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The Boston Globe

Politics

Analysis | Evan Horowitz

If Massachusetts were a country, how rich would it be?

What if Massachusetts were a country, rather than a state? How would this Imaginary Republic of Massachusetts stack up against the nations of the world? Would it be a rich country, or a poor one? A nation of great inequality or shared prosperity? A beacon of multicultural harmony or an especially segregated society?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll ask more questions — what about gender gaps, health care, crime, education — but for now let’s just start with the first: is the Imaginary Republic of Massachusetts a rich county, or a poor one?

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The short answer is: rich. Very rich.

There are a variety of different ways to show this, but here’s one approach. For each country, add up all of the income earned by people who live there, and then just divide by the number of people. That way, you can see how much income there is for each person. So, if the total amount of income earned in Massachusetts were $1,000 and there were 10 people, we could say that the income per person (or per capita) was $100.

In the real world, the numbers are much higher (and less round) but the approach is the same. And what you find is that the Imaginary Republic of Massachusetts would be the fourth-wealthiest nation in the world, not just richer than the United States but richer than much-vaunted economies such as Hong Kong, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Our high rank has nothing to do with the fact that we’re a small (but proud) nation. Massachusetts actually has more people than many of these other countries, including Norway, Denmark, and Singapore (to say nothing of Luxembourg).

What about inequality?

Who has these riches? Are they distributed among all residents, or concentrated in the hands of a few? It’s possible for Massachusetts to be a very rich and also very unequal place.

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Over the last 30 years or so, these kinds of questions have become newly pressing as income inequality has widened. In 1980, the highest earners in the state made about 5½ times as much as those towards the bottom. Today, it’s more like eight times as much (MassBudget has more details).

Of all the different ways to measure inequality, perhaps the broadest is what’s called the “Gini Coefficient.” The great virtue of this approach is that it looks at a country’s entire income distribution and distills a whole range of inequities, gaps, and divergences into a single number, sort of like the US News & World Report ranking for inequality (Pacific Standard Magazine put together an excellent primer on the Gini Coefficient.)

So, how does the Imaginary Republic of Massachusetts fare on this measure? If we were a country, that is, how unequal would we be? The image attached gives a rough sense. Lower numbers are better, in the sense that they mean less inequality. So countries at the top of the list are more equal than those further down. And Massachusetts, it turns out, is pretty far down (so far down that I don’t have room to list them all). Not only is there more inequality here than in Scandinavian nations, there’s also more inequality than in some Anglophone countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

What does that mean for the Imaginary Republic of Massachusetts? Well, it means that while we are undoubtedly among the richest countries in the world, there are many other wealthy nations where the riches are more evenly shared.

Note: This “If Massachusetts Were A Country” thought-experiment is meant to provide a new lens on our state, but because the organizations that compile data about countries (OECD, World Bank, etc.) aren’t the same ones that compile data about states (Census, BLS, etc.), there’s a bit of mix and matching. The numbers you end up with can be revealing, but they are rarely definitive. To help flesh out this picture, I’ll be back with more approaches and more numbers in the days and weeks (and months and years) ahead.

Sources on Income: World Bank, BEA

Sources on Inequality: OECD, US Census

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz

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