The Scandinavian Model

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Nathan Heller took a closer look at the Scandinavian Model in The New Yorker Magazine February Issue this year, and asks if Scandinavians have it all figured out.

He begins by describing a Swedish couple; he a retired artist wearing fancy clothes and receiving his pension, his wife, a neurosurgeon who never have paid a krona in tuition. The government gives them, among other welfare benefits, a combined four hundred and eighty days of maternity and paternity leave for every child.

Swedish welfare
Swedish welfare

When it comes to design and innovation Heller mention Danish lamps and wind power, and IKEA, while Norway has been No. 1 on the Legatum Prosperity Index for years.

Gender equality in Norway
Gender equality in Norway

Sweden, once known for ABBA and dispiriting blue films has turned into the homeland of H&M and literary mysteries.

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In 2012 Denmark took first place in the United Nations’ inaugural World Happiness Report, having topped similar surveys for decades. It prompted Michael Booth to write his book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”. Daily Scandinavian interviewed him in Copenhagen just days after the American release of his book..

Michael Booth by Tor Kjolberg
Michael Booth by Tor Kjolberg

Scandinavia’s current social model is new. Denmark began offering a state benefits program to old people only in 1891. Norway launched insurance for industrial accidents a few years later, and by the postwar years the modern Nordic welfare state had its distinctive form. The model, crucially, interprets “welfare” to mean not just financial capacity but well-being.

Gunnar Myrdal
Gunnar Myrdal

In his 1957 study “Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions” the Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal suggests that the Scandinavian-style model is not only good social policy but smart economics. Myrdal’s thinking was shaped by years he spent studying the plight of black people in the United States. His best-known work is “An American Dilemma” (1944).

The per-capita divorce rate in Scandinavia is notably high, which, depending on your notions about marriage, is either a healthy or an unhealthy sign. Gender equality in Denmark is so deeply rooted that it startles even some enlightened American women.

Rich vs poor test by activist group on city bus in Sweden
Rich vs poor test by activist group on city bus in Sweden

In recent years, however, a strange thing has been happening in Nordic countries: they’ve been getting more unequal. Inequality has risen in Sweden. Something has been leaking through a system that’s supposed to be the tightest in the world.

Of all the complaints that non-Scandinavians have about their northern cousins, perhaps the most persistent is the idea that they are beset by sameness, but much of Scandinavia has been getting less homogeneous in recent years, while its inequality has been increasing.

Henning Finseraas
Henning Finseraas

On paper, however, the model stands – so far. A recent study by the Norwegian political scientist Henning Finseraas tried to correlate immigration politics in Europe with stances on inequality policies and found no obvious relationship; some people resented immigrants, but they didn’t necessarily see that as cause to scale back welfare.

Christer Gerdes
Christer Gerdes

 

Eskil Wadensjö
Eskil Wadesjö

“Integration” has become a watchword in Scandinavian ethnic politics more generally. It underscores the social and economic pressures to join the Scandinavian pack, the common turf where its supportive, all-embracing system thrives.

Nathan Heller questions if the Nordic model is adaptable to the US conservative social ideals.

“Like many Enlightenment-born nations,” he writes, “we declared our principles at the start—liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness—and trusted that any friction among these ideas would be sorted out, eventually, in the churn of civic life. The trust continues. Progress is slow. While Nordic people have made the best of what they have, Americans persist in gambling on something better, and yet settling for something worse”.

Nordic life falls short of the Americans’ most vaunted ideals, yet in the end draws very close. “It is almost nearly perfect,” to cite William Booth again, and perhaps that’s good enough.

The Scandinavian Model, condensed by Tor Kjolberg