Commentary / World

America: that awful country that everyone wants to move to

by Justin Fox

Bloomberg

Mercer, the global human resources consulting firm, last week released its 21st annual Quality of Living list, which ranks cities around the world based on economic conditions, housing, health care, public services, safety, natural environment and other metrics. For the 10th year in a row, Vienna came out on top, with Zurich, Vancouver, Munich, Auckland, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Geneva and Basel rounding out the top 10. The top U.S. city on the list was San Francisco, all the way down in 34th place. London, the top British city, was at 41st — tied with Milan, the top Italian city. Paris was 39th, New York 44th, Tokyo 49th, Beijing 120th, Baghdad 231st and last.

When I posted some of these results on Twitter, it occasioned lots of fun discussion and debate from people appalled that Ottawa ranked so high (19th) or Seoul so low (77th) or that so many of the cities near the top of the list are so … boring. I also got a bunch of responses, starting with one from Hoover Institution economist (and super-podcaster) Russell Roberts, that effectively asked, “If the quality of living is so low in U.S. cities, why do so many people from around the world keep trying to move here?”

It’s a good question! Part of the explanation is simply that Mercer’s Quality of Living rankings exist to help corporate clients make decisions ranging from “where to establish offices to determining how to distribute, house and remunerate their global workforces,” as Ilya Bonic, president of the firm’s careers business, put it in the news release that accompanied this year’s ranking. That is, the list measures where skilled managers and professionals with families, good salaries and ample benefits packages who are assigned or recruited to a new city by a multinational firm might find the transition easiest and most pleasant. Most immigrants to the United States (or to anywhere) aren’t in that boat!

But the notion that people all over the world are itching to move to the U.S. and not to any other rich countries is mistaken. All but three of the countries with cities that outranked San Francisco on the Mercer list have higher percentages of foreign-born residents than the U.S. (as does the U.K., which didn’t have any such cities but is included in the chart because I figured readers would be curious).

Luxembourg is so tiny (population 602,005) that it seems a little silly to include here, and most of these other countries are much smaller than the U.S., which has far and away the largest number of foreign-born residents of any country(1)and remains the top destination country for new immigrants. But Australia, Canada, Germany and the U.K., which combined have about two-thirds the population of the U.S., together took in 23 percent more immigrants from 2010 to 2016 than the U.S. did.

Those immigrants did not, it must be said, include droves of Americans looking to score some of that higher quality of life in Europe, Canada or the Antipodes.

Not only are there relatively few U.S.-born residents of Sweden, but there are also more than twice as many Swedish-born residents of the U.S. Something similar is true of almost all the other wealthy countries.

There are a bunch of reasons why these disparities don’t necessarily mean that the quality-of-life rankings are wrong or that Nordic social democracy is a sham.

One is that the Americans who would benefit most from Nordic social democracy — poor people — generally can’t afford to go to Europe, and they would have a hard time getting permission to stay there.

By contrast, the Europeans who could benefit most from the lower taxes and higher top incomes of the U.S. tend to be well-educated, entrepreneurial sorts who can afford to come here and often are allowed to stay. Also, most Europe-born residents of the U.S. have been here for quite a while: 65 percent arrived before 2000, and 36.7 percent of those from Northern and Western Europe were 65 and older in 2017, compared with 14.9 percent of the overall U.S. population. Finally, Swedes can speak English. Few Americans speak Swedish.

That language disparity gets at something crucial. Since World War II, the U.S. has been the planet’s central cultural, economic, military, political, scientific and technological power. For many of those born to affluence in other countries who now live in the U.S., that’s why they came here: It’s where the action was. Unless they wanted to be, say, soccer stars, ambitious U.S. citizens had far less reason to emigrate — and U.S. citizens also had less interest in and knowledge of the outside world than the outside world had in and of them.

The world is getting less U.S.-centric, though. If you adjust for purchasing power, China now has a bigger economy. Universities elsewhere have been chipping away at U.S. research dominance. The current U.S. president has been actively downgrading this country’s global political role. So it stands to reason that the U.S. might exert less automatic attractive power going forward, and that factors like quality of life might play a bigger role in determining whether people come to the U.S. or not.

It won’t always be quality of life as measured by Mercer. I don’t think the ranking is wrong in indicating that, for globetrotting corporate managers and other professionals, the U.S. is seen as a little bit of a hardship posting. The airports aren’t great; immigration and customs is a hassle; transit is weak; health care, schooling and taxes can be inordinately complicated; you might get shot; and so on. And overall, the U.S. just scores poorly for such a rich country on most objective measures of well-being.

Still, not everybody prioritizes the same things. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a fun Better Life Index that allows users to decide which metrics matter most to them. Give income and housing the heaviest weighting and the U.S. comes out on top; put the emphasis on work-life balance and safety and it falls to 14th place among OECD members.

For those hoping to stay, the U.S. also has a good (if far from spotless) track record of integrating immigrants into its labor force and society, which can’t be said of some continental European nations. Lots of people are still going to want to come to the U.S. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore experts bearing tidings that we’re second-rate.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”