Bloomberg Businessweek (North America)

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

Economic lessons from Scandinavi­a

- 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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