To Be Absolutely Frank

Go Figure

World records never fail to fascinate, whatever they might mean.

By 6.27.02

When I was ten I loved the Guinness Book of World Records. For a while I carried it to school every day, so I could enlighten my classmates on the weight of the fattest man, the size of the largest ice cream sundae, and the top speed of the fastest racing car.

I thought I'd outgrown such fascination long ago, but after a few minutes with the latest Pocket World in Figures (a subscriber's premium from the Economist magazine), I found myself still hooked.

Did you know that Hong Kong residents are the world's top newspaper readers? (They buy 706 copies per 1,000 people, while Americans buy only 203.)

That Lebanon has the highest level of car ownership? (732 cars per 1000 people, compared to 486 in the States.)

That South Africans are the world's biggest beer drinkers? (Each downs an average of 24.2 gallons a year, while his American counterpart manages only 13.7.)

Some statistics are less surprising. The lowest life expectancies are found in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries that we're used to thinking of (when we think of them at all) as hopelessly backward: Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi and Lesotho. Crudely speaking, a Botswanan woman can expect to live an average of 35.6 years, compared to 85 years for a woman in Japan.

Much of this disparity is surely due to infant mortality -- over 20 times as high in the African country as in the Land of the Rising Sun -- so once a Botswanan reaches girlhood her prospects are not quite so dismal. But still.

Other figures in the book confirmed my expectations, then confounded them.

The countries that spend most on education as a percentage of gross national product are all extremely poor: Moldova, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho. Well, I thought, schooling is something you can't eliminate entirely, so it's bound to take a bigger share of the smallest pies.

But then I read which countries spend proportionally the least on education: Nigeria, Sudan, Myanmar, Indonesia and Burkina Faso.

Now, Nigeria has a per capita GNP of $280 while Moldova's is $270. Because I know next to nothing about either country, I'll refrain from concluding that Moldovans prize education more highly than Nigerians do. Presumably (the statistics aren't in here) ex-Soviet Moldova has more universities per capita than Nigeria does, and universities cost more than elementary schools. At least we can infer that a nation's material wealth is not the only determinant of its investment in learning.

Money is nevertheless interesting in and of itself, so naturally I wanted to know who the world's richest people are. It turns out they are the Luxembourgers (whom it's more fun to call the Luxembourgeoisie), with a per capita GNP of $42,930, followed by the Bermudans, the Swiss, the Japanese and the Norwegians. Americans come in sixth with $33,540.

Even the Economist knows that money can't buy happiness, so the book includes the United Nations' "Human development index," which ranks countries according to quality of life as determined by a formula that combines statistics on literacy, schooling and life expectancy as well as income.

The U.S. fares better by this standard, tying Australia for third place. The most livable country of all is supposed to be Canada, with Norway a close second. Both nice places, I'm sure, though a little cold and empty for my taste. (Norway is the 30th-least densely populated country, and Canada ties with four others -- including Botswana -- for fourth.)

There's also a ranking of cities by quality of life, "based on 39 factors ranging from recreation to political stability." And the winners are … Vancouver, Zurich and Vienna. As it happens, I've been to all three. They struck me as clean, orderly and prosperous, and in the case of Vancouver, friendly. But I wouldn't want to live in any of them before the age of 70.

Unless of course the alternatives are the cities with the lowest quality of life: Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, in the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the bigger and seemingly even more wretched Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire), and Khartoum, Sudan.

As should be clear by now, this little book (at 7.87 x 3.94 inches, it's actually a little big for most pockets) is both a handy reference and a dependable conversation-starter.

It's also a valuable reminder that, in spite of globalization and the Internet, the world remains a dramatically diverse place. The next time you're tempted to think otherwise, remember that the typical woman in Niger bears 8 children, while her opposite number in Bulgaria bears 1.1. I think those mothers would agree that boring homogenization is still at least a few years off.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.