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Decline Watch: Human Development Index highlights U.S. inequality

The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index presents a very different picture of global wellbeing than the Legatum Prosperity Index discussed yesterday, though those smug Norwegians are still on top. 

The big headline from this year's index is the secondary list, which adjusts scores for internal inequalities in health, education and income. On that scale, the United States drops from fourth place to 23rd. 

I spoke with the UNDP's chief of communications and publishing for the report, about why the effect of inequality was so striking in the United States:

In high income countries, there are many countries in which the years of schooling that adults already have wouldn't vary that dramatically among, region, among gender, or ethnic minorities. In the United States, the opposite is true. All those variables have a huge effect. The average years of schooling that adults over 25 have in greater Boston as opposed to that in the Mississippi delta is going to be really different. The level of disparity is very unusual among high-income countries. 

The inequality-adjusted Human Development Index is an attempt to try to portray that. The United States isn't the only country that's effected but it's certainly one of the most seriously affected. 

Other seriously affected countries include South Korea, which falls from 15th to 32nd on inequality-adjusted HDI and Israel, which falls from 17th to 25th. 

I also asked Orme what the big takeaway of the report was for rising powers like Brazil, India, and China: 

The whole question of distribution has been central to their national debates and the analysis of their development models. Take Brazil, which had long been portrayed as the most unequal large economy of the world. Income inequality was quite acute. 

What's interesting [in Latin America] is that if you look at the education and health distribution as well as income, the picture is a little different than what we're used to seeing.   They, the Latin Americans, especially countries like Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, have been doing much better at extending education and healthcare to their populations, including the poor, in the last 10 years or so. Even income gaps are beginning to narrow slightly, whereas in most of the world, including Asia and the United States, the trend is toward increasing disparity and widening gaps in income. 

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Should the president be able to speak foreign languages?

Over at Slate, Geoffrey Sant takes on the frequented asserted claim that presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is "fluent" in Chinese

When asked on the Colbert Report to speak Chinese, Huntsman spoke one sentence and then “translated” his words as “I just said you ought to consider being my running mate for vice president.” The studio audience roared in approval. Yet in reality, Huntsman’s mangled Chinese would translate as: “I really want you to do my vice-America president.”

In this brief and simple sentence, Huntsman managed to (incorrectly) insert the word America in the middle of the Chinese word for vice president (fu-zong-tong); made a less-than-ideal choice of verbs; and combined my and American vice president in a way that implies (in Chinese) that Huntsman possesses his own personal vice president of the United States.

On Piers Morgan Tonight, Piers Morgan asked Huntsman to speak in Mandarin, and then immediately proclaimed what he heard as “spectacularly good” despite not understanding any of it. (As Huntsman himself responded, “How do you know?”)

A fair translation of Huntsman’s Chinese response to Piers Morgan would be: “Whatever I say, you don’t, you won’t know that much, you will not be so able to understand. I am Mr. Jon Huntsman. I want to be the up-to-next American president.”

Just judging by those translations, it sounds like Huntsman could make himself understood, even if his grammar was off. He might be exaggerating his abilities a bit, but I suspect that most Americans who have ever claimed knowledge of language they haven't studied since high school on a resume can sympathize. It also begs the question of whether this is really a critical skill to begin with.

If he were elected, Huntsman's actual use of Mandarin would likely be limited to telepromptered speeches. Chinese audiences might get a kick out of this, but does anyone really think that if Huntsman spoke the language perfectly, Xi Jinping would be so impressed that he'd forgive America's debts and let the yuan float on the spot?

George W. Bush's relatively decent Spanish didn't really win him many friends in Latin America, nor did Condoleezza Rice's knowledge of Russian really seem to do much for the administration's dealings with the Kremlin. When Barack Obama became president, the French media snootily noted that "he doesn't speak any foreign languages (except Indonesian)," but I don't think that if he had put in some more time conjugating French verbs his foreign policy would be significantly more effective. 

Thinking about this did lead me to the impressively detailed Wikipedia entry on multilingual presidents. Did you know that Martin Van Buren is the only president for whom English was not a first language? (He grew up in a Dutch-speaking community in Kinderhook, New York.) Or that Herbert Hoover was fluent in Chinese, having spent time in China as a young mining engineer? Or that Jimmy Carter read the Bible in Spanish for practice? This doesn't seem to have played a great role in any of their presidencies, but interesting nonetheless. 

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