The World’s Best Countries, 2018: Small is beautiful in a turbulent world

As traditional powers such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom struggle through another year of dysfunction, those looking for a better way of doing things would do well to look at some of the world’s smaller countries for inspiration. So suggests this year’s estimation of the world’s best countries.

This estimation is based on four popular indices of national performance: the UN’s Human Development Index, the International Institute for Management Development’s World Competitiveness Scoreboard, Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The goal of this exercise is to identify which of the world’s countries could credibly claim to be the world’s best at providing a high standard of living in a safe and peaceful setting, while enjoying the benefits of a robust economy and the trust that others can be counted upon to be fair and honest.

Since each index assigns scores differently, I’ve standardized the scores by comparing each country to the best performer in each given index, with the best-performing country having a score of 100.

If one assumes the best country to be the one with all four scores closest to 100, then this year’s winner is a bit of a surprise: Austria. This small Alpine country of less than nine million people scored consistently very well, if not perfectly, right across the board, with all four scores being greater than eighty. Similarly strong performers included New Zealand, Iceland and Denmark. Canada finished a strong fifth.

Austria 95.3 87.3 86 84.3 84.3
New Zealand 96.2 83.9 91.9 100 83.9
Iceland 98.1 83.2 100 86.5 83.2
Denmark 97.5 96.4 81 98.9 81
Canada 97.2 94.3 79.9 92.1 79.9
Singapore 97.8 98.6 79.3 94.4 79.3
Japan 95.4 81.3 78.8 82 78.8
Ireland 98.4 92.1 78.7 83.1 78.7
Switzerland 99.1 97.1 77.9 95.5 77.9
Australia 98.5 87.1 76.4 86.5 76.4
Sweden 97.9 95 73 94.4 73
Finland 96.5 88.4 72.8 95.5 72.8
Norway 100 95.4 72.2 95.5 72.2
Germany 98.2 88.8 71.6 91 71.6
Portugal 88.9 76.2 83.2 70.8 70.8

If one looks instead at the average score, which favours those countries with the lowest overall deviation from a score of 100 even if there is a shortcoming in one area, then the order changes slightly. By that standard, Denmark can claim to have been the world’s best country in 2018, an honour it wouldn’t be claiming for the first time, but hampered slightly by a slightly weaker Global Peace Index score. New Zealand again claims the number-two spot, followed by… Singapore.

Singapore’s strong performance is an interesting case, in that it can at best be called an illiberal democracy: critics of the government can and do find themselves sued for defamation, and even use of the city-state’s Speakers’ Corner is carefully monitored. Yet it scored very well in human development, economic competitiveness and lack of corruption, and on par with Canada in terms of peace and safety. If you’re in the market for a system of government that runs things with a very firm hand, yet delivers results, Singapore sets the standard.

But don’t give up on liberal democracy just yet: the rest of the list is full of quite liberal places, with Canada finishing just a bit behind Switzerland and Iceland, and just ahead of Norway and Sweden. The Nordics are still very much on-the-ball when it comes to doing a good job of running a country.


Denmark 97.5 96.4 81 98.9 93.45
New Zealand 96.2 83.9 91.9 100 93
Singapore 97.8 98.6 79.3 94.4 92.525
Switzerland 99.1 97.1 77.9 95.5 92.4
Iceland 98.1 83.2 100 86.5 91.95
Canada 97.2 94.3 79.9 92.1 90.875
Norway 100 95.4 72.2 95.5 90.775
Sweden 97.9 95 73 94.4 90.075
Netherlands 97.7 97.5 69.6 92.1 89.225
Finland 96.5 88.4 72.8 95.5 88.3
Austria 95.3 87.3 86 84.3 88.225
Ireland 98.4 92.1 78.7 83.1 88.075
Germany 98.2 88.8 71.6 91 87.4
Australia 98.5 87.1 76.4 86.5 87.125
Japan 95.4 81.3 78.8 82 84.375


The year 2018 was a less happy one for traditional great powers. Based on the first measure further above, the United Kingdom finished 29th, France 30th and the United States 37th. The average score method used immediately above delivered happier results, with the U.K. at 16th place, the U.S. 19th, and France 24th. They could all use a little more of whatever it is Austria, Denmark and New Zealand have going for them; as could much of the rest of the world.

The stinginess goes on and on and on

“Big changes considered for Ontario workplaces,” said one headline on the CBC News Toronto web site this past February, after it had been revealed that, among other things, Ontario’s provincial government was considering raising the minimum annual holiday required by the province’s Employment Standards legislation from two weeks to three.

As far as annual holidays goes, however, what was ultimately proposed by Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s government at the end of May certainly could not be described as “big”. Even to describe the proposed changes as “modest” could be considered an exaggeration.

The Ontario government is indeed proposing to raise minimum annual holidays from two weeks to three weeks. Here’s the catch, however: it only applies to those who have worked for the same employer continuously for at least five years. Anyone with less than five years’ service could still legally be offered only two weeks per year under the proposed change.

“We have fallen behind,” Wynne said as the proposed change was revealed.

“And we don’t really feel like catching up,” she might as well have added.

Even by Canadian standards, Ontario’s “two weeks for the first five years, then three weeks” plan represents an insignificant change. Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Quebec have all had the same conditions in their employment laws for years, while most other provinces and the federal Labour Code offer a third week after longer periods of service, ranging from three weeks after six years at the federal level to three weeks after 15 years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ontario and P.E.I. remain the only provinces without a third-week provision.

Saskatchewan is the only province to have broken the two-week baseline. Their laws provide for three weeks annual holiday to start, rising to four weeks after 10 years.

By international standards, Ontario’s not-so-big change looks even less impressive. In 1970, signatories to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Holidays with Pay Convention each pledged to provide for annual holidays that would be “in no case . . . less than three working weeks for one year of service.” Canada, however, was never among the signatories.

The list of advanced economies offering less than three weeks (or 15 working days) per year is small, and has been shrinking in recent years. The United States provides no legal minimum. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan each provide for seven days off. Japan and Israel are more or less on par with Canada at 10 to 12 working days. Then, that’s about it, except for a gaggle of smaller or less thoroughly developed economies.

Now, compare that to Australia. Australians first won the right to two weeks annual holiday with the Annual Holidays Act in 1945. This was raised to a three-week minimum — still unheard of in Canada outside of Saskatchewan — in 1963. That country further increased the legal minimum to four weeks in 1974.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand — a country which dislikes being compared to Australia, but I’ll do it here anyway — was a little more restrained. They won two weeks annual leave in 1944, threw in a third week 30 years later, and finally raised their legal minimum to four weeks per year in 2007.

Surely to God a modest boost from two weeks to three weeks annual holiday per year, merely meeting the ILO’s recommended rock-bottom minimum and matching what New Zealanders had from 1974 to 2007, would not make a dent in any province’s economy. It might even provide a very mild stimulus as people used the time to spend money on things that they don’t normally spend money on during the typical work day or weekend. It would be an easy and fairly equitable crowd-pleaser, too.

It was a risk that Kathleen Wynne’s nearly 14-year-old (i.e., geriatric, in political terms) Liberal government could have afforded to take. Instead, they reinforced a penurious status quo, only a little bit more generous than Japan’s legendarily limited allowances — although even Japan has slowly started to come around to the idea of taking holidays in the face of a persistent economic and quality-of-life malaise.

Meanwhile in Canada, the stinginess on annual holiday provisions goes on and on and on.

The World’s Best Countries, 2017 Edition: Denmark, Made Great Again

It has been more than two years since the last time I compared countries across four indices — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — in search of the world’s best countries. So, I decided that it was time to do so again to see if anyone has moved up, or down, in the world.

This is particularly timely given that the White House is currently occupied by a bizarre new president who has vowed to “make America great again”. Just what does “great” look like? To be a contender, by my standards, a great country needs to provide its citizens with an exceptional quality of life, an honest form of government and judicial dispute resolution, economic opportunity, and protection from harm. Thus, it should rank highly across all four of the indices noted above.

As I did last time, I converted each country’s raw score in each index — not its rank — into a new score showing the country’s proximity to the best performer in that class. Then, I calculated the average score across the four indices

Last time out, Denmark emerged as the world’s best country, followed closely by Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway. Canada’s average score of 91.6 was good enough for a seventh-place finish, just behind Sweden.

This year, not much has changed. Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand repeat their first-, second- and third-place finishes, with Sweden and (surprise!) Singapore rounding out the top five — even though Singapore performed relatively weakly in the Global Peace Index. Iceland, Norway and Canada tied for sixth place with a score of 91.5, while Finland and the Netherlands round out the top 10 with another tie at 90.1 each.

Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 96.7
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 95.4
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 94.1
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 92.5
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 92.0
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 91.5
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 91.5
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 91.5
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 90.1
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 90.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 89.6
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 88.8
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 88.5
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 88.1
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 85.2
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 85.1
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 84.0
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 83.6
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 77.8

What if we calculate each country’s standing a bit differently by looking not at the average, but at the weakest link — the point at which the country deviates the most from the perfect score of 100? In this case, Denmark still remains number-one, with a score of 93.6, followed by New Zealand and Switzerland. Canada, meanwhile, breaks out of its tie with Norway and Iceland for a fourth-place finish.

Denmark 97.5 100.0 93.6 95.7 93.6
New Zealand 96.4 100.0 87.3 92.6 87.3
Switzerland 98.9 95.6 100.0 87.0 87.0
Canada 96.9 91.1 91.9 85.9 85.9
Finland 94.3 98.9 83.7 83.4 83.4
Iceland 97.0 86.7 82.2 100.0 82.2
Austria 94.1 83.3 81.8 93.3 81.8
Sweden 96.2 97.8 94.2 81.6 81.6
Australia 98.9 87.8 86.0 81.4 81.4
Ireland 97.3 81.1 93.4 83.2 81.1
Germany 97.6 90.0 90.4 80.2 80.2
Japan 95.2 80.0 80.3 85.4 80.0
Norway 100.0 94.4 91.9 79.5 79.5
Belgium 94.4 85.6 82.3 78.0 78.0
Singapore 97.5 93.3 99.6 77.7 77.7
Netherlands 97.4 92.2 93.2 77.4 77.4
France 94.5 76.7 74.9 65.2 65.2
United Kingdom 95.8 90.0 85.0 65.1 65.1
United States 96.9 82.2 99.9 55.3 55.3

Improving in one area can help a country improve its performance in all four areas. For example, corruption can take a toll on a people’s well-being, stifle economic growth and spark a desperate struggle for mere survival that can rob a country of its peace. Likewise, improvements in education — a “human development” issue — can reduce tolerance for corruption, open up additional economic opportunities and calm the overall social environment.

Some countries, including Canada, have done a good job in that regard, and have the excellent quality of life to show for it. But for now, the Danes can justifiably pat themselves on the back for a job well done — and grin broadly at how jealous the Swedes, their traditional friendly rivals, will be.

Here to there and there to here

Statistics Canada has long been in the habit of releasing annual interprovincial net migration numbers, which never fails to stir up a bit of debate here in Manitoba because we — like several smaller provinces — almost annually see more people move out to other provinces than move in from them.

If we’ve long known where provinces stand in relation to one another, the same hasn’t been true for cities. Only recently did Statistics Canada release its first data on movement between the nation’s cities — this coming to my attention only after reading the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog’s analysis of the patterns.

What does Statistics Canada’s numbers say about Winnipeg? To no one’s surprise, the majority of Winnipeg’s domestic newcomers in 2014-15 — 57 percent — came from other parts of Manitoba. Meanwhile, 41 percent of those who left Winnipeg, but not the country, also stayed within Manitoba.

English-speaking Canada’s five big metropolitan areas — specifically, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa — were the next largest sources of both domestic newcomers and leavers, collectively accounting for 17 percent of those who moved to Winnipeg and one-third (32%) of those who moved away from the city. Rural and smaller cities and towns in the western provinces and Ontario collectively accounted for little more than one-in-ten newcomers and leavers.

The flow to and from more distant parts of Canada was distinctly thinner. Fewer than two percent of those who moved out in 2014-15 ended up in either Quebec or Nova Scotia, while the other East Coast provinces and the northern territories only drew tiny numbers of Winnipeggers.

Indeed, across Canada there was a distinct pattern whereby those who left their communities either stayed within their provinces, or moved to Alberta or B.C., or to a lesser extent moved to the closest convenient province, eschewing more distant ones.

For instance, of those who left Thunder Bay, Ont. in 2014-15 — a city facing a bleak future — 69 percent remained within Ontario, while the only other provinces to capture five percent or more of leavers were Manitoba (5%), B.C. (9%) and Alberta (11%). A similar pattern could be seen in Halifax, where there was a strong preference for Ontario (27%, identical to the percentage of Halifax-leavers who moved to other parts of N.S.), with only Alberta (18%), B.C. (7%) and New Brunswick (7%) cracking the five-percent mark. (Newfoundland and Labrador, however, came close at 4.7 percent).

The same pattern of staying as close to home as possible unless a truly compelling economic, educational or retirement opportunity beckons shows on the arrivals side. Of domestic migrants who arrived in Winnipeg in 2014-15, for example, 57 percent were moving within the province as noted above, while nearly one-half of those who arrived from another province came from either Ontario (38% of those arriving from outside of Manitoba) or Saskatchewan (11%). Almost all of the remainder came from within western Canada: 22 percent from Alberta and 16 percent from B.C.

The strong pull of the Big Five cities, compared to the inconsequential effect of the country’s secondary cities, illustrates the former’s importance in Canada’s future. But ultimately the most important markets for each of Canada’s cities, in terms of the ebb and flow of citizens, are their own hinterlands.

Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.

The Good Life

A Statistics Canada study released Monday on how Canadians assess their satisfaction with life in general produced what appeared to be, on the surface, a middling finding for Winnipeg, whose citizens rated their life satisfaction 7.9 out of 10 on average, slightly below the national average. The highest scores were in Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and St. John’s (average rating: 8.2 out of 10), and the lowest scores were in Toronto, Windsor and Vancouver (7.8 out of 10).

Yet in the bigger picture, Winnipeg was only in the lower-middle of a very narrow spread, in which the average score given in the highest and lowest ranked cities only differed by four-tenths of a point.

In terms of the percentage of residents who rated their life satisfaction as an “8 out of 10” or better, Winnipeg’s 67 percent was at the lower end of a similarly narrow 66-to-73 percent range that 26 of the 33 metro areas were part of.

The more interesting part of the Statistics Canada report was the discussion of what makes people more likely to feel contented with their lives. A regression analysis, focused on how closely related several personal factors were to respondents’ feelings of well-being, showed that people were most likely to be satisfied with their life if:

  • They were not unemployed: Statistics Canada’s analysts found this had a “strongly negative” effect on life satisfaction.
  • They could enjoy the company of others: Single, separated, divorced or widowed people expressed lower average life satisfaction. Those who knew their neighbours and felt a sense of connection to their community tended to be more satisfied with their lives.
  • They were healthy: Statistics Canada found that “[i]ndividuals rating their health as ‘excellent’ have life satisfaction scores a full point higher than those rating their health as ‘good’, and almost three points higher than those rating their health as ‘poor’.”
  • They were making a sufficient income: The biggest gap in life satisfaction was between households with incomes of less than $30,000 annually and those in the $30,000 to $59,999 range. While average life satisfaction tended to increase as one got into the higher income levels, the gaps between income categories were not as large.

Thus, there is something to the old saying that “the best social program is a job”, which some Winnipeggers have difficulty obtaining because of low education or literacy, difficulties with arranging child care or transportation, or because of the bureaucratic nightmare associated with getting foreign degrees, diplomas and work experience recognized in Canada.

But for those who are working yet looking for a little more happiness nevertheless, the best solution might be a gym membership — preferably at a facility with a shared social area, such as a hot tub or sauna — which offers the ability to get fit and to meet others at the same time.


Related posts on this subject:

“Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers” (May 10, 2009)

“Six resolutions that could help make your New Year a happier one” (Dec. 27, 2010)

“How the Scandinavians (and Swiss) got to be so ‘on the ball’ — and how we can be, too” (Jan. 12, 2014)

The World’s 10 Best-Managed Countries, 2014 Edition

As leader of one of the world's best-managed countries, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (left) had something to smile about.

As leader of one of the world’s best-managed countries, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (left) had something to smile about.

In most large bookstores, you will find a wide selection of ghost-written books in which celebrity CEOs explain the secret of their success, or how they turned a perennial also-ran into an industry-leading corporation.

Alas, it is more difficult to find helpful advice on how to accomplish the same when running a country, even though some good advice widely shared among the world’s politicians would surely improve the lives of billions.

But today’s release of the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index — the final of four sets of annual rankings I’ve been awaiting — brings us a little bit closer to figuring out which world leaders should be asked to write such a book on how their countries came to be the world’s best-managed, and thus the best places to live.

Based on their overall rankings in the UN’s Human Development Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index, Denmark is arguably this year’s best-managed country, with Switzerland and New Zealand close behind. Finland and Norway round out the Top 5, while Canada finishes in seventh place.

Singapore makes a surprise 8th-place showing here, boosted by a strong showing in three of the four indices, the exception being the Global Peace Index.

Since different indexes use different “highest” and “lowest” scores — e.g., the best possible score in the HDI would be ‘100 out of 100’, but ‘7 out of 7′ in the Global Competitiveness Report — I’ve standardized the scores by showing the best performer’s raw score in each category as a “100”, and then calculated the other countries’ proximity to that front-runner.


Country Human Development Index 2014* Corruption Perceptions Index 2014* Global Competitiveness Report 2014* Global Peace Index 2014* Average
Denmark 95.3 100 92.8 99.7 97
Switzerland 97.1 93.5 100 94.5 96.3
New Zealand 96.4 98.9 91.2 96.2 95.7
Finland 93.1 96.7 96.5 91.7 94.5
Norway 100 93.5 93.9 86.7 93.5
Sweden 95.1 94.6 94.9 86.1 92.7
Canada 95.6 88 91.9 91 91.6
Singapore 95.4 93.5 99.1 77 91.3
Iceland 94.8 85.9 82.6 100 90.8
Japan 94.3 82.6 96 90.3 90.8

* – Based on best performing country’s raw score = 100


While there is significant overlap between the indices, the objective of this exercise is to get a rough sense of which countries have got the balance right in securing a good life for all of their citizens — a life under human rights and the rule of law, enjoying a sense of security without feeling oppressed, and able to benefit from good economic opportunities.

What makes the front-runner countries work? Some hints might be found in this January 2014 chart (and the accompanying post) which showed that employment prospects, quality infrastructure and housing, personal health, personal cash-flow and a solid social support network all contribute significantly to a better quality of life.

These countries also appear to do quite well in all 12 key aspects of economic competitiveness (discussed in a May 2014 post), which included:

  • Reliable political and judicial institutions
  • Reliable infrastructure
  • Macroeconomic stability (e.g., balanced budgets; stable currency)
  • Well-developed Health and Primary Education systems
  • Ready access to higher and continuous education
  • Availability of goods and services from a variety of competitors
  • Good labour market policies aimed at maximizing the employment rate
  • Access to capital through a well-developed financial sector
  • Technological readiness
  • Access to a large (or larger) market
  • Business sophistication
  • Innovative ability

Additional insights might be gained from this timely Dec. 1 post on the World Economic Forum’s blog, which noted that countries with trustworthy, reliable governments and in which citizens feel less “alone” to face life’s challenges tend to make for better places to live.

Indeed, those with a passion for making their city, province, state or country a better place to live will find many good ideas — originating from both the left and the right, and often from neither — on the rest of the World Economic Forum’s blog site.

In Canada’s case, it appears that the one factor we need to work on the most to get toward “number one” is on cleaning up corruption perceptions. Though Canada was (just barely) one of the world’s 10 least-corrupt nations in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index, we lagged behind front-runners Denmark, New Zealand and Finland.

Why countries are more likely to break up than to merge

Tomorrow, Scottish voters will go to the polls to answer a simple and direct question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

When the campaign began last November, it was widely believed that the result might be similar to the outcome of the 1980 sovereignty referendum in Quebec, in which 60 percent voted against cutting the province’s ties with the rest of Canada.

But a vigorous “Yes” campaign led by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, and a lacklustre “No” campaign led by Alistair Darling, Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, has dramatically closed the gap. As of this evening, a comparison to the too-close-to-call 1995 Quebec referendum might be in order, as the final polls suggest a slight “No” lead.

Despite our own experiences with Quebec nationalism, many Canadians still wonder why about one-half of Scots would want to separate from a relatively large and successful country of 64 million people to become a small country of just over five million people.

Isn’t bigger supposed to be better? Indeed, why don’t countries that share the same language merge to get rid of this wasteful duplication of governments and to increase their power on the world stage: Austria with Germany, New Zealand with Australia, Uruguay with Argentina, Ireland back into the United Kingdom . . . and Canada with the United States?

Alas, global might seldom translates into domestic bliss. Last January, this blog noted that when citizens of OECD countries were asked to rate their overall life satisfaction on a zero-to-10 scale, the countries at the top of the list read like a who’s who of small countries with little global influence: Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark.

Further analysis suggested that satisfaction with life was closely tied to having a job and a steady income, feeling healthy, living in decent housing, and having a good personal social support network.

Credit Suisse, a Zurich-based bank and financial services company, also noticed that small countries tended to do better than their larger neighbours in securing a good life for their citizens, and conducted their own study, called “The Success of Small Countries”, to understand why.

Not only did Credit Suisse find a negative relationship between a country’s size and its per capita GDP, but they also found that smaller countries tended to do better in education, health, equality and other aspects of human development — even noting that Scotland has a higher level of human development than the U.K. as a whole, while Catalonia does better than Spain, the country many Catalans hope to separate from in the years ahead.

Smallness might also lead to pragmatism. The Credit Suisse report noted that smaller countries have opened themselves more to international trade than their larger neighbours, and have been more enthusiastic about globalization and technology. Their governments also tend to be less wasteful, in part because they don’t have to please as many parochial constituencies, as the report notes:

The larger the country, the more the need for local and regional governments to manage some of the key social services like education or police services.

Decentralization also gives rise to transfers from the central government to the poorer regions or states to allow for a more balanced growth and relative wealth across the country. Transfers — a political tool to keep a country together — add complexity and may lead to distortions and inefficiencies if not allocated properly . . .

The USA and the European Union provide a valuable illustration of this dynamic. In the USA, Federalism has added costs as each state has its own government infrastructure and ability to issue legislation. The result of this ‘government’ structure is often overspending and higher deficits at the regional or local level.

The same could be said about the European Union and the component states: 40% of the legislative acts of the EU concern agricultural policies, while agriculture represents less than 5% of European GDP.

A final factor that smaller countries seem to have on their side: higher levels of urbanization. The report notes that “cities are the most efficient form of human settlement” and are a “massive driver of growth and of wealth”. Urban societies are said to be “more practical and less ideological”, are better at producing higher-income jobs, and have citizens who are more comfortable dealing with cultural differences.

Thus, the Credit Suisse report might hold some of the clues to the appeal of Scottish nationalism. An independent Scotland would be under less pressure than the British government in London has long been to please far-flung constituencies, could focus its energies on building a healthier and better-educated population — which it needs in troubled areas such as Glasgow — and would have little choice but to be open to globalization. It would also be a highly urbanized country, with about 70 percent of its population living in the regions surrounding Edinburgh and Glasgow, and about 80 percent officially living in urban areas.

Yet this should not be taken as an endorsement of the “Yes” camp in tomorrow’s referendum. The Economist, always a source of sensible advice, points out in its call for Scots to vote “No” tomorrow that the nationalists’ optimism about oil revenues and the possibility of keeping the British pound as the Scottish currency are contestable. They also point out that, horrified by the close call with national breakup, the British government is likely to give the existing Scottish legislature so many additional powers within the U.K. that independence would be hardly worth seeking.

London’s outrageous housing prices: An opportunity to sell emigration?

Canada’s cities are growing their populations, and that includes Winnipeg. But that growth is increasingly reliant not on Canadians moving around their own country, but on most cities’ ability to bring in immigrants from the rest of the world.

That was the point made by a recent Statistics Canada release, which observed that two-thirds of the population growth in Canada’s metropolitan areas in 2012-13 was due to immigration.

Here in metro Winnipeg, we welcomed 10,944 immigrants in 2012-13, while losing just 1,179 emigrants who left here to live in other countries. This is very much the opposite of the interprovincial migration numbers, where Winnipeg has been consistently losing about 2,000 to 3,000 people more to other provinces than we have been taking in during recent years.

We are hardly alone in that regard: the only Canadian metropolitan areas that pulled in more interprovincial migrants than they lost in 2012-13 were the energy-driven boom towns of Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton, and the relatively balmy retirement towns of Kelowna and Victoria. (Increasingly unaffordable Vancouver, once a big gainer from domestic migration, is seeing an accelerating exodus.)

And while metro Winnipeg gains on the whole from people moving in from other parts of Manitoba — a net gain of 689 in 2012-13 — this gain is tiny compared to the population gains we get from international migration.

If you’re intent on selling your city as a place worth moving to, it’s important to remember of course that domestic and international migrants are two very different markets. Domestic migration is largely driven by jobs, lifestyle, climate and family reasons and tends to favour boomtowns and milder climates. International migration is largely driven by an escape from poverty or war, and better economic prospects.

While many of the new Winnipeggers welcomed from abroad over the past 20 years have come from relatively poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, you might have also noticed more newcomers from relatively well-off countries such as the United Kingdom.

Some of those British newcomers, no doubt, would gladly relate the pressures arising from the high cost of living in the U.K. — particularly in Greater London — and how those costs compare to relatively inexpensive Winnipeg.

For example, to get a sense of how severe the affordable housing shortage has become in London, consider this posting on Zoopla, a British real estate site, for a room to rent in north London, about three miles from the financial district. For £390 per month ($720 Cdn.) or £90 per week ($166), you can rent this decidedly spartan-looking room, just steps away from a British Rail station:

For £390 per month, one of these beds can be yours. Your roommate gets the other one for £390 more. (Click for source.)

For £390 per month, one of these beds can be yours. Your roommate gets the other one for £390 more. (Click for source.)

Except that you don’t get the room to yourself. Note the fine print — the bolding is mine — which reads:

Ideal Move are delighted to present this single bed in double room share for 90.00 per week all inclusive. The double room is available at 180.00 per week or 90.00 per bed space with the room. The flat is shared with another 2 rooms and communal kitchen. Fully furnished, broadband internet, kitchen with all utensils.

In other words, bring a friend whom you don’t mind losing all privacy to, or face the indignity of having to share not just your home but even your sleeping quarters with a total stranger. And if the other two rooms each have two residents, get ready to share the rest of the home — likely including the washroom facilities that probably aren’t part of the room you’re renting — with the other four residents.

If you want the privacy of your own place, however, you might want to consider commuting into London — by jet.

That is exactly what one man has figured he could do. And, no, he is not a millionaire.

Last October, the Daily Mail newspaper reported, in an awkwardly worded report, that Sam Cookney, a social media manager, calculated that he could, with the ability to work from home one day a week, save £339 ($625 Cdn.) per month by moving from London’s West Hampstead area to Les Corts, a comfortable area in Barcelona, Spain — but continuing to work in London.

According to the British newspaper, it costs the equivalent of $2,780 Cdn. to rent a one-bedroom apartment — called a flat in the U.K. — in West Hampstead. Council taxes come to the equivalent of $140 Cdn. per month, and public transport to and from central London comes to $215 Cdn.

For the equivalent of $1,070 Cdn. per month, Cookney would be able to rent an apartment in Barcelona; commute to London on Ryanair, a discount airline, for $54 Cdn. round-trip — it helps if you don’t have baggage and know how to avoid Ryanair’s notorious fees — and commute to and from the airports for $35 Cdn. daily.

Sources other than the Daily Mail report that Cookney hasn’t actually moved to Barcelona — he just did a calculation as a way of illustrating the high cost of living in London.  (There are reports, however, of super-commuters splitting their weeks between London and Scotland.)

This would be a grueling commute, though. There are two early morning nonstops from Barcelona to London that arrive shortly after 8 a.m. London time; but even a relatively early 6:10 p.m. departure from London wouldn’t arrive in Barcelona until after 9 p.m. local time, leaving impossibly little time for a full night’s sleep.

Yet if London’s affordable housing crisis is so severe that commuting in from a foreign country seems like an attractive option, then it might be worthwhile for Winnipeg and other Canadian cities looking to grow their population base to market themselves as more affordable places to live.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment (if you could find one) in Winnipeg in April 2012, for example, was $697 per month (£378) according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — a bit cheaper than that shared bedroom in north London, and much more private. A city-wide transit pass currently costs $84.70 per month (£46), and the median commuting distance in Winnipeg is a short six kilometres or four miles.

There are trade-offs, of course. There is the shock of Winnipeg’s harsh winters to overcome, and the fact that Winnipeg (and every other Canadian city) is a huge step down from London in terms of fun and excitement. Samuel Johnson’s famous saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” is after all still very much the truth.

Yet, you never know. Some might consider it a worthwhile trade-off.

* – Related: A BBC report on extreme commuting.

Correction, Mar. 6: Apparently Cookney hasn’t actually moved to Barcelona; he has simply estimated the costs of commuting from Spain.

Winnipeg is a city where any sort of mention in the international media is a big deal, so Winnipeg readers of this blog might be interested to know that the city is getting a bit of publicity in France thanks to a new novel by writer Frédéric Chouraki.

Titled Un aller pour Winnipeg (“A trip to Winnipeg”), Chouraki’s 230-page fiction tells of a young man with an uncertain future who leaves Paris, arrives in Canada, and travels west by train for this mysterious place in the country’s west, called Winnipeg, which has always fascinated him. (Notably, the book’s official summary mistakenly refers to Winnipeg as “a province in western Canada”.)

According to my own rudimentary understanding of spoken French, the radio interview available through the site above suggests that the protagonist, known as Freddy Boy, meets up with a variety of fellow travellers who “all share the fantasy of Winnipeg”: a gay hockey team called the Maple Leafs (! — Is Chouraki taking a jab at Toronto? Or at Rob Ford?), an Italian actress, a retired waitress from Niagara Falls, and an “excessively sexual and large-breasted” blues singer. Along the way, Freddy finds himself in “aphrodisiac encounters in saucy circumstances”.

In the bleakness of the Winnipeg winter, this might sound very much like a fantasy indeed. But it might just send a few French readers to Google Maps to look up the location of this mysterious back-of-beyond place, and might even inspire a tourist or two to replicate Freddy Boy’s Canadian adventure.

Winnipeg needs healthy and well-educated people, not Laser Pyramids

Jerusalem Hug's proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

Jerusalem Hug’s proposal for a laser pyramid over that city. (Click for source.)

A curious refrain in Winnipeg’s civic history has been the perception that we would rise up from our reputation as one of Canada’s grittiest and least-envied large cities if only we had more stuff. Usually this is either in the form of the arrival of a fashionable retailer, such as H & M, IKEA or Nordstrom, or a big-ticket construction project such as a vastly expanded Convention Centre, new arena or airport or Human Rights museum.

Yet those projects pale in comparison to the ideas outlined by former mayor Susan Thompson in a speech she delivered to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce on Friday. Thompson, who served as mayor from 1992 to 1998 and now lives in Vancouver, still has big dreams for her erstwhile hometown, as the Winnipeg Free Press‘s Bartley Kives reported:

What [the audience] wound up hearing was the funniest comedy routine ever delivered in the second-floor ballroom of the Fairmont hotel, where many a best man has failed miserably at the task of making a toast to the bride and groom. 

Thompson, who now lives in Vancouver, proposed a garish image makeover for Winnipeg that would make the Vegas strip seem as subdued as an industrial park on the outskirts of Estevan.

To announce itself to the world, Thompson suggested Winnipeg cover itself with a laser pyramid that would be visible from space. She said she suggested a similar idea to executive policy committee in the 1990s, only to see it get shot down on the basis lasers would interfere with airplane traffic.

Thompson also suggested Winnipeggers with no interest in going for a polar-bear dip on New Year’s Day could instead immerse themselves in hot tubs placed at Portage and Main, which would be decorated with fake palm trees.

She also surmised Winnipeg’s image routes could be spruced up by planting evergreens alongside major streets such as the drive in from Richardson International Airport. Since road-salt-tolerant conifers do not exist, she suggested someone develop a hybrid evergreen that could survive on Route 90.

Early reports on Friday suggested Thompson was merely trying to amuse her audience. But as Kives later discovered, this was no joke:

Except Winnipeg’s 40th mayor wasn’t kidding about anything. Winnipeg needs a laser pyramid, Portage and Main hot tubs and hybridized, Route 90-enshrouding evergreens in order to be a world-class city where people want to live, she insisted after her speech concluded.

This blog has already twice delved into the matter of what policymakers could do to make Winnipeg a more attractive place to live. Basically, it comes down to this: people mostly move from one city to another to seek or accept job offers, to enjoy a better lifestyle or climate than they would in the cities they are leaving behind, or for family reasons.

Since there is little policymakers can do about climate or family dynamics, then they must work on lifestyle issues (e.g., more walkable cities tend to have more pull for interprovincial migrants; automobile dependency and stressful living tends to repel them), and on creating the right kinds of jobs (business services, construction and the sciences tend to pull people in; but manufacturing-oriented cities seem to be distinctly unattractive).

One way to create jobs is to cultivate a more highly educated population. This is an area in which Winnipeg has long struggled. In the 2006 Census, Winnipeg ranked ninth among Canada’s 10 largest metropolitan areas in terms of the percentage of 25-64 year olds who had completed any form of post-secondary education (59%). This placed us just ahead of last-place Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo (58%) and well behind front-runner cities such as Quebec City and Ottawa-Gatineau (both 69%) and Calgary (67%).

An international 2012 study by two researchers at the Amsterdam Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Amsterdam found a strong link between a country’s educational performance and entrepreneurial success:

The vast collection of research into the drivers of entrepreneurship performance to date has rather convincingly shown that human capital is a main driver of performance (and education a primary source of human capital) . . . [H]igher levels of education lead to more productive business owners and thus to a steeper relationship between the business ownership rate and value creation. And since more-productive business owners run larger firms, they require, on average, more employees . . .

Statistics Canada has also noted that Winnipeggers with a university degree earned nearly $20,000 more annually than the average Winnipegger aged 15 years and over in 2005; and that Manitobans aged 25-64 with higher levels of education have higher employment rates.

Other benefits abound from higher educational attainment rates. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that U.S. college graduates could expect to outlive those without a high school education by more than five years on average, and were far more likely to describe their health as being “excellent” or “very good”.

Readers of this blog will recall from the previous post that both employment prospects and health are strongly associated with higher levels of satisfaction with life.

And a 2012 research report found that improving educational attainment is important in the fight against crime:

. . . [E]ducation policies can reduce property crime as well as violent crime. In both the US and Sweden, the estimated effects of educational attainment or school enrollment on property and violent offenses appear to be quite similar in percentage terms . . . Even murder appears to be quite responsive to changes in educational attainment and school quality . . .

Fifthly, higher wages increase the opportunity costs of both property and violent crime. Lochner and Moretti (2004) show that the estimated effects of educational attainment on crime can be largely accounted for by the effects of schooling on wages and the effects of wages on crime. This is important since it suggests that policymakers can reduce crime simply by increasing labor market skills; they need not alter individual preferences or otherwise socialize youth.

Both the former mayor and the Chamber of Commerce have encouraged Winnipeggers to be bold in terms of imaging the city’s future. Fair enough. Let’s be bold enough to aim for this goal: that 95 percent of the children born in Winnipeg in 2015 will finish high school on-time in 2033; and that 90 percent of the total will finish some form of post-secondary education by the end of 2040, the year of their 25th birthdays. All without lowering standards.

Sounds too ambitious for a city struggling with so many problems? Yes, probably so. But the closer to the target we get, even if a long way off, the better off this city will be.

And one more bold idea:

Let’s exorcise once and for all this perverse, parochial idea that the path to respectability and admiration for our city is the accumulation of more “stuff”.