Finally, we have the First World. Hooray for the First World!
Any reasonable government, and any reasonable person, in the First World should have as a goal the enlargement of the First World, to eventually include the Whole World. This may, and almost assuredly is, a pipe dream. But a world full of First World countries would be a much less violent place, and we can hardly argue against that.
The first world is capped, as it has been every year, by Luxembourg. Think of Luxembourg, a country of less than 500,000 people, as a particularly well-to-do American city. Say, Charlotte, North Carolina, or Stanford, California. This is basically the role Luxembourg fills in Europe. The GDP per capita there is nearly $60,000, and as Luxembourg has a strikingly even distribution of income, this translates to an average family income in the country on the order of 50 grand a year. That is significantly higher than any other country in the world.
Norway is next on the list, making this the first year that the United States has not been second. They leapt ahead of us on the strength of their life expectancy and infant mortality stats; in both of those areas the United States is among the lowest in the first world. The U.S. does hang in at number three and will probably remain there for some time as nobody is catching up too fast. In fourth is San Marino, a tiny enclave of Italy that is far richer than any part of that country.
The next ten or so countries on the list are unsurprising: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Australia, Canada (a brand new trillion-dollar economy this year), Ireland (the fastest growing first world country for almost ten years running), Austria, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands.
Down in 16th place is the United Kingdom. The UK is one of the “big four” trillion-dollar economies of Europe, the others being France, Germany, and Italy. (Spain likely will hit that mark in the next few years.) In 1998, the UK was the lowest ranked of the big four. Since that time, privatization, entrepreneurship, and a housing boom have allowed the UK to jump ahead of the others. The French and Germans, who dislike the EU Constitution because they don’t think it adequately provides for massive social welfare like their governments do, have not yet realized that the British have caught up with and passed them by in the last few years by partially dismantling that massive social welfare system. The new Eastern Bloc countries in the EU are following the British model, rather than the French, since they’ve seen firsthand the effects of socialism and want no part of it. This is an interesting backstory playing out in the current European affair.
After the UK, we have Finland, Sweden, Andorra, and then finally France, Germany and Italy. Below these are Singapore and Monaco.
The rest of the list are what I would call second-tier First World countries. They’re still very nice places, democratic and friendly with rights and freedoms all over the place and plenty of money to keep the kids fed and clothed and take everyone out to a movie now and then. They are distinguished from the other first world countries by their lower inmigration rates and smaller per capita GDPs, though a handful of them also have substandard literacy or infant mortality rates and one of them has a substandard life expectancy.
Topping this list is Liechtenstein, which has not had a good decade so far. Unable to follow the lead of its fellow micro-states and sign an EU trade agreement (Liechtenstein’s preferential status with Switzerland would be nullified), the Liechtenstein economy has not grown at all. It’s still a comfortable place, but where San Marino has rocketed up right next to the U.S., Liechtenstein stays mired on the lower rungs of the ladder.
Next we have Spain, which is getting better but still lags behind its northern neighbors, and New Zealand, which is sort of like Australia’s Canada. Except with more sheep. New Zealand used to be the very last country in the First World, though, and they have moved up steadily.
Greece follows—we always knew they were near the bottom—with Slovenia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) right behind. Slovenia is the latest country to become a creditor nation at the Paris Club, so they’ve come quite a long way since breaking from Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. Next is the Mediterranean island country of Malta, a new EU member, followed by “Old Europe” laggard Portugal.
Back in the days when the EU only had 12 members, Portugal got all the business from the other EU countries. Since Ireland began the whole “Celtic Tiger” thing, Portugal has by a fairly wide margin been the poorest country in the EU. It was only 31 years ago this year that Portugal threw off the yoke of fascism and central planning, so it’s not unusual that they’d be behind the rest of free Europe. But unlike the Irish, the Portuguese had no plans for rapid economic growth or liberalization, and when the EU expanded, the Portuguese suddenly became rich, relatively. Businesses no longer locate in Portugal looking for cheap labor, because they can go to Slovakia instead—and for the most part, they do.
Portuguese pride has played a role here. Unwilling to take Ireland or Slovakia as examples of how to drum up business, the country has continued to poke along, its primary products remaining cork and fortified wines. Slovenia and Malta have already leapt ahead of Portugal, and the Czech Republic is knocking at the door.
The Czech Republic (or “Czechia” as the government wants to be known; they should have chosen “Czeska,” which sounds better; nobody uses either one anyway) used to be the poster child for Eastern Europe. Actually, so did Hungary. The poster’s been redrawn a number of times. Czechia is beset by chronically high unemployment and disastrous environmental problems. Though the economy is still purring along, it’s no longer doing as well as Slovenia’s, and though Slovakia and Estonia are still poorer, both have much healthier economies. Czechia still has some problems to overcome.
The final four countries in the first world will undoubtedly come as surprises to some.
At the top is Barbados, a tiny Caribbean island sticking out into the Atlantic and taunting the hurricanes. Statiscally, Barbados looks much like Czechia, albeit with a slightly higher infant mortality rate. The country still sells a good bit of sugar on the world market, but tourism, offshore banking, and services provide more to the economy than sugar. Barbados is the first country in the Caribbean to post a positive net migration rate—while some Bajans are still emigrating to the U.S. and elsewhere, more people are moving into Barbados from elsewhere than are leaving. This is a lagging indicator of a country’s success. Once you become somebody else’s land of milk and honey, you’ve pretty much arrived.
Following Barbados is the Bahamas. The Bahamas used to rank much higher, but about four years ago the CIA revised their estimate of the size of the Bahamian economy sharply downward. The economy has been growing consistently since then, but from a lower base. The Bahamas has the highest AIDS infection rate in the First World, which results in the country also having the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rates as well. The economy is structurally sound, but work needs to be done socially.
Finally we have two brand new entrants to the First World, Hungary and Uruguay. Hungary has been dithering about at the top of the Transition club for several years, but couldn’t get their act together until recently, when the unemployment rate started to come down. Hungary preceded Czechia as the Eastern Europe poster child, but with full EU membership and healthy economic numbers the place should be on the rise.
Uruguay is the first South American country to make the First World. This is a surprise; I had expected Argentina to win the race, but Uruguay recovered almost immediately from the Brazilian meltdown, and in the last three years the economy has grown 10% annually. The Uruguayan literacy rate and life expectancy are the best in South America and on par with the First World average. Though the Uruguayan GDP per capita came in this year at the absolute floor for First World admission, with the growth rate of the economy they should not be there for long.