Wednesday, 4 November 2015

How's life? Pretty good

A day when we got news that employment fell, and the unemployment rate rose, may not be the best time to argue that New Zealand is in pretty good shape when compared with the rest of the world.

But that's the case nonetheless, as the latest How's Life 2015: Measuring Well-being report from the OECD shows. The report is part of a growing - and welcome - global focus by various agencies (including our own Treasury with its 'Higher Living Standards' framework) on a wider range of societal outcomes than just GDP.

Here's how New Zealand stacks up against the rest of the OECD on a broad range of economic, social and environmental criteria. The scores are standard deviations above or below the OECD average, and anything bigger than +1 or lower than -1 is pretty unusual. Hat tip, by the way, to Timothy Taylor's excellent Conversable Economist blog, which is where I came across the news that the OECD had done this latest exercise.

Sometimes when organisations do these comparisons, the results don't always resemble the country you know, but this looks about right to me. By international standards, we're on the right side of the ledger for most things - and very much so on the size of our houses, our perceived state of health, the cleanliness of the air and our ability to get people into employment. You can see - if you use the "life satisfaction" measure at the bottom as an overall summary - that we are travelling well by international standards.

Where do we lag? There's nothing outrageously bad, but the one drawback that sticks out, housing affordability, will surprise no-one (here defined as "Percentage of household gross adjusted disposable income spent on housing and hosue maintenance", but we'd have shown up badly no matter which precise measure you used). We also work too much and don't take enough time off, and have a slight issue with educational attainment (and, I'd say, if you peeled back the overall educational showing, a particularly knotty issue with the bottom tail of the educational attainment distribution). And everyone would prefer if we were above the OECD average for household income rather than slightly below. But overall this is a good score-card.

I'm a little surprised we don't have data on all the criteria (if you're interested in the definitions, they're on p26 of the print edition or p28 of the e-book, and these country graphs start on p47/p49). 'Financial wealth' is defined as 'net household financial wealth', and something very much like that is available on the Reserve Bank's website (here). I'd have thought we had the data on earnings and basic sanitation, too. The 'adult skills' measure is the only one where I can see a good reason for missing data: we aren't apparently part of the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC). Don't know why - the rest of the OECD seems to have signed up (33 of them) - but there you are. But even if you filled in the blanks, it wouldn't (at a guesstimate) have changed the overall picture.

There's much more in this report than just country league tables, and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in social welfare broadly defined,  but I suspect people will still want to do the usual comparisons, so here's how Australia looks.

Very similar, but richer, in sum. And if you ever wanted a simple graphic showing the need for structural reforms in some economies, here's Spain.


  1. If we trade off Rooms per Person by living more closely together, we should be able to dramatically improve Housing Affordability.

  2. That's a good point. We could do with more apartment blocks, for one thing, though that gap appears to be being filled in at the moment, at least where we live on the North Shore in AKL, where there are quite a few going up right now.
    I nearly talked a bit more about housing affordability in the post, but there's only so much you can stuff in without getting overlong. One thing I might have added was that housing affordability is something of a global issue at the moment, because interest rates are so low in so many places (US, UK, Eurozone, Japan) that demand is very strong and supply can't respond quickly. Ideas like denser building, as you say, are part of the answer, but they'll take time, and in the interim ultra-easy monetary policies are aggravating things