By Faiyge Grunfeld
All I can remember about my trip to Norway was that the 20-minute taxi ride cost 85 euro, and that the hotel beds were just about as wide as my shoulders. But somehow, Norway, along with its other Scandinavian brothers and sisters, is upheld by liberals as some kind of model utopia. And to conservatives, it is disparaged as communism incarnate, or just a few minutes away from the thing, with gulags and breadlines just around the corner. So, what’s the story with the Nordic nations? Are they really so awesome, or so repressive?
Of course they’re awesome. Scandinavia is home to the greatest historical horned-helmeted, beard-braided, terrifyingly terrifying warriors of all time. (Admittedly, part of this is actually a myth. Vikings did not really have horns in their helmets, and whether or not they wore braids is a topic of historical discussion. But they certainly were super terrifying.) It is also home to the coolest, cheapest, build-it-yourself furniture company the world has ever seen so that our husbands can justify owning a tool box. Definitely awesome. But here’s some of the really good stuff:
The Finns have the best education system, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); Icelanders buy the most books per person; the Danish have the lowest income disparity, live 1.5 years longer than Americans, and they also score highest on happiness indexes compared to other nations. Sounds impressive.
Although often lumped together, the Scandinavian nations have significant distinctions from each other, and, in the words of journalist Michael Booth, interact like a “fascinating dysfunctional family.” So, bearing in mind that although these nations share certain fundamentals, they all dance to their own twang, what is life like way up there in those bookish, icy, jolly, cyclist-peppered regions? And, is it a relevant model for the good old U.S. of A.?
The Nordic Model
The conceptual model embraced by Scandinavia favors a free market economy and low barriers to free trade, yet with a wide array of public services and a social safety net. The theory behind this is that the ease and openness of economic activity, and the consequential economic risk, is counteracted with collective initiatives and social programs. These include universal health care, free education, generous maternal/paternal leave, and hefty pensions for retirees.
In contrast to the American welfare system, the Nordic one does not redistribute wealth down the economic ladder, but rather, through democratic participation, creates universal public services which benefit everyone, not just the poor.
With regard to capitalism, Tage Erlander, prime minister of Sweden during the mid-1900s, claimed that “the market is a useful servant, but an intolerable master” — which encapsulates the Nordic effort to counteract the capricious thrashing of laissez-faire economics. Although it avoids heavy regulation, allows corporations to easily shed workers, and even privatizes some of its social services, the Nordic Model offers substantive unemployment as well as subsidized training programs, in addition to its various social services.
While corporate tax rates are shockingly lower than American ones, personal tax rates get quite hefty way up there. The Viking people seem content to pay them, because they all reap the benefits of these programs. Underlying this “welfare state” is the notion that if people’s basic needs are met, including education, health care, transportation and retirement, they can pursue their ambitions, and ultimately be more productive.
But tax rates have fluctuated in the Nordic paradise over the decades. Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking, was actually required to pay a 102 percent tax rate in 1976. Yes, this is baffling. She wrote a magnificent piece of political satire in the form of a fairytale which gained immediate attention and caused lawmakers to reform the tax code. Since then, the numbers have gotten more digestible.
Today’s taxes in the Northern ice-lands look like this:
Interestingly, the highest tax brackets in Norway are lower than the U.S.’s highest brackets, but still, Norway pulls in greater revenues, because of an important feature: the middle class. While in the U.S. the middle class finds itself in lower tax brackets, in the Nordic countries, there is a flat tax, which means once you hit just above the average income, you begin to pay the full tax requirement. So if you live in Denmark and make about $50,000, an average income, any additional income would be taxed at 60 percent. In the U.S., people only reach the highest brackets of taxation if they are earning well above the median income.
When it comes to corporate taxes, the Scandinavians are pretty conservative, which gives pause to wonder how Sanders supporters would feel about the following chart, with multi-million-dollar corporations sailing by at 20-percent rates … Wonder what their “Occupy Wall Street” looks like over there…
What else about the Nordics? Their education systems perform well and seem to produce steady results across different socio-economic groups (although these aren’t really very varied up there). Government transparency is commonplace, spending numbers are constantly published and politicians held to high standards. Limousine-driven bureaucrats are pelted with the proverbial tomato. Taxes do not require accountants, lawyer-brains, and mountains of paper, just five minutes and the appropriate program. College is completely free (although rent, food and the necessary beer to accompany a reading of The Communist Manifesto are not). Social equality, in addition to economic equality, is a hallmark, along with pickled herring and aged lutefish.
Bicycles are more dominant than cars, environmentalism is a regional project, and green initiatives are as plentiful as blond heads. Crime rates are low, most likely because there aren’t enough criminals willing to brave the cold to commit crimes, and prison systems are admired for their rehabilitation rates and humane conditions. Their road safety stats are admirable, probably because no one actually drives, and oh, they consume an astonishing amount of organic root vegetables.
Problems in Paradise
So, perfectly perfect? British journalist Michael Booth spent a few years traipsing about the region trying to answer that very question. He found what to criticize. The Danish may be cheery, but some of that is artificially-induced, due to their being the highest consumers of anti-depressants. They also top the inebriation charts, and are noteworthy for their sugar consumption. The number one cause of death among male Finns is alcoholism. The Norwegians may be proud of their environmental efforts, but they also produce more than a million barrels of oil a day. A Dane works 200 hours less a year compared to his average European counterpart.
Booth finds their social conformity and general “sameness” a bit oppressive, and notes how human eccentricities and oddities have little room to flourish there (being British, this must be especially tough on Booth…). As for their income inequality, journalist Andrew Brown noted how when Sweden’s prime minister and Social Democratic Party leader, Olof Palme, died in the 1980s, “he left a country where no one was poor and no one had room for optimism.” Booth expounds on this point: “[I]n eradicating social ills, the Social Democratic Party also smothered its people’s motivation, ambition and spirit.” (Not that this is a reason to allow social inequality to flourish, but it’s an interesting point nonetheless.)
As for their friendliness barometer, Booth’s not quick to give them high points. “There is a kind of isolationist tendency in these people. When they’re out and about, they don’t like to make eye contact, they don’t want to chat. … To outsiders, they can seem very rude, very locked in, almost autistic.”
Regardless of their faults, the Scandinavians have certainly created an impressive social, political and economic structure, with low rates of poverty, healthy, robust economies, and general social cohesion. So why not for America?
Perhaps one of the fundamental differences between Americans and Scandinavians is, as articulated in a book by Christina Robinowitz and Lisa Werner Carr, that “the American wants the freedom to do, and the Swede wants the freedom to be.”
Through shared risk and government services and safety nets, the Scandinavian is assured a steady, predictable life-trajectory, albeit with less potential to define himself. The American prefers his risk and his potential. Inequality is somewhat necessary for the American model. Scandinavian ability to equate busboys, cardiac surgeons and federal politicians is somewhat disheartening to the American, squelching his moxie.
America is historically more economically cut-throat and deeply resentful of taxation. Despite conservative horror at the Sanderites and the far left, the truth is that even Californian liberals are pretty moderate for the Scandinavians, and the Bern himself would probably get hot-under-the-collar at some of the progressive taxes and notions flowing from the Viking homelands. This should give comfort to those traditional souls out there who despair over our peace-loving, speech-hating, multicultural-loving, responsibility-hating youth. They chant a paltry tune compared to most Western-world progressives.
So is it transplantable? Probably not. Because believe it or not, America is pretty conservative. Relatively speaking.
While Booth may despair of Scandinavian homogeneity, the Nordic nations’ quirk-free social cohesion and mono-ethnicity have fed into the success of their social democratic experiment. Because most citizens share history, culture, and even blood, stemming from intimate agricultural families, they are more content to vote for policies that service their neighbors. Work ethic and public trust predate the advent of the Scandinavian miracle. You can’t quite import those.
After considering America’s complex mosaic of cultures and ethnic groups, as well as the sheer size of our population, the leftist holler for this particular utopia can only subside to a half-hearted whimper, with just the most quixotic of the crowd keeping up the cry. What a bunch of fair-skinned nations of 5 million do is hardly applicable to a white, black, and everything-in-between nation of over 300 million.
In his 2015 book, Nima Sanandaji, a Swede himself, argues that Nordic success is rooted in something much more intangible than economic and tax policy. Sanandaji actually demonstrates how the Scandinavian miracle was already underway before the welfare state was established. “Everything that Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and other leading Democrats admire about Nordic countries already existed in the middle of the 20th century, when these societies had small public sectors and low taxes.”
To those who claim it is the generous social services which have bolstered the region’s economies, Sanandaji responds that there are many average, and even unsuccessful nations practicing wealth-redistribution and high government spending. “Why not bring up Italy or France?” who also have significant safety nets. He further notes how over the past few decades, Scandinavians have been trimming their taxes and “returning to their free market roots.”
His point: The Scandinavian miracle springs from its history and culture, not its social democracy. Economist Tino Sanandaji, Nima’s brother, expands on this. “American scholars who write about the success of the Scandinavian welfare states in the postwar period tend to be remarkably uninterested in Scandinavia’s history prior to that period. Scandinavia was likely the most egalitarian part of Europe even before the modern era. For example, it … never developed full-scale feudalism and never reduced its farmers to serfdom.” Perhaps social and economic equality are native to the Nordics, regardless of their specific policies.
While there are many who debate the Sanandaji viewpoint, one concern has certainly crystallized for many lovers and haters of the Scandinavian way. Sustainability is going to be quite a project. For the Nordic model to succeed, a large, young taxpaying base and a small, elderly service-receiving base is ideal. As you can imagine, the reverse is actually the case. With a large aging population and a shrinking working population, the Scandinavians are up for some tough times, as all their social programs feel the death grip of debt.
Another issue besieging the Vikings is their influx of immigrants who are often poverty-stricken, and who do not have historical experience with making decisions to benefit the collective. Immigration alone is not to blame. Many young Scandinavians are making a hammock out of the nation’s comfy safety net, again reflecting that this model can only thrive with strong work ethic. A study revealed that young Swedes are 20 percent more likely to take advantage of sick leave benefits than their older counterparts. With more and more people receiving benefits and fewer and fewer working, we don’t need an MIT mathematician to tally the numbers.
Paring away political rhetoric and myopic mindsets, let’s answer these honestly: Is Viking life good? Yep. Is it replicable? Maybe. Can it happen in America? Probably not. Will it ultimately bankrupt itself? Certainly.
Which is why Nordic economic policy has been moving to the right.
But still, “Scandimania” grips many an American, who dreams of white-blanketed skiing, magnificent fjords, endless consumption of beer and fish, prime ministers and janitors who both ride bikes, casual work hours, and overall jolly good cheer. Try beating that with dreary talk of stats and sustainability.