How They Do It Better
We have the biggest GDP, the finest universities, the highest ownership of color TVs, and the greatest number of Nobel Prize winners. So how come the Danes are the happiest people in the world? Living in the dark, no less. Schoolchildren in New Zealand are cleaning our clocks in math and science. Teachers are better paid and more respected in Japan. Our highways are choked with traffic, but we can't manage to build a train that goes more than 150 mph.
Our eating habits? Please. Just compare our average portion with a meal in Japan, and you'll understand why our adult obesity rate is 32 percent, compared with only 3.6 percent for the Japanese. The French, likewise, are slim and well fed-and they offer world-class dinner conversation to boot. Their secret: They don't want to know what you did yesterday; they want to engage you in a lively discussion of ideas.
But our shortcomings are bigger than dining and discourse. Remarkably, the United States is nowhere to be found on the Economist's global index of lowest infant mortality. At the other end, our average life expectancy, at 77.9, puts us 40th in the world- after Costa Rica and Cuba. As for our treatment of the planet, we're down at No. 28 on the global index of environmental performance, a value based on six measurements of environmental health. Meanwhile, Denmark manages to get 20 percent of its energy from the wind. And in Singapore, tossing a candy wrapper on the sidewalk will set you back a thousand bucks.
On a grimmer index, America has more people in prison-2,135,900-than any other country in the world. And the highest rate of gun-related homicides of all industrialized nations. If we followed Europe's example of treating drug addicts rather than jailing them, would the numbers go down? It's a complex and controversial question. But Holland's experience shows that treatment of drug abuse is at least vastly cheaper than the alternative.
In the following pages, we offer 30 lessons we can learn from other countries. The list is admittedly unscientific and decidedly incomplete. We're not even saying that all of these practices would work here; if Americans wanted free day care and government-funded maternity leave, after all, they'd have to pay Norway-size taxes.
What follow are simply practices that intrigued us: the Germans retraining prostitutes to care for the elderly, the Brazilian buses that are so clean and efficient that even the rich people ride them, and the Japanese toilets that deodorize the room and put the seat down when you're done.
What from your travels has caused you to ask: "Why can't we do this here?" Let us hear from you.
30 Valuable Lessons That Americans Can Learn From the Rest of the World:
- Europe: Giving Drivers the Benefit of the Doubt
- Germany, Netherlands: Making the Streets Safer for Cycling
- Dominican Republic: Where Ballplayers Are Born and Made
- Colombia: All Aboard South America's Upper-Class Bus
- Finland: Sticking It to the Scofflaw
- Europe: Flying on the Cheap
- Japan, South Korea: Want a Drink? Pay With Your Phone
- France: Talking Is a World-Class Sport
- Japan: Even the Toilet Is High-Tech
- Australia: Protection From the Sun
- Afghanistan: Honored to Be Your Host
- Japan: Skimpy Portions and Satisfied Stomachs
- Netherlands: Below Sea Level? No Problem
- Finland: The Secret to Smarter Schools
- Germany: Novel Aides for the Aged
- Sweden: Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees
- Italy: Food Not as Fuel but as a Way of Life
- Taiwan: The Afternoon Nap Attack
- Japan: Communing Through Cleaning
- Netherlands: Abuse as a Disease, Not a Crime
- Singapore: When You Litter, You Pay
- Norway: Getting Paid for Parenting
- Europe: Holes That Make for Better Roads
- Bhutan: Smoke-Free at the Top of the World
- Iceland: Pristine Reputation for Government
- United Kingdom: Finding Yourself (and the World) in a Year
- Europe: Cities With a Heart
- Denmark: Energy Efficiency From the Wind
- United Kingdom: Free Health Coverage for All
- Japan: More Stressed, but Still Safer
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.