Posted by: bklunk | August 30, 2006

The Global Well-Being Staircase

I asked students in International Politics today to imagine a five-step staircase as a metaphor for one’s overall state of welfare and well-being. I also asked them to assign positions on the staircase to three persons: themselves, a person in the median position within their own country, and a person in a median position globally.

I also told them I would put my own responses on the course blog here and ask for their comments and responses. Here then my ratings:

Me: I put myself on step 5. Here’s why: My family income, even at modest Pacific professor salaries, is easily in the top 1% globally. I assume reliable access to sufficient food for me and my family, to health care. I own a comfortable, if modest, home. My children have reliable access to schools. I have sufficient disposable income to spend quite a lot on luxury items, as do most of my acquaintances. I expect to live until I am more than 80 years old and I expect all my children to survive me. Political and social conditions in my country are fairly stable. For the most part I enjoy considerable physical and economic security.

Because I am well-educated and work in a socially prestigious profession I have a great deal of access and some influence with key decisionmakers. I have had conversations with most of my elected representatives. I am one degree of separation from the president and the pope. I have visited private offices in the Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court. I have a passport and I know how to use it. As the songwriter Randy Newman wrote, “My life is good.”

The median person from my country–the United States of America–is on step four, maybe slipping back to step three. While my socio-economic status and access to decisionmakers is higher than the median, most Americans still enjoy the benefits of general stablity and access to important dimensions of welfare–medical care, schools, etc. However, some measures show greater socio-economic polarization and, as Hurricane Katrina revealed, poverty may be a greater problem in the U.S. than is generally realized. Still, the situation of the average person in the US is among the best in the world.

The median person in the world is on step 2. Billions of people live in conditions of extreme poverty and enjoy almost none of the security and access to social services, the political system, etc. that most people in the U.S. probably take for granted. The median person globally may well live in a country without much political stablity and where the government does not provide much access for its citizens. Inasmuch as the median person is also female, that person likely lives in conditions that inhibit her development.

Any comments?



  1. You can leave a comment by clicking the comments link. If no comments have been posted it says, “No Comments”.

  2. I too listed myself on level 5; I enjoy the benefits of safety, education, accessable food and health care and for the last three years, the NFL Sunday ticket on DirecTV (life’s true purpose). However, freedom is the one thing that makes any of it possible. And since everyone in this country is born with the same freedoms I was, I put them on level 5 as well. Because someone is poor does not prevent them from attaining great success in this country. Anyone can join the military as I did and be given a virtually free ride through life if they choose to stay in, or an equally paid for ticket through school if they apply themselves. The freedoms we enjoy (and largely take for granted) in this country do not translate to all parts of the world, nor do some of the basic aspects (such as food and energy) of our lives. Places like Iran do not allow free speech or treat women as equals. Places like Africa do not have food on every corner in every city. And places like India and China do generate enough individual wealth as to allow most citizens to afford electricity. The median person living in our country of 300+ million people is so far above the rest of the world (not including intangables such as level of hapiness and general outlook on life), that it would take several more Earths worth of resources just to provide the goods to bring the everyone else our level. I put the rest of the world on step 2.

  3. I put myself as a 5 as well. I am completely satisfied with every aspect of my life. I am healthy and have access to excellent healthcare should I need it, I am receiving a high quality education which will provide me countless opportunities for success upon graduation, I have access to safe sources of food and water, I have a place to live, and I have access to many luxuries.
    We enjoy many freedoms some people can only hope for. We can practice any religion or demonstrate against our government without fear of punishment. We each have an opportunity to vote and have a say in who runs our country. We have access to the best healthcare and technology in the world. However this nation is by no means perfect. Many jobs are being outsourced overseas, which is putting many people out of work. Many people are living paycheck to paycheck hoping no unforeseen expenses come up. It is becoming harder for many people to afford homes in many regions of the country. Although people still have access to free public education, the quality of education in many districts is sub par. We are at war with an enemy which is constantly trying to attack innocent civilians, with attacks that could be anywhere at anytime. Pair this with 24 hour media access and many people in the country live with heightened fear and anxiety. Although the average American is better off than people all over most of the world, we are still far from providing a perfect state of welfare for all of our citizens. I rate the average American as a 3, albeit a high 3. Unfortunately, I see this rating dropping in the future, not improving.
    I give the rest of the world a low 2. Although there are many nations in the world where people have a high quality of life, the majority of the world’s population is in poverty. Many people live in fear of their governments or in fear of not being able to buy enough food to feed their family.

  4. In regards to the staircase metaphor, I can honestly put myself at a 3. Growing up in a low-income family wondering if you might have another meal to eat was a daily challenge. I personally attended under funded public schools and had to manage with what was giving to me. My realist approach of the world can be interpreted by my unfortunate beginnings. I personally do not feel secure every night when I got to sleep at night knowing that your own government is protecting you from terrorism by tramping over citizen’s civil liberties. There is so much talk having political, religious, and social freedoms that we still have conflict over who has the essential means to have a great life here in the United States. Where the elites; the top one percent of the nation, are making the life and death decisions for the country and the common citizens have no say in there government. And with all of the socio-economic problems surrounding us, there is not much hope for people reaching their dreams. My expectations of the future generations seem loamy at this point in time. Wealthy countries are creating ridiculous trade policies against under privilege nations and widening the gap with rich and poor, not only abroad but here in the United States as well. I have had such an unfortunate luck all of my life and even thought I live the most powerful country of the world, I still have no doubt in my mind that I will be on step 3 for years to come.

  5. For our last class topic, I put myself at a 5 for the staircase metaphor. I have been priveleged enough to go to a private school for all of my years of education. I have had no worries in terms of health insurance or thinking about where my next meal would come from. I also enjoy religious freedom, and overall, I feel safe compared to people living in other countries. In terms of the rest of America, I rate most people at a 3. I recently just read an article in the New York Times about how the number of people under the poverty line is increasing. There are just too many people without health insurance, without a stable supply of food, and without a safe place to live. However, as Americans, we still enjoy a lot of privileges compared to other people around the world. For this reason, I would rate the average person around the world at a 2. The sad truth is that what we know as poverty in the United States, can be seen as living in luxury in other countries. People living in third world countries and the Middle East, as well as many other places, just face so many more challenges. For example, people living in the Middle East cannot step out of their homes without the fear of possibly getting killed by a car bomb. Africa is facing an AIDS epidemic that does not seem to be slowing down. These are a just a few examples. I am not saying that living in America is not difficult, but at the same time, I do think that we as Americans do take a lot of things for granted.

  6. I find it fascinating how many students hold similar ideas relating to the “staircase metaphor,” yet very different ideas as well. This activity is very accurate considering the state that people or other nations may be in, yet it also leaves out many questions. Here is my question: What defines a 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1? Is it based on one’s faith, wealth, health, or is it just a personal opinion on what makes up a good life? I believe that I am ranked on level 5. In my view, the highest step on the staircase represents self-satisfaction. All my life I have grown up with similar opportunities as others, maybe not always financially, but sometimes it takes hard work to reach the aspirations that one desires to fulfill. Therefore just as professor Klunk put it “life is good.” Likewise, I would say that most people in this country are on a level of 4, and most people in the world on step 2 because of either the presence or lack of opportunity.

  7. I would list myself up to step 5 as well. I enjoy the life around me. I`m happy to have a family that loves and helps me. I have a lot of friends in many different parts of the world. That has given me extra knowledge about different cultures. Being born in Estonia, which is a good country and have finished my High School in Spain and now starting the next steps of my life in United States – That´s something that not everyone can experience. All my traveling and living goods are thanks to my parents, who want me to succeed in life. I appreciate it and my job is to try to be one day just as good parent to my kids, that they could write about the same topic in future saying that their staircase position is on number 5. My country, Estonia, is small, but there are no wars, at least until now. Political situation is getting better in a way but it will cause one big problem. After joining with a European Union our politicians try to keep up with it in different ways, like the economical, social, cultural etc. Economic stage will cause some difficulties because the European prices are higher and people are starting to emigrate for better jobs, Estonia has trouble finding workforce and every year more people are starting studies out of Estonia. By that our 1,35 million population gets reduced. Estonian life gets more expensive per days but people´s salaries doesn´t grow that fast. That´s one cause that people instead of having 3 children can afford only 1 or 2 kids per family. The problem is that if we want to hold our population each family should have more than 2 children. Social situation of Estonia is good and our health programs are well defined. I would say that a average estonian person lies on position high 3 on that scale. In the world an average person is on low 2, cause there are many parts in the world that have war and most of Central Africa has a lack of food. China is over populated. All those life conditions are very far from the great and happy lives that we live.

  8. For me, I felt that I was a five on the staircase. I have been blessed with a life in a relatively well-off town, parents who have both had jobs which provided all of our needs, and I have been able to have access to things I wanted as well. However, my parents still taught my siblings and I to be save, so it was not as though my life was completely “at the top of the world” in terms of getting every desire fulfilled. Healthcare (I have had a lot of medical problems) has never been an issue, and I have been able to see a doctor without any issues. Also, my public school was still able to provide me with a solid education, choice electives, pretty well-paid teachers, as well as facilities that were quite new. I wrote down that the average american would be a high three or low four, given that regardless of their individual wealth, they still live in a relatively free country with a stable government. I realize that this average would also be pulled down by the many who live below the poverty line, but there are also several ways to get help in the country (while many third world countries do not have any sort of public food program like a food kitchen). With that said, I said that the rest of the world had an average of two. While there are still several other first world countries with citizens who are well-off, there are many more with individuals who live by mere survival. Diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malnourishment are still rampant in many countries, and poverty hits hard. Also, there are many less stable governments at risk (or currently in) war and the like. With that, I conclude my response to the staircase.

    As a side note, I feel that it is interesting how we interpret one’s material wealth and ability to access needs as the main factor in where one stands on the staircase. Provided, much of how one feels his or her place is in the world is dependant upon this, but I have also seen many people who are happy and satisfied with life without being well-off. I think that it would be interesting to see the correlation between a material wealth staircase and a overall happiness and satisfaction staircase.

  9. With the whole staircase metaphor, I would have to list myself as on step 5 also. I have friends and family who loves me and are all in good health. I am excited to have such a great roommate and to have met 4 great new friends here at Pacific. In regards to the average American, I would have to say that he/she is on step 4. As Americans we enjoy many freedoms (that we sometimes take for granted). But it doesn’t mean that all is fair, we still have underfunded schools and communities. Thus I believe that as Americans, we can take another step up if we focused more on human rights. I would have to say that majority of the world population would be on step 2 due to the lack of opportunities available ceither caused by poverty or governement policies or even both.

  10. For our last class assignment, I put myself as a 5 for the stair case metaphor. I have been priveleged to go to a private school for all of my years of education. I have never had to worry about things such as health insurance or where my next meal is coming from. I also enjoy religious freedom, and overall, I feel pretty safe compared to people living in other countries. For the average American, I would rate themat a level of 3. I recently just read an article in the New York Times, which stated that the number of people living below the poverty line is rising. There are just too many people without health care, without a steady source of income, without food, and without a safe place to live. However, I think that what is seen as poverty in the United States can be seen as living in luxury for other countries. In the Middle East for example, people cannot step out of their homes without fear of possibly getting killed by a car bomb. Also, in Africa, the AIDS epidemic does not seem to be slowing down. These people as well as others from different countries face so many hard challenges that many Americans take for granted. For this reason, I think an average person in the world is around a level of two.

  11. I put myself at a 5, as well. The education which I can recieve is relatively inexpensive, and I am surrounded by opportunities for the advancement of my beliefs and my career. At this, time, the situation is ideal; for me, at least. I would put the average citizen of my country at a 4, however. This is due to the fact that extortion by way of the law is an acceptable profession. Private property must be insured, and protected by all sorts of obscure codes and excemptions; which would be alright, so long as the public can have access to such codes with relative ease. I place the rest of the world on a three, for several reasons. “Socialist” states such as China are gaining much more control over capital, though the exchange rates are still very inflated. This score is also based on the level at which police actions, election results (i.e. Mexico), and access to information is severely restricted.

  12. I also listed myself on the fifth level of the Global Well-Being Staircase. I am able to live a very comfortable lifestyle with many luxuries that I really do not need. I live in a simple house in a safe and friendly neighborhood where I do not have to worry much about my personal safety. I am fortunate that my parents have provided me with so many opportunities such as being able to receive a college education. As for the median person in this country, America, he or she is on step four. America offers its people many benefits that other countries are unable to provide. In America, it is possible for one to climb the social ladder, or in this case, the Global Well-Being Staircase. However, in some other countries, its not possible to improve one’s social status. That being said, I put the median person in the world on step two. Most of the world outside of America live very simple lives and are unable to afford a comfortable lifestyle. Most people are also unable to enjoy many freedoms that Nevertheless, I feel that the upper classes of some countries are creeping up the staircase. For example, both the Chinese and Indian economies have been increasing rapidly and have begun to catch up to the American economy. Although it may take some time, I believe that the upper classes of some countries will gradually climb the Global Well-Being Staircase.

  13. Although I would like to, I would rate myself as being on the third step of the staircase. Enrolled into Pacific gives me the chance to move to a 5 on the staircase, but if I do not take advantage of the opportunity at hand I will merely fall back to a 1. The median person in my country would be at a 2. Many people in the US have the chance to make something of themselves but refuse to put in the work that will make them very successful. As for the world, I would also rate them at a 2. Although I believe there is more potential in other countries rather than the US, the opportunity is not there. However, it is the opposite in the US, with the opportunity available but the drive and determination for success is not.

  14. For this assignment I felt that I best represented step five on the staircase. I feel that I have been very fortunate in my life because I have loving family and friends who are there for me through thick and thin. Also, even though I don’t have an income myself, my parents provide me with what I need to get by in life. I have been blessed with the opportunity to receive a great college education which is not the case for everyone. I felt that the average person in the United States is at about a level four. I feel this country offers many opportunities for jobs. We have education and medical systems that help people prevail and be healthy. Although there are some people in the United States who are unemployed, there are many ways to earn money. Finally, I feel the average person in the world is at about a two on the staircase. Even though there are countries that are well off in the world, unfortunately most are over-populated and poverty stricken. For example, Africa is home to some of the world’s poorest people in the world. The majority of the people there are either starving or infected with STD’s. It’s sad how much people in the U.S. take for granted when there are people in distant countries just trying to survive.

  15. As the question was asked i immediatly put myself at a level 4, thinking of all the great opportunities i have had in my life and being born an American, the freedoms i enjoy. I placed myself at a level four versus a five because of some of the difficulties in life i have had to overcome and am still facing today. I believe that the average person in america is also on a level four becuase everyone is given the same freedoms, it is the power to take advantage of those freedoms and opportunities that defines what level one is actually at. Though i believe that the average american is at step four, i believe that the average american would rank themselves lower than that because they take for granted the luxuries we take for granted (i.e. free schooling, a health care system, and a functioning government)and because the average american thinks of themselves only in relation to other americans and not in the spectrum of the world. I think that the average person in the world is at a step two, with not enough food, the immense pverty level, the diseases that are widespread (aids, avian flu pandemic, etc) but also there are the more wealthy populations to bring up from the negatives of the world.

  16. With the staircase metaphor, I put myself as four because for people who are in staircase five I’m thinking of people such as Paris Hilton and people like Donald Trump who are ridiculously wealthy and can do practically whatever they want with their wealth and power. The reason I’m on staircase four is because I can actually say I’m really happy with where I am in life. I’m just starting college, starting a new life with education, I have people such as family and friends who support me and will always be there for me, and I have a boyfriend, who is even though five hours away still keeping touch with me and feels the same way about me as I feel about him. I’m also in a state where I don’t really have to worry about money and I have both parents who are working hard to make sure that I don’t have any money problems now and in the near future.
    I compared the way I was living with people who were living in Korea because I recently visited Korea. I put them on staircase three because even though they’re a wealthy country, they too like the U.S. have a huge difference between the incomes the higher class receives compared to the income the lower class receives.
    When comparing myself to everyone in the world I put the average person at staircase two because there are a lot of third world countries and poverty is in every country. I’m guessing only 15% of the world’s population has most of the money and more than 50% are in poverty. So that’s why I’m putting the average person on staircase two.

  17. I respect that you put yourself on step 5. That is where I hope to place myself 10 years from now, with a comparable situation. Life is good, mainly, in my opinion, because for us it involves so many choices. Though they may be stressful, choices imply options, and options are a luxury in many ways, more than security but excess in many directions economically, physically, etc… For myself, I find myself in motion on this staircase, probably with one foot securely on step 4, as a senior in a university about to graduate, with the other foot raised mid-air but not without hesitation to five, because of the uncertainty of how I will attain the next step. But the means and the potential are there.
    As you were inclined, I would lean towards placing the median person in the US on the 3rd step. The middle class seems to me indeed to be faltering, and mobility by meritocracy seems a faded relic of the American Dream, inasmuch as it is still idealized. People don’t seem to have the knowhow and sometimes the interest to create the means to a better standard of living, and debt seems an integral part of the American way of life. There also seems to me alarming regionalizing tendencies, where in the midst of globalization and the information age, the world seems less a village and the one’s village becoming more the world- disconcerting when one’s country is the “world power” and it’s every action so greatly reverberates into the lives of citizens’ the world over.
    And so the world looks on, and this talk about Americans not realizing the options they have seems frivolous when I place the average person in the world with your rating at level 2, or lower. At least we do have the luxury of choice, of options. Thanks for your thoughts.

  18. I see myself on step 4, moving upwards and never downwards. I have a great deal of support in my life from family members and relatives that would never let me fall behind and are always there for me. In financial terms, I am very stable and there are always funds readily available for me if I need them. That is why I put myself on step 4.
    I feel that the average person in the US would probably be placed on step 3. I feel this because there are many possibilities for Americans in the US to “get ahead” in life yet many do not take advantage of this possibilty. Instead, they depend on others to act for them and end up getting nothing but are always quick to criticize. In other words, the opportunities are there but people are lazy.
    In other countries I would place the average person on step 2. However, at the same time I feel that in other countries one’s position in life is not always measured in financial terms as it is in the US or in other more economically developed countries. I have been to many countries and I always manage to see the poorest of the poor smiling and laughing. This is not to say they do not have it bad yet they are able to look to other things in life to make them happy and live off of that and to me that is most important.

  19. To Addison Embrey:
    What defines laziness, as opposed to ignorance? I would say that having a steady, monetary income is not as important as the wisdom to use each unit of currency as though none were to ever appear again. Thus, inflation could be alleviated, while at the same time a higher standard of quality is forced upon the producer. Whenever buying something, whether it be education, clothing, food, or entertainment; ask yourself, is this really WORTH this amount of money?

  20. Eh…shouldn’t laziness be counted as a luxury? I don’t think that should put them a step lower, if you’re going to include it as a factor.

  21. I have placed myself on level 3. I have chosen not to place myself on level 4 or 5 as many others did because of the comparative struggle I endure to achieve a good life in our society. For instance, in order to simply get by in the United States, you need to have a decent job. And unless by some miraculous circumstance to the arises, you will need to be educated in order to obtain that job (or the skills to be self-employed). This process of educating oneself takes years, and, most importantly, is very costly. Typically the higher the cost, the better the education. The best economist who would like to be a professor would not teach at Delta, but at Harvard.
    The struggle I have endured to achieve this level of education, coming from a poor family with five siblings who also would like to go to college, poses a significant problem in my life. Should I take out loans, placing myself in substantial debt for the time being, in order to make more later? And what will my quality of life be when I do get that job? Will I be happy that I spent 4 to 6, or even 8 years at postsecondary school, racking up debt, when comparatively I could have been working construction at $15 per hour for those last 8 years? A four year degree plus law school, as I see it, will set me back around $150,000. Compared to the construction worker who, working for $15 per hour ($31,200/year and $249,000/8 years), making the median lawyer’s salary at $60,000, 2 and a half years of work will go solely to paying off loans, while it will take me another 6 years just to catch up to the construction worker. And this is assuming that the construction worker has not received any raises, which he undoubtedly will have.
    What I am getting at is that the United States’ standard of living is so high that achieving it costs more than it is actually worth. Living in the US, if not handed a baton by a patriarch, is very difficult. Housing prices continue to rise, and real wages have not risen accordingly. Education costs are increasing every year, yet the average GDP increases only marginally. Poor families in poor communities get poor education–and when their kids turn 18 they can’t send them to college because they’ve been scraping by with the ridiculously low minimum wage. And if you argue everyone can go to college, people in poor communities do not know of any social programs or loans, because their education of these programs represents the amount of money they have in their wallets.
    However, I must play the hand I was dealt, which is why I have given myself a level 3. I am obtaining an education and I do plan on making money in the future, to provide well for myself and for a family should I have one. In other words, it is more the potential of upward mobility that places me currently on level three–and I will soon be moving to level four and, possibly, level five.
    This is also why I put the average American on level 3. As I pointed out, America is a tough place to make it in, but the opportunity IS THERE. You not only have to work very hard, but you have to be relatively smart and informed. Intelligence is not a fair representation of success in the United States: information is. Growing up in a poor neighborhood as I have written above, you do not have access to this information. You are given the basics you need to get by at a minimum wage job at Wal-Mart. Without this information, you are a slave to those who hold on to this information–those who have gave up money and time to obtain that information. But being blessed with a certain father or mother or a certain amount of brainpower is not something you can choose, which is why if you are not blessed in any of these areas, the average American will slip back to level 2, becoming, as stated, a slave to the holders of information.
    This brings me to the average person in the world. Well, the United States, Europe, Australia, and other industrialized countries may bring the number from 1 to 2. But take out these industrialized countries and it is undoubtedly 1. As I have stated, it is the opportunity for advancement that determines your level. Take away this opportunity, say, by being born in Sudan, and you are on level 1. As a common Sudanese person, you have no opportunity of advancement because you are poor, uneducated, and unfortunately, not many people care about you.
    But then again, this is just the outside eyes looking in. Someone in a country Americans would see as poor may think their life is on level 5 because they have many friends and have a simple job that they like. If there is moral relativism, there must be a quality relativism.

  22. I’ve ranked myself on a level 4 since I consider myself blessed to have a loving family, great health, high quality education, and being able to live comfortably. Having a family to support me in everything I do plays a huge part on where I am. Although I never had to worry about financial matters, my parents taught me to be independent and practically instilled in me to save, plan for the future, and to constantly consider my options and opportunities. I’ve thought about ranking myself to be on level 5 though I admit my lack of knowledge and inexperience in some areas holds me back.
    As for an average person in the U.S., I would place them on a level 3. They have the freedom to express their ideas which is not a very popular concept in other countries. However, not a lot of people take advantage of some opportunities that are practically thrust into them such as education or the medical system. We have so many resources available to us; resources that cannot be found in anywhere else. Lastly, I consider an average person in the world to be at level 2. There are several countries that can be deemed as stable, yet most of them are not. There are still parts of the world where people are dying by the hundreds or even thousands due to diseases, famine, or even war.

  23. I put myself at 3. The reason for this is because my interpretation of the scale is very different than most people’s comments that I read. A majority of you interpreted level number 5 to be “middle class”. In my opinion, level 3 to me was “middle class”. I am very grateful to have a family who came from nothing to something and they have succeeded in giving my siblings and I the opportunity to experience an education beyond high school. They also have provided us with a big house, nice cars, and they have taught us that hardwork is essential to acquiring not only the luxuries of life, but more importantly, the rewards of education. At level 3, I enjoy most of everything any middle class family enjoys but my family has struggled to attain these luxuries. It was not always an easy road for us and because of all of our hardwork we have come so far. I put someone like Paris Hilton at level number 5. She was guaranteed, in my eyes, the luxuires and comfortability of life as a heiress. People who have access to opportunites because of their wealth are more privileged than someone at level 3. I put most prople in this nation at level 3 as well. I put people in other nations at a level 2 because they have neither the freedom for opportunity that we in America do, nor do these poeple who come from third world contries have the privilege that most people in America have to bettering the quality of their lives like we can.

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