The CIA World Factbook is an interesting place to peruse over a cup of coffee. Here is a random assortment of facts from their website.

1. Income vs Inequality


Starting with a relationship economists are quite interested in, we take a look at inequality plotted against income. Inequality is measured by the Gini index which measures the area between something known as the Lorenz Curve and the 45 degree line. The Lorenz Curve is basically the cumulative distribution of wealth in a country. In other words, suppose we had a horrible country where one person owned all the wealth and everyone else had nothing. Then the graph would be flat all the way through and there would be a spike at 1. This represents a Gini index of a 100 – i.e. perfect inequality. On the other hand, if there was ever such a thing as a truly communist country where everyone had an equal share of everything, then the Lorenz curve would be a 45 degree line, and therefore the Gini index would be 0.

Income is measured using GDP per capita in US $. This is then adjusted for its purchasing power in a respective country (PPP stands for purchasing power parity). In other words, if Alice earns $10,000 a year in country A and Bob earns $1,000 in country B, then you know Alice earns 10 times more in absolute terms. But if everything in country B costs 1/10 of what it does in country A, then effectively, Alice and Bob have the same income.

You may or may not be surprised to see that poorer countries seem to be less equal than richer ones in general. But there are a bunch of exceptions as you can see from the graph. Economists have been debating for quite some time on whether one causes the other. Some research suggests that higher inequality is required for growth and may actually be a ‘good thing’, whilst other papers suggest the opposite.

2. Roads and Railways

A country which is well connected will have an easier time in transporting goods, capital, labour, convicted felons, lab monkeys etc. Obviously, larger countries are generally going to have more connectivity in gross terms, but which countries have the longest road and rail networks per unit of land area?

The top 10 countries in terms of road length per unit of area are:

  1. Monaco
  2. Macau
  3. Marshall Islands
  4. Malta
  5. Bermuda
  6. Bahrain
  7. Belgium
  8. Jersey
  9. Singapore
  10. San Marino

The top 10 countries in terms of rail length per unit of area are:

  1. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  2. Christmas Island
  3. Czech Republic
  4. Switzerland
  5. Germany
  6. Isle of Man
  7. Luxembourg
  8. Belgium
  9. Hungary
  10. Austria

Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in the rail figures so the two sets of data are not easily comparable for all countries. It’s not very surprising that the small and dense countries are near the top. If we take the countries where we have data for both road and rail, then rank them with priority given to roads, we get this top 10 of road and rail:

  1. Belgium
  2. Netherlands
  3. Japan
  4. Liechtenstein
  5. Hungary
  6. Slovenia
  7. Germany
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Switzerland
  10. Denmark

This list seems to reflect the richer countries in the world on the whole, as you would expect. But the presence of Eastern European countries and Sri Lanka might come as a bit of a surprise. Especially since Sri Lanka is ranked 145 out of 228 in terms of GDP PPP per capita.

 3. Obesity and Health Expenditure


It may seem that a large number of non-Americans think of Americans as obese slobs. It’s true that the US does rank rather highly in terms of the percentage of its population considered obese (33%) compared to other similarly developed countries. But the world leaders are the Pacific Islanders. Whether this is genetics, diet or both, American Samoa, Nauru, The Cook Islands, Tokelau, Tonga and Samoa have obesity rates of over 50%! At 74.6%, nearly 3/4 of American Samoans are ‘obese’, though it isn’t clear from the website how this is defined.

Of course, many of the lowest obesity rates are observed in impoverished countries. Better-fed countries are clearly going to have higher incidences of obesity in their population. However, it is not completely obvious that countries that spend a little more of their income on healthcare are also ones that seem to have higher obesity rates.

4. Balance of Payments

Like each one of us, every country has a balance sheet of things that it produces and sells versus things that it buys from other countries and borrows. Like all of us, this balance might slip into a deficit at some points in time, but you would hope that it says above zero for the long haul, or there could be repercussions (imagine if we couldn’t afford to import electronics from China any more…). At the moment, the US and the UK are bottom of the pile at respective deficits of $360.7 billion and  $93.6 billion. At the opposite end of the spectrum lie Germany and China – two of the world’s manufacturing powerhouses. Each has a surplus – Germany with $257.1 billion and China with $182.8 billion. Quite a striking difference.


The graph is a little difficult to make out completely, but focus on the general shape if you can. You can see that the last three continents are all below 0 on the vertical axis. In other words, these continents are completely in debt. USA is the big negative purple bar, whilst the big green positive one is Germany. Europe and Africa are relatively balanced in terms of countries in debt vs surplus. Asia are clearly the big gainers, with China and Saudi Arabia leading the way, presumably due to manufactured goods and oil respectively. These magnitudes are not scaled by GDP, so keep in mind that large absolute debts and surpluses are going to represent wealthier countries in general. However, you can more or less see which regions won and lost out the most since the financial crisis in 2008.

That’s all for now. I just ran through some high-level relationships, but obviously there is far more to be inferred if you take the time to look deeper. If you are interested in making your own observations and more complex inferences, all the data can be found in the CIA World Factbook.