Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I taught Students in my First TA Section...

First, I reproduced Greg Mankiw's Table 7-1 on "Standards of Living", only w/ 2009 GDP (PPP) data:

US $47,440
Japan 34,116
Germany 35,539
Mexico 14,534
China 5,970
India 2,780
Nigeria 2,162
Haiti 1,317

What Greg Mankiw, and the professor who teaches the course for whom I TA, want students to take from this is that the US is the greatest country on the face of the Earth. And, when I introduced this to students, I really played up American exceptionalism. Who's number one? I asked. "America!" the students shouted! Makes one wonder, I suggested, whether this wasn't clear proof that America's economic system is the greatest on Earth. I asked the students if there was any reason at all in the data above to think otherwise. Nobody could.

So then I went on, "and this isn't the only measure of standards of living, we could also compare countries by Life Expectancy... So, how do you think America ranks in the world in life expectancy?" "Number one!" shouted the students! "Well, no... Let's look..." Here are the numbers, world rank/life expectancy in years...

US #38 / 78.2 years
Japan 1 / 82.6
Germany 23 / 79.4
China #82 / 73
India 139/ 64.7
Nigeria 182/ 46.9

Interestingly, students were not only shocked by how poorly America compares, but nobody could guess how low life expectancy in Nigeria is -- one girl covered her mouth and gasped when I wrote the number on the blackboard... One student, who had shouted out that America is "Number one!" in life expectancy, then shut up and said nothing the entire rest of section... "We're number thirty-eight!" doesn't quite have the same ring to it...

I then pointed out that this wasn't the only measure of "Standard of Living", after all, America also has the Greatest Health Care System on the face of the Earth. So, next we did infant mortality: rank / Mortality in deaths/1,000 births

US #33 / 6.3
Japan 3 / 3.2
Germany 14 / 4.3
China 82 / 23
Nigeria 183 / 109.5

Next, I went over the "countries Greg Mankiw doesn't want you to know about. You see, when I said earlier that America is the richest country on the face of the Earth, I was lying to you. We're sixth."

Luxembourg $82,441
Norway 53,738
Singapore 51,226
Switzerland 43,196
Ireland 42,110
Netherlands 40,558

And, lastly, the kicker -- if we're going to talk about "standard of living", for a job which pays $100,000, would you rather work 80 hours and take 6 weeks of vacation a year, or work 100 hours a week, and take two weeks? Which job would we say has the higher "standard of living"? Of course, most would take the 80 hours/week job, with more vacation time. So, let's look at hours worked per year in these countries:

US 1777
Japan 1828
Germany 1362
Norway 1328
Netherlands 1309

So, in other words, Dutch GDP at American levels of work would be $55,000. So, the Dutch work much less than do Americans, they live longer, and fewer of their infants die in childbirth. So, all in all, there are reasons to doubt that America is the greatest country in the world at everything -- we do a lot very well, but so does Europe, despite higher taxes and "socialized" medicine, and there are obvious specific areas where we can still improve.


  1. Mein Gott TV. You are one brave fellow. Hasn't anyone told you that the ONLY thing a student must "learn" to get a degree in USA is "We're number 1 and everyone else on the planet is scrambling to catch up." If you don't believe that--no matter your "evidence"--you are a traitor to the country, not to mention an embarrassment to your poor parents.

    The obvious corollary to this is, "We Americans don't need to know anything about the rest of the world because everyone else is simply an incompletely-formed American who is desperately trying to be like us anyway."

  2. If a TA can teach this to students (and get away with it), maybe things are not so bad at your institution after all... :-)

  3. You may want to watch the blog:

    He could possibly the anti-Veblen (you, I mean. Mencken was the anti-Veblen back in the day.)

  4. Psh, every good conservative economist knows that per capita GDP (PPP) is not a good measure of economic prosperity. The proper measure clearly demonstrates America's supremacy:

    Number of Billionaires:

    Luxembourg = 0
    Norway = 4
    Singapore = 2
    Switzerland = 9
    Ireland = 5
    Netherlands = 5

    UNITES STATES = 359!!!!!!

    America is still #1.

  5. «Here are the numbers, world rank/life expectancy in years...»

    I ma very disappointed. There is no such thing as "life expectancy", and anybody who talks about that is doing a political point.

    There are many "life expectancy at age X", and the special case where X=0 (which is often improperly quotes as the unqualified "life expectancy") is one of the least useful numbers.

    The full graphs for X=0 to X=100 is probably the most interesting one for comparing countries, and is very interesting in itself for any country, but curiously I have only seen it published perhaps a couple of times.

  6. Ah mate thanks a lot. I’ve been looking for a lot of jQuery tutorials regarding charts and i stumbled upon this.Just wanted to say thank you for the help.

  7. While this TA has been brave no doubt, I think its high time for American students to also learn how their #1 economy screws up the rest of the world. All that this TA conveyed to his students was that America is not yet numero uno, Europe's got ahead of us, we cant afford to be complacent, we gotta catch up guys...

    Barely what I would call subversive...