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U.S. economy is world's most competitive, but shadowed by inequality

ford trucks on an assembly line in a manufacturing plant
The assembly line for Ford F-150 trucks at the company's manufacturing facility in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

The United States is the world’s most competitive economy, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum. Singapore, Germany, Switzerland and Japan round out this year's top five.

What's happening: The U.S. position reflects fundamental competitive strength across 12 key areas, especially its labor market, financial system and business dynamism, which measures everything from time required to start a business to attitudes toward risk. Each of these factors contributes to America's vibrant culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Yes, but: The U.S. does have room for improvement. The report notes signs of a weakening social fabric and worsening security situation, for which the U.S. ranks a meagre 56th out of 140 economies studied.

  • The U.S. homicide rate is 5 times the advanced economies’ average.
  • America ranks 46th for its health-adjusted life expectancy of 67.7 years. That's 3 years below the advanced economies’ average, 6 years less than Singapore and Japan, and even shorter than China's.
  • On checks and balances, the U.S. is 40th; judicial independence, 15th; and corruption, 16th.

What to watch: One of the key drivers of U.S. economic success has been an embrace of both products and talent from other countries. Less openness risks undermining America’s competitiveness and hurting its economy.

The big picture: Competitiveness is only one dimension of prosperity. The report shows that it is typically associated with better social performance, with one notable exception: equality. Indeed, American society is the most unequal among advanced economies. More comprehensive social policies would help tackle this growing problem.

Thierry Geiger is head of research and benchmarking at the World Economic Forum's Centre for the New Economy and Society.

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