The Most Powerful Economies in the World, According to GDP

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Numbers Don't Lie" by Vaclav Smil. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the most economically successful countries in the world? Does the GDP of a country accurately reflect its standard of living?

The top three countries by GDP—the United States, China, and Japan—seem to thrive on the surface. However, a closer inspection tells a different story: High GDP doesn’t necessarily translate into a high standard of living.

Here’s a closer look at the most powerful economies in the world.

The United States

Smil points out that the US isn’t as exceptional as many think. Though it’s an economic powerhouse, the US is profoundly lacking when measuring the prosperity of its people. Its infant mortality rate, as mentioned above, sits at 6, which ranks 33rd out of 36 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This can largely be attributed to the country’s lack of universal healthcare, which every other wealthy nation has. Furthermore, out of the 36 OECD nations, the US ranks first in obesity percentage and 28th in life expectancy. 

Additional Factors GDP Doesn’t Account For

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson highlights some of the other ways the US’s high GDP also doesn’t capture important quality-of-life factors: 

The US has more mass shootings than any other nation, leading in both gun ownership and gun deaths. The US has the highest incarceration percentage of any country, with over 2.2 million people incarcerated. Among wealthy nations, the US not only has the highest infant mortality rate but the highest mortality rate of women during pregnancy and childbirth.


Japan saw a tremendous rise in economic and social prosperity in the 20th century, but Smil argues that the country is declining rapidly for a number of reasons. 

After World War II, Japan quickly grew to be a global powerhouse. In 1978, Japan became the world’s second-largest economy and continued to flourish throughout the 80s. By 2000, however, Japan’s stock market was half of its 1990 peak, and many of its strongest companies struggled to remain profitable.

Though it still has a low infant mortality rate and good standard of living, there are concerns that Japan will continue to decline in the 21st century. Japan has had to deal with the increasing costs of natural disasters like the 2011 tsunami, and its relations with China and South Korea are worsening. Perhaps most worrying, however, is Japan’s population, which is expected to drop from 127 million to 97 million by 2050. With an aging society, it will be difficult to maintain Japan’s construction, transportation, and healthcare infrastructure.

Japan’s Decline

One expert points to Japan as a leading illustration of modern economic failure, largely because its tax revenues have dropped and its public debt has drastically increased. The combination of decreasing GDP and increasing debt could very well be setting Japan up for an economic collapse.

On top of its aging population, Japan also has one of the strictest immigration policies among wealthy nations. Unlike the US, Japan doesn’t have an influx of young immigrants helping to keep the average age low and population growth steady. Even if the Japanese government does open up its doors to immigrants, it may be too late, because migration is slowing down worldwide as global prosperity increases and people prefer to stay in their home countries. 


China, undoubtedly one of the most powerful economies in the world, has grown tremendously in the past 40 years. However, Smil questions its ability to maintain this growth in the coming decades. Even as its GDP has grown to rival the United States, the average quality of life for Chinese citizens is far from ideal. Its per capita GDP by purchasing power parity ranks 73rd in the world. 

Like Japan, China also faces the risks of an aging population, and its economy may not grow quickly enough to make up for it. Its percentage of economically active people peaked in 2010. As the country’s average age increases, its dominant manufacturing and industrial economies are expected to decline without enough young labor to support its growth.

(Shortform note: In addition to a general slowing of economic growth, China’s response to the global pandemic and weakening real estate market severely damaged its economy, and some experts question whether China can continue to grow at its rapid pre-pandemic pace. Historically, China has relied on its property sector, which accounts for around a quarter of its GDP, to drive recovery after an economic downturn. Covid-19 restrictions, however, are preventing this, as new construction projects are being put on hold. By the time construction picks back up, it may be too little too late for the Chinese economy.) 

Another factor impacting the well-being of China’s citizens is pollution, which has become a huge problem as the country has grown economically, says Smil. Air quality falls well below health standards in its biggest cities: Beijing averaged 80 particulates per cubic meter of air in 2015, over three times the World Health Organization’s maximum acceptable level of 25. Some Chinese cities regularly exceed 500 particulates per cubic meter. This extreme pollution is expected to increase respiratory and heart disease and decrease expected lifespans.

(Shortform note: A 2017 study quantified how much air pollution is decreasing life expectancy in China. This study found that people in northern China live an average of 3.1 fewer years than those living in the south. With air pollution 46% higher in northern China, these findings imply that every additional 10 micrograms of particulate matter pollution reduce life expectancy by 0.6 years. According to researchers, this data indicates that air pollution is currently the greatest environmental risk to human health.)

The Most Powerful Economies in the World, According to GDP

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  • How you can understand the world by understanding numbers and statistics
  • Why the infant mortality rate is a better indicator of standard of living than GDP per capita
  • Why nuclear energy is not the answer to sustainability

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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