, or whether a few extremely rich people live among a majority of paupers. Nor does it take into account other factors which are important for human well-being, like human rights, access to education and health-care, political stability, crime rate, etc.

Based on social indicators

WISP attempts to include such factors and thus tries to design a more balanced measure of the well-being of the citizens in a particular country. WISP is built on 40 social indicators, grouped into the following 10 sectors: education, health status, women status, military expenditure, economy (including employment and income distribution), demography, environment, social chaos (political rights, corruption, war victims, refugees), cultural diversity, and welfare effort.

A table of some surprises

Richard Estes’ latest WISP survey, covering the 1990’s, comes to a rather surprising result for a number of European countries and the US.

In the table below the countries are grouped according to their WISP indices into 4 groups. The top group (WISP > 100) consists of the Nordic countries, which is hardly surprising. Next (WISP 91-100) come the affluent Western European nations and – perhaps surprisingly – Hungary. But what is really surprising is that the US, in spite of its highest GDP/capita by far (the GDP/capita figures are below given as indices, with the GDP of Germany as 100), is found way down in the third group (WISP 81-90), among a host of former Soviet block countries like Poland and Estonia.

The poor showing of the United States is mainly due to its extremely high poverty rate (of all the countries listed, only Russia has a higher poverty rate than the US) and lack of social services.

                WISP    GDP/capita,
                ____    ___________
WISP >100
  Sweden        107         97
  Denmark       107        110
  Norway        104        119
  Finland       101        100

WISP 91-100
  Germany       100        100
  Austria       100        107
  Italy          98         94
  Belgium        97        108
  Great Britain  96         94
  Spain          96         78
  Netherlands    95        102
  France         94         96
  Ireland        94        119
  Switzerland    93        115
  Hungary        91         49

WISP 81-90
  Portugal       90         69
  Greece         90         66
  Bulgaria       89         23
  Czech Republic 88         56
  Slovakia       87         45
  Slovenia       85         69
  USA            85        136
  Poland         85         36
  Estonia        81         40

WISP <80
  Latvia         77         28
  Lithuania      74         28
  Ukraine        71         15
  Croatia        70         32
  Russia         67         33

Based on value judgments, but most thought-provoking

It is quite clear that the selection of social indicators and their weighting plays a crucial role for the result. If you would give the social factor “access to live Albanian folk music” an important weight, then Albania could easily raise to the upper part of the list. The chosen selection in turn depends of the value judgments of the investigator, in this case professor Richard Estes.

Professor Estes apparently chooses to see the best of all possible worlds through traditional Nordic-colored glasses, which show social equality, gender equality and efficient social welfare in rosier colors than the remote chance of becoming fabulously rich overnight, which is rather the conservative American way of perceiving a good society. However, taken on their terms, the Estes results are quite interesting and should be most thought-provoking.