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2014 report card: Good work, but could do better

The United States leads the world in production of websites, prisoners, sunflower seeds and pricy health care.

Chicago, I was surprised to learn, is the third largest urban area in the world, with a population of 6.8 million, right behind New York and Tokyo. Not a conventional way of viewing the city, but well, we’ll get to that.

All of this learned from pawing through a fascinating thin volume, “Pocket World in Figures: 2015 Edition” which The Economist magazine sent as Christmas thanks for ponying up the big bucks and subscribing (worse, I bought two subscriptions, one for me, one for my son at college in California. He insisted).

New Year’s Eve being upon us, rather than rehash stories that weren’t that interesting to begin with, but did occur during the past 12 months, I thought we could join hands and graze through this little book. So let’s take a moment to see our city and nation as they appear, not close up to our jaundiced eyes but from afar, to those taking in the whole big blue marble at one glance.

The news, statistically, is surprisingly good. The United States is the biggest economy in the world by far: $16 trillion, almost exactly twice that of second-place China. We export 20 percent more than China, second only to the European Union. But we do have to borrow a lot to keep going: $440 billion deficit, more than the next six nations: the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Canada, France and Brazil — combined. Though it could be worse: Our government debt is equal to our nation’s gross domestic product for 2013; in Japan, it’s more than twice the GDP

If size counts, and it does, we are the third most populous country on earth, hitting 315 million people in 2014. More than a billion fewer people than China, with 1.35 billion residents, and almost a billion fewer than India, at 1.25 billion, but still among the top dogs.

And likely to stay there. Projected a decade into the future, the top three remain the same in 2025, though No. 4 is breathing down our necks (any idea? Fourth most populous nation in the world? At 244 million people who, like us, think of themselves as the epicenter of creation, it’s Indonesia).

Growth is good; you don’t want your country shrinking. A glance over at “Slowest Growing Populations,” shows the first dozen are in Eastern Europe — Bulgaria, Latvia, Belarus — with our supposed rival Russia No. 12, contracting 0.2 percent during the past five years. A reminder: Vladimir Putin doesn’t strut and threaten because he’s strong; he struts and threatens because he’s weak.

Thanks to those big immigrant families that the right so ignorantly fear, we aren’t on the list of highest median age, like crumbling Japan, tied with Germany with a median age of 45.

In the City Living section, a modesty check. Despite all our “world class” pretensions, the list of most populous world cities, from Tokyo, population 38.7 million, to Foshan, China (no, I never hard of it either), at 8.9 million, Chicago, with its dinky 2.7 million doesn’t even make the cut. A reminder of how dubious population is as a measure of greatness — if it were, we’d all envy Kolkata, India, and its 16 million residents.

Nor does Chicago appear on the “City Index of Culture and Environment,” which is defined as “based on indicators that include comfortable climate, lack of social restrictions, sport, culture, food and drink.” With 100 being perfect, Vancouver, British Columbia, scores 100, heaven on earth, with Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Munich, Paris and Toronto tied for second place with 97.2. The presence of that last city tempts me to declare the list simply spurious — how can Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., make the cut and not us? But between the Bears’ recently concluded “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” season, and the fact that it’s 2 degrees below zero with the wind chill, OK, maybe they’ve got a point.

Our consolation prize is on the list below: “Largest Urban Areas,” which The Economist defines as “A continuously built up urban development that has no rural land.” Chicago ranks third, with 6.8 million people, behind New York and Tokyo. It makes sense: We are all one place.

There were some surprises. On average, most people in the U.S. don’t own a car: 410 autos per 1,000 people (in Ethiopia, it’s one car per thousand people). Though we do all own computers, 99.3 per 100. And we all have not one, but almost two websites: 1.8 .com, .net or .org addresses per person, and half the country, 158 million Americans, has a Facebook page.

What’s the conclusion? If I were giving the country a year-end grade, I would give it a solid B+ and write, “Could do better.”

Nearly 18 percent of our GDP is spent on health care. In Japan, it’s 10 percent, and they get better results. Our life expectancy is 78.9, putting us right behind Cuba and 4 1/2 years behind Japan.

Some of our stats are flashing red light bad. We lead the world in prisoners: 2.2 million, half a million more than China, which is four times our size. Seven out of a thousand Americans are in jail; in Russia, it’s four per 1,000. Happy 2015, if you’re looking for a resolution, try this one: “Do better.”