American exceptionalism

Adam Ozimek has a post on “American exceptionalism.”  He shows that America is far and away the favorite destination of immigrants.  I know many immigrants, and wasn’t in the least surprised by this result.

(Yes, my sample is biased toward those who chose America, but one can still learn a lot from immigrants about how foreigners in general think about the choice of where to emigrate.  The places that are widely perceived to be desirable.)

On the other hand there might be some sort of bias in this result.  The US has a far bigger population than the other leading destinations.   It’s not clear to me if that biases the results.  Thus suppose interviewees had been told “If you are listing America as number one, please indicate the state you prefer.”  In that case the favorite state (presumably California but possibly New York) might get as many votes as say Canada or Australia, places with similar populations to our big states.

Interestingly, the large country bias actually works against the US when you compare real incomes across countries.  A priori, you’d expect the countries with the highest real income per capita to be very small. And they are.  The reason is simple.  If you broke the US into a bunch of Luxembourg-size countries, then certain areas within the US would have per capita incomes far above the US average.  Thus it’s very hard for a huge country to lead the world in any sort of per capita horse race.  It averages over rich and poor areas.

But the US comes surprisingly close.  Say we limit the list to countries with more than 6 million people. These “big countries” include smallish places like Israel, Belgium and Switzerland.  So all we are really doing is excluding very small countries.  It should still be very hard for the US, with its 315 million people, to lead any sort of per capita income lists in that size sample.  And yet, not only do we lead (according to IMF per capita PPP data), but by a fairly wide margin.

The list below deletes the small places.  The US is at nearly $50,000, Switzerland’s at just over $45,400, and the rest of the developed countries are in a big cluster below $43,000.  That’s actually a very surprising fact, in a purely statistical sense.

Now just to be clear, I am not doing this exercise for “rah rah nationalistic” reasons.  One reason we are so high is that we work longer hours.  However there are probably other reasons as well, as comparisons are very tricky when you try to estimate the productivity of people who are not working in places like France. But in any case, Americans tend to have less leisure.  So it’s not at all clear to me that American living standards are higher than those of Canadians, Australians, Swedes and the Swiss.  They might be, but they might not be.

Income inequality also biases the US results upward (compared to median income).  But again, that’s not the whole story.  Even the median American lives in a bigger house than the residents of other developed countries.  Those considerations do matter to immigrants.

Thus I’d guess that this very unusual level of per capita PPP GDP has something to do with why we are such a magnet for immigrants–probably much more than the 1st Amendment rights and other political factors. But our large size also helps.

6  United States 49,922 2012
7 49,012 2012
8   Switzerland 45,418 2012
9  Canada 42,734 2012
10  Australia 42,640 2012
11  Austria 42,409 2012
12  Netherlands 42,194 2012
41,973 2012
41,921 2012
15  Sweden 41,191 2012
39,889 2012
39,224 2012
18  Germany 39,028 2012
19  Taiwan 38,749 2012
20  Belgium 37,883 2012
37,657 2012
22  United Kingdom 36,941 2012
36,395 2012
24  Japan 36,266 2012
25  France 35,548 2012
26  Israel 32,312 2012
27  Korea, South 32,272 2012
“”  European Union 32,021 2012
31,382 2012
29  Saudi Arabia 31,275 2012
30  Spain 30,557 2012
31  Italy 30,136 2012
29,730 2012
29,166 2012
28,744 2012
28,195 2012
36  Czech Republic 27,191 2012
27,086 2012
27,022 2012
25,929 2012
25,373 2012
25,229 2012
42  Greece 24,505 2012
24,249 2012
44  Portugal 23,385 2012



17 Responses to “American exceptionalism”

  1. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    15. September 2013 at 08:08

    It could be that our income inequality is driving immigration. We live in bigger houses, so we have need of people to clean and maintain them. People to wash and wax our cars, people to wait on us in restaurants….

    Btw, the denigration of the USA as an exploiter of immigrants comes from the mysterious Willi Muenzenberg and his henchman Otto Katz (Hi, Lorenzo). Back when Lenin was trying to sell the world on the idea that Communist Russia was the last, best hope for mankind, it was rather embarrassing that mankind, given the option, chose to emigrate to the capitalist USA.

    Muenzenberg set out to give America a black eye, and discovered a couple of Italian anarchists who’d robbed a payroll in Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti thus became an international sensation. The full story can be found here;

  2. Gravatar of jknarr jknarr
    15. September 2013 at 08:24,+Annual,+Millions+of+Chained+2005+Dollars&fq=Annual&dtn=Millions+of+Chained+2005+Dollars&dt=2012&sd=false&l%5Bstate%5D=1&l%5Bstate_lbl%5D=1&ex=-126.755791,6.494782,-64.954002,67.40916&zl=

  3. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    15. September 2013 at 10:45

    “In that case the favorite state (presumably California”

    “It could be that our income inequality is driving immigration.”

    I wonder if immigration is one of the missing pieces of the Chetty-Saez ‘Equality of Opportunity’ study. Basically, states like California replaced their entire domestically born poor populations with immigrant poor populations. This could have bumped the entire domestically born population up by 10 or 20 percentile points.

    Unless of course the native poor moved out of California, in which case they got to be poor somewhere else instead of poor in California.

  4. Gravatar of Ashok Rao Ashok Rao
    15. September 2013 at 11:09

    There’s no real reason to adjust emigre-demand with population size. It’s not a “per capita” thing – just as Indians who want to live in Singapore far exceeds what you might expect with its relatively small population.

    The value of European leisure is likely overrated. It’s not a preference that reveals higher utility if it’s mandated – as vacations, leave, working hours, and such invariably are.

    I don’t think the point that the United States is far richer than anyone would predict gets made nearly often enough.

    The Human Development Index of Alabama (or maybe it’s Mississippi) – worst in the country – is ahead of France and tied with Britain. In most of New England and the midwest we beat Scandinavia.

    Inequality should temper the meaningfulness of these results, but immigrants usually don’t think in such terms. As far as high skilled immigrants are concerned, they have as much a chance at affluence in America as anyone else – likely more.

    And the lack of institutional racism in the United States, compared with Europe, makes it more appealing for less skilled immigrants, even if the safety nets and wages at that level were better in Europe. More importantly for these people, education in the US is best in the world if we properly adjust for ethnicity and home country. That means mobility might be higher for immigrants than suggested by simple “Great Gatsby Curves”.

    A read you might like:

    72% of Americans hold a positive view on immigrants. As surprising as it might be, potential emigre don’t want to go to countries where they are not wanted.

  5. Gravatar of honeyoak honeyoak
    15. September 2013 at 13:35

    I always feel as though the GDP figures are only an approximation of economic well-being. Having lived in Israel for years, it feels much poorer than Greece with high prices, long work hours and substantial bureaucracy. If you work in the tech sector (tiny) or the military, life is great while those in other sectors merely get by.

  6. Gravatar of Britmouse Britmouse
    15. September 2013 at 13:44

    Very interesting indeed.

    When I read Adam’s post I discounted the kind of reasoning you follow here, because the presence of France and the UK on the list suggested immigrants are not looking merely for exceptionally high income destinations.

    Would a “momentum effect” in migration better explain the members of that list, and also the US outlier? The countries people want to move to today are simply places where there *has been* lots of immigration in the past; people want to join friends, family, neighbours etc.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    15. September 2013 at 16:57

    Steve, I have a very low opinion of Saez’s research.

    Ashok, Lots of good points, but:

    There’s no real reason to adjust emigre-demand with population size. It’s not a “per capita” thing – just as Indians who want to live in Singapore far exceeds what you might expect with its relatively small population.”

    I’m not so sure. Suppose New Zealand split into two countries; North and South Island. Wouldn’t each half slide further down the rankings? I think it does matter at least a little. But it’s a tough question.

    honeyoak, Yes, I agree in general (don’t know a lot about those two places.)

    Britmouse. Good point. I imagine France is popular with Africans, America with Latin Americans.

  8. Gravatar of Ashok Rao Ashok Rao
    15. September 2013 at 19:15

    “I’m not so sure. Suppose New Zealand split into two countries; North and South Island. Wouldn’t each half slide further down the rankings? I think it does matter at least a little. But it’s a tough question.”

    Alright, I see your point now. Though this matters more for high skilled immigrants who need certain agglomeration economies, when for many lower skilled immigrants it’s just the idea of being in the United States.

    I suppose you could say a potential, low skilled immigrant would rather be in (arbitrarily) Missouri than New York. But – arbitrarily – he may rather be in Kansas City than some place upstate New York. It’s a distinction, but it’s obviously not important.

    The distinction between having America as a top choice, or Britain, is.

    I wonder where states – or regions – fall on that hierarchy. I’d imagine outside of the handful of immigrants who need to work in San Francisco or New York City, this isn’t a meaningful distinction. It is a meaningful distinction for high skilled people only because their preference rank may look something like 1) NYC, 2) London, 3) Chicago, 4) Hong Kong.

    But that’s not the bulk of immigrants.

  9. Gravatar of Chris H Chris H
    15. September 2013 at 20:34

    Ashok does bring up interesting points, but then again, we can still solve the “does the US gets more because it’s big” question by examining it versus other 100 million + potential developed country destinations (that gets us on the same order of magnitude at least. Here the EU and Japan are our only current options. But the actual rates are very heavily dependent on immigration enforcement which weakens the effect of the revealed preference. As a second best, perhaps we should use what places people who want to immigrant say they would favor assuming they were allowed to immigrate. Unfortunately this Gallup poll I found ( doesn’t provide an aggregate for the EU countries as a whole. But using the EU countries they do have on that list (the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden) we still have an area of over 320 million people which compares rather well to the US.

    So what do these potential immigrant’s stated preference reveal?

    Adding up those numbers, we find the US as a chosen destination for over 11 times as many people as Japan (despite only being three times as large), and almost exactly the same number of people choosing our equivalent population sized grouping of EU countries (150 million for the US, 150 million for the EU group).

    There’s clearly a lot more going on that just population or land area (otherwise results like Canada being number 3 or Japan being number 10 are tough to explain), but the fact that the US is big does seem to matter in terms of how immigrants view it as a potential destination.

  10. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    15. September 2013 at 21:25

    This statistic is a little bit odd. First, it sure looks like country size does bias these results, and it should do so. Here, Canada and Australia are way overweight in this list, if you divide potential immigrants by current population size. Second, as a person who repeatedly migrated from country to country, I can tell you the single one thing that an immigrant wants is hope. Current GDP counts less than expected increase in personal options. Here, America does very well indeed – America is built on hope and unlike many others it still has lots of space. Third, in addition, Saudi Arabia beating Germany is somehow at odds with the notion that GDP or HDI have something to do with this list.

    One should be puzzled now why America is so much less popular viz. its country size, than Canada and Australia, which are both very similar in culture (for an outsider)? Anecdotally, and from my Singapore perspective, Singaporeans who want to emigrate do seem to prefere Canada or Australia. Australia is going down in popularity due to perceived anti Asian racism but the alternative is then Canada, not the US. People I talked to hold two things against the US: 1- the violence problem 2- the perceived lack of old age welfare, especially medical coverage. Basically Singaporeans emigrate to Australia and Canada because they want a future for their kids that doesn’t involve high rises and daily 2 h bus commutes, and because for their own selves they want better medical coverage in old age. In the US they fear for their kids’ safety, and old age care for themselves isn’t there either. Then again, Singaporeans who want to emigrate, already have the money. They emigrate for fear of the future, not for some lack in the present.

    Random oddities: the list suggests that only a moderate fraction of people world wide actually want to emigrate at all, even under the ideal assumption that they could do so without effort or risk. The original Gallup site claims 13% or the world’s adults would leave their country if they could. Just about 3% would choose the US. In particular, only 10 million Indians would want to relocate to the US, out of a billion in a very, very poor country, and they are already close to English language and customs from their colonial past. That, to me, shows that culture is a lot stronger than given credit for.

  11. Gravatar of Ed Hamilton Ed Hamilton
    16. September 2013 at 02:28

    “Exceptionalism” will be the USA showing these track records to its citizens.
    The Public Be Suckered, here:

  12. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    16. September 2013 at 02:52

    Hi Patrick. Never did get around to checking up on Joe McCarthy

  13. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    16. September 2013 at 03:06

    So more people want to move to Australia than currently live here. Don’t think it would still be Australia if we let them all in. We do beat the US on the Human Development Index: not sure on US state comparisons.

    On the migrant preferred destination list, English-speaking seems to be an advantage.

    mbka: on perceived anti-Asian racism, I would emphasize perceived. The boat-people issue is mainly about Middle Eastern folk while the Indians being beaten up in robberies was more about which jobs Indian students take (and that no-one believes they might be Jackie Chan’s nephew and sparring partner–Bollywood needs to do some martial arts movies).

  14. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    16. September 2013 at 04:01


    no question not all would be migrants could be accomodated. Supposedly more than 12 Mio would want to come to Singapore alone, I read somewhere else. That would more than triple the current population. But in any case, these global polls are very facile – it’s easy to say you would migrate all else being equal and under perfect conditions. Once faced with the actual choice and the many trade-offs and personal upheavals emigration comes witht, I suspect many wouldn’t do it after all.

    Anti Asian racism, whatever the reality on the ground I can assure you that a great many S’poreans now consider Australia hostile territory for Asians. Those few well publicised incidents that happened did a lot of damage. My own experience on holidays in WA with my half Asian family was indeterminate. Some unfriendliness occurred, but a lot of friendliness too. And consider – when we arrived in Perth last December the customs agent assumed by default we’re returning natives. (before they saw the passports). YMMV etc.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. September 2013 at 06:53

    Everyone, Lots of good points.

    Chris, Interesting comparison.

    mbka, I wonder if Singaporeans realize that the crime rate is not very high in the areas of America where they would be likely to live (affluent suburbs.)

    Lorenzo, Good point about English-speaking.

  16. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    16. September 2013 at 11:34

    The US is just a very good destination for the smart and educated: Most of the country’s negatives go away when your income is high enough.

    As a former resident of Southern Europe, I go back and visit occasionally, and I talk to people with the same occupation as I have. In cities with similar costs of living, I’d make between one half and a third of the US salary, and that’s without taking into account tax differences.

    We just can’t forget that the people that are willing to move out of their country are not exactly average members of the population. It could very well be that it has nothing to do with the US being a better place to be for everyone, but on it being a better place to be for people that have no trouble leaving behind their roots for what they consider a better lifestyle. I have plenty of family that I’d guess would do terribly in the US, but it’s the kind of people that just have little interest in becoming immigrants, even in the current economic conditions.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. September 2013 at 05:28

    Bob, Good point.

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