Do we ever outgrow high school?
The furtive eyes cast to school desks left and right, reviewing classmates' red-penciled grades. The conversations over SAT scores. The talk of who might and might not get into their target college -- it all feels so long ago, and yet it seems the need to know "who's smartest" or "who's the best" never really goes away.
Last week, the entire world -- yes, literally -- was abuzz as the results of a new test were handed down. The Index of Economic Freedom is an annual report, jointly published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, that grades 157 countries worldwide on subjects such as protection of property rights, tax policy, red tape, and black markets. Although it's certain to attract derision from the habitants of the list's lower levels (after all, these are U.S. institutions handing down the grades), the winners and honorable mentions go nuts over the results each year.
Google the report's title and you'll find any number of foreign press clippings digesting the report's results, crowing in victory and sighing in despair over their grades. You'll find British tabloids exulting in beating the U.S. at its own capitalistic game, Hong Kong news outlets crowing: "We're No. 1" (and yes, they are), New Zealand periodicals lamenting their fall to ninth place, and Indians replying tearfully: "What are you complaining about? We lost to Benin."
Some of the year's more surprising results: Estonia continued to climb the ranks of the world's "free" economies, moving up seven slots to seventh place -- placing it squarely between Iceland and Denmark. Meanwhile, Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania remained stuck at "mostly free." China, still considered a "must-invest" country among many investors, remains "mostly unfree," and tied with Zambia for 111th place.
Less surprising: "Axis of evil" pals Iran and North Korea anchor the very bottom of the list, in 156th and 157th place, respectively, and were tagged with the dreaded "repressed" label.
On the investing front, it's worth noting that the rankings seem to have little effect on investor enthusiasm or stock prices. "Mostly unfree" China has been all the rage this year among investors, but it's also home to some miserably performing companies like China Automotive
Which just goes to show -- comparing grades is fun and all, but even bad grades won't keep a C student from becoming president.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any company mentioned above.