Thursday, November 12, 2015

I Heart Denmark Somewhat

I would like to belatedly weigh-in on the Democratic debate before last.

During the debate, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Senator Bernie Sanders if he thought America would ever elect a self-identified socialist as president. Sanders defined and defended democratic socialism adding, "I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed that we should reign-in capitalism's excesses, but balked at celebrating these Scandinavian nations as a model. "We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America."

In my self-appointed role of patriotism ombudsman, I have to correct Clinton.

One of the things that makes our nation great is that we adopt people from all over the world and they become a part of us. Part and parcel of that is we also adopt ideas from all over and make them our own. Clinton's implication was that the Scandinavian model is inherently un-American. But as
Robert Reich argued in the documentary Inequality for All, we can look to our past to find a successful strategy for fighting economic inequality - namely FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society. The difference is Scandinavia kept doing what we stopped doing.

As I wrote in my book, these ideas have precedents dating back to our founding fathers. Thomas Paine devised a social security program. Benjamin Franklin advocated a form of affirmative action for freed slaves as well as capping wealth. Thomas Jefferson recommended progressive taxation to resist aristocracy and had no problem with government intervening in the market. That is why I call some of these founders "proto-socialists" - because their ideas influenced later socialist thought. As I wrote, "It seems that the seed of 'creeping socialism' was in our soil from the very start. In fact, it was actually a native plant that we introduced to Europe, much like the potato or the tomato." Accordingly, John Adams complained, "Too many Frenchmen, after the example of too many Americans, pant for equality of persons and property."(1)

The upshot of this debate exchange is renewed interest in a book titled The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. The author,
Michael Booth (who I will try to avoid calling Michael Bluth), is a Brit who has lived in Scandinavia for over a decade. (I am now trying to imagine a "Little Britain" in Copenhagen.) The Nordic countries have been sweeping the World Happiness Report rankings in recent years, and he wanted to show that they have their problems too. Of course, anyone who has tried to assemble IKEA furniture already knows this. Levity aside, there is racism, homophobia, and other problems there too. A gay friend of mine was attacked while traveling in Norway. People's reactions were both eye-opening and saddening.

Needless to say, conservatives have pounced on Booth's book and oversimplified the thesis. For example, i
n this video, the Wall Street Journal interviewer tries to suggest Scandinavia's generous social programs poison entrepreneurship, but Booth shoots that down by saying it is actually a great place to start a business and rattles off a list of Scandinavian brands that are familiar household names in the States.

Booth's point is that Scandinavia is not perfect and certainly not deliriously happy. It is odd to say countries with so much Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are the "happiest in the world." But Bernie Sanders is not talking about copying their climate, which of course we cannot. Booth identifies some economic problems. For example, he argues that the flip side of working shorter hours is lower productivity. But many of his book's criticisms are cultural and have nothing to do with socialism. People are people, and you are going to have assholes under even the most enlightened and generous governments.

Booth has always found things to praise about Scandinavia, which may explain why he chooses to live there. (Well, that and his wife is Danish, but he admits it is quite comfortable there.)(2) Note the end of this interview in The Washington Post's Wonk Blog:

INTERVIEWER: You emphasize, in the end, that there is a lot that we can learn from the Nordic countries. What is one of the best lessons?

BOOTH: At least aim for economic and gender equality. Everyone benefits, so it’s worth a shot, no?

I think Bernie Sanders is already on board with that program.


(1) John Adams, Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1850-56) 9:564. Adams has some specific Americans in mind. 

(2) This is not to suggest that Michael Booth cannot be a little obnoxious sometimes - something he cheerfully admits. He clarifies that his book is a bit more nuanced than his original piece for the Guardian adding, "Some mistook this for a UK v Scandinavia piece. Not at all. I live in Denmark and, for the moment, I would not want to live anywhere else. As long, that is, as they let me stay."

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