The Critic: So­ci­ol­o­gist Ge­orge Lakey ar­gues that the U.S. should ask, What would Scan­di­navia do?

Eco­nomic lessons from Scan­di­navia

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Peter Coy

We are not Den­mark,” Hil­lary Clin­ton said in a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate last year, in re­sponse to a Bernie San­ders mono­logue against “casino cap­i­tal­ism.” Then she said: “I love Den­mark. We are the United States of Amer­ica.” Well, sure, she’s got us there. But there’s a lot to love about Danes, as well as Swedes, Nor­we­gians, and Ice­landers, so­ci­ol­o­gist Ge­orge Lakey ar­gues in Vik­ing Economics: How the Scan­di­na­vians Got It Right— and How We Can, Too ($21.95; Melville House). As a rule, Scan­di­na­vians are an­noy­ingly clean, ef­fi­cient, and pub­lic-spir­ited. Ice­land, with the pop­u­la­tion of Pitts­burgh, has an air­line with di­rect flights to Or­lando. Copen­hagen is in­fested with bi­cy­cles. The area seems to have more crime nov­el­ists than crim­i­nals.

Lakey has been trav­el­ing to the re­gion since 1959, when he went to Oslo at 21 to woo a Nor­we­gian wo­man named Berit he’d met in the States. (They’re still mar­ried.) He’s a Quaker, a lefty po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, and a re­tired pro­fes­sor of “peace and con­flict stud­ies” who ad­mires Scan­di­na­vian na­tions with the zeal of a con­vert. He mar­vels at their in­come equal­ity and ap­pren­tice­ships, fem­i­nism and wind tur­bines, col­or­ful na­tive dress and high scores on the in­ter­na­tional hap­pi­ness in­dex. “I want the United States to ben­e­fit from the liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory that Nor­we­gians, Danes, Swedes, and Ice­landers have cre­ated, and I’m con­fi­dent that their ex­per­i­ments with egal­i­tar­i­an­ism can be in­spir­ing, use­ful, and ap­pli­ca­ble to Amer­i­cans,” he writes. “Which Amer­i­can cul­tural value is threat­ened by mod­ern­iz­ing our trans­porta­tion or elec­tri­cal grid?”

Backed by some per­sua­sive data, Lakey dis­putes the Re­pub­li­can rap that Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries are nanny states that prop up in­ef­fi­cient busi­nesses to pro­tect jobs. In­stead, he says, they prac­tice “flex­i­cu­rity”: Com­pa­nies are free to fire work­ers, and the govern­ment pro­vides in­come sup­port and re­train­ing to get them back on their feet. It’s ac­tu­ally a pretty good re­gion for do­ing busi­ness. Al­though Lakey doesn’t men­tion it, the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion in the U.S. re­ports that Den­mark’s reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment “re­mains one of the world’s most ef­fi­cient.”

What’s true, Lakey ad­mits, is that taxes in Scan­di­navia are high. Most peo­ple don’t mind pay­ing them, though, be­cause they feel as if they’re get­ting their money’s worth: “We won two elec­tions promis­ing not to lower taxes,” former Nor­we­gian Prime Min­is­ter Jens Stoltenber­g told the New York Times in 2011. The Scan­di­na­vian story would seem too good to be true but for the ir­refutable data: long life ex­pectan­cies, short work­weeks, nar­row gaps be­tween rich and poor, high rate of startup cre­ation, and top global rank­ings for press free­dom.

The most vex­ing prob­lem for this part of the world, he says, is cop­ing with all the peo­ple who want in. In most of Europe, waves of im­mi­gra­tion have pro­duced cul­tural fric­tion that has oc­ca­sion­ally be­come com­bustible, as in 2011, when a Nor­we­gian op­posed to Is­lamic in­flu­ence killed 77 peo­ple in Oslo. This pains Lakey. “Racism is a very per­sonal is­sue for Berit and me be­cause we twice adopted African-Amer­i­can ba­bies,” he writes. But he’s hope­ful. Al­though the Vik­ings raped and pil­laged, their de­scen­dants are con­tent to ex­er­cise the soft power of ideas. Af­ter the murders, he writes, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered in the rain to sing the Nor­we­gian trans­la­tion of a Pete Seeger song, My Rain­bow Race. Ap­par­ently, we have some­thing in com­mon af­ter all. <BW>

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