Downtown View:Statistics

You probably already know that the United States has the third most land area, 9,629 square kilometers, of all the countries in the world. Russia is almost twice as large. Canada is a hair bigger with 9,985.

The Mississippi-Missouri river system is the fourth longest, behind the Nile, the Amazon and the Yangtze. Except for the Congo, the next six river systems are ones you’ve probably never heard of. The Irtysh, somewhere in Asia, is number 10.

Lake Superior is the second largest lake in the world at 82 square kilometers, but the Caspian Sea is more than four times larger, covering 371 kilometers.

This information comes from The Economist’s 2015 Pocket World in Figures, mailed to subscribers annually.

Geography in this book is easy to understand. You know what it means. It will take longer to float down the Mississippi than it will the Irtysh, wherever it is, everything being equal.

But other statistics are unfathomable. What does it mean that China has the highest foreign debt, at $754 billion, while Russia has the second highest at $539.5 billion, and Iraq is 30th on the list with $60.2 billion? In the list of 46 countries that make this list measuring the “debt owed to non-residents and repaying in foreign currency,” no North American or Western European country’s name appears. Greece doesn’t even make the list, although Hungary, with $203.8 billion does. Is the ranking important for us to know?

The helpful booklet tells us that the fine, upright citizens of Denmark have the highest household debt as a percentage of disposable income than any other country’s citizens. The Danes? Profligate?

The Netherlands and Ireland are close behind. Citizens of the US are way down the list, at number 16. Should we be happy at our ranking, which is below many fine countries—Norway, Switzerland, Australia and Sweden? Maybe it means we’re not making as much as we could of our buying power.

Mozambique had 53.1 percent of all women in the work force in 2012, the highest of any nation. Some other countries on the list are Rwanda, Guadeloupe and Tajikistan. When many women work, it appears that their countries are poor.

Diabetes affects Saudi Arabians more than western countries. In fact a good number of countries with high rates of diabetes are also in the Middle East, as well as the Caribbean and South Pacific. Why?

Cancer affects poorer nations more than richer ones. Mongolia takes first place in deaths per 100,000 persons. You might surmise it is because poorer nations have less access to effective health care. You’d probably be right, but there may be other factors also.

HIV/AIDS ravages every country in Africa, but again, no western country is listed in the list of those most affected.

Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and New Zealand have the greatest number of cars per 1,000 persons. So the US is not the most car-obsessed nation in the world. That was a big surprise. But why Monaco? At 2.02 square kilometers or .78 square miles, you can walk the whole length of the country in less than an hour.

All the talk about Boston’s high office rents seems overblown when you see the figures in this book. London’s West End takes first place, with Hong Kong, Beijing, and Moscow close behind. Rio, New York, Mumbai and San Francisco’s downtown make the list of 18 cities. Boston is cheap in comparison and nowhere to be found. (Again, so much for some people’s hopes to be “world class,” which probably does mean high office rents.)

Corruption is perceived as lowest in Denmark and New Zealand. It is perceived as highest in Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. The US is perceived as neither free of corruption or corrupt since it makes neither list.

The Economist suggests it is a good time to buy a house in France. Prices went down about 1.5 percent in 2013, the latest year for which they had figures. In the US, however, prices increased more than 13 percent.

While the US spent more than $600 billion for defense in 2013, almost six times more than China, which was next on the list, as a portion of the nation’s GDP it was low, at 3.7 percent, placing the US at number 15 after Afghanistan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel. Apparently geography is saving us.

            Statistics like those The Economist provides are fascinating, puzzling and can become an obsession. So we have to read that magazine to find out what these numbers mean. Maybe getting you to subscribe is the whole reason behind this little book of figures.

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