The Nordic Theory of Everything
by Anu Partanen
Before reading this book review, the reader may wish to have a look at our page "The World's Leading Counties". There it will quickly be seen that Finland leads the world in two especially crucial metrics: happiness and longevity. We don't address the topics there, but Finland also leads the world in educational attainment and, very probably, even personal freedom.
Everything considered, this probably makes Finland the world's most advanced society. Partanen's book explains how this relatively resource-poor country was able to do so incredibly much with so very little. And that makes it one of the very most important books that anyone can read. In fact, we've included it in our canon of just four most essential books.
Dispelling the Myths
The purpose of the nominally "main stream" American mass media is by no means to inform. It is, rather, to disinform; and it has been incredibly, and shamefully, successful in doing so for decades. There are few topics concerning which they've done a more comprehensive job of misleading Americans than democratic socialism in general, and what has been achieved by the "Nordic Model" in particular. This means that a big part of what Partanen has to do in her book is correct all of the many absurd misconceptions that Americans have concerning so-called "nanny states". This is, of course, no small task. (The US, it should be pointed out, is a true nanny state - it coddles its billionaires and their corporations beyond belief, even allowing them to pay lower taxes than the poor, and permitting its corporations to pay no taxes at all in many cases.)
Speaking of taxes, ideally, Partanen should probably have begun the book with Chapter Six, Of Us, By Us, and For Us, where she addresses that topic. Taxation is the stick that the neo-liberal (neo-fascist) mass media have beat the Nordic states with above all. But here's the truth: "Finns pay income taxes and employee contributions at a rate only about 6 percentage points higher than the rate paid by average Americans, while average Swedes pay less than average Americans."
To say this, however, is still misleading, though not in the way a reader might expect. The real question is: what is the total outlay for a typical basket of expenses? Since the Nordic countries cover many significant costs for their citizens like day care and health care, these aren't the out-of-pocket budget-busters that they are in the US. Though it's hard to fully compare apples to apples, it may well be that citizens in Nordic countries come out ahead in terms of real discretionary income.
Some representative quotes:
"In this country [the US] you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don't have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry."
"The results of the UNICEF study put Finaland's child poverty rate at less than 5 percent, the lowest of all rich countries. By contrast, the child poverty rate in the United States comes close to a shocking 25 percent - nearly a quarter of the entire population of children. Out of all the countries that UNICEF surveyed, the United States was actually next to last. Only Romania fared worse."
[Note: abortion has become a highly politicized and universally discussed issue. But the state of child povery is virtually unknown in the US and is never discussed.]
Finland's tremendous successes in educating its populace have been attributed by the corporate media to ethnic uniformity and its small size. However, ethnic uniformity is increasingly a thing of the past, yet academic performance, as measured by the PISA organization, has nevertheless been maintained. Partanen notes: "Unlike Finland, Norway has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish, using standardized tests and teachers who have received less rigorous training. The result? Mediocre performance on the PISA survey. Educational policies like Finland's, Abrams suggests, are probably more important to the success of a country's school system than a nation's size or ethnic makeup."
"In the Nordic countries, citizens know much more clearly what it is they are paying taxes for. . . . Nordic policies are designed and executed for the explicit universal goal of creating a society of well-being for everyone. I have never felt ashamed about participating in a system that so clearly creates equity - and, crucially, that so cleary lets people succeed on their own merits as a result. This makes the American critique of the supposed horrors of the European model strange. From a Nordic point of view, it's the current American approach that creates relationships of dependency. In Finland the goal is not to subsidize certain people or groups, but to equalize the basic support structure across the broad expanse of society."
". . .the Nordic middle class is not getting a free ride. Nordic citizens themselves pay for the services they get. Apart from Norway's oil and gas, there are no pots of gold showering Nordic citizens with unearned wealth, and neither are there evil communists robbing the rich of their due. The Nordic countries demonstrate that buildng strong public services can create economic growth, and that pooling the risks everyone faces in life - sickness, unemployment, old age, the need to be educated to secure a decent living - into one system funded by everyone is more efficient, and more effective, than each person saving individually to ensure security and survive misfortune, especially in today's age of global economic uncertainty and competition."
". . .Americans often assume that ordinary Nordic citizens pay somehting like 70 percent of all their income in taxes. That is not true. Yes, Sweden's top marginal tax rate was at that level back in the 1980s, but those rates have fallen significantly since then, and they never applied to anyone's total income, only to income above a certain high threshold."
"Once again, all this talk of tax rates is mostly meaningless unless we spell out what people get in return for their money. The very high-quality and reliable services that Nordic citizens get in return for their taxes - including: universal public health care, affordable day care, universal free education, generous sick pay, year-long paid parental leaves, pensions, and the like - can easily incur additional tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in after-tax expenses for Americans. Bottom line: For middle-class people, the amount of disposable income you end up with in the United States versus in a Nordic country can be very similar in the end, or even turn out to be a better deal in a Nordic country."
"Overall the secret to Nordic success is not complicated. Nordic societies have simply taken the job of government seriously. They make mistakes and have their troubles, but they keep tweaking their systems in search of improvements, and they work hard to balance the books. They prove that there is nothing inherent in government that automatically makes it less efficient for arranging social services than the private sector."
Now, even readers who aren't especially well-informed can probably already see that the United States, among all of the nominally advanced western countries, is farthest from what the Finns have adopted as their core political ideal of egalitarianism. It is perhaps the greatest irony of all that the so-called "American" dream of achieving economic prosperity is today harder to achieve in the US than in any other "advanced" nation. And student debt is a dead giveaway concerning the true nature of America. The businessmen who actually run the country clearly don't want an educated populace; rather, they strongly favor ignorance, apparently regarding this as being in their own best interest. But an educated populace is not only essential to remaining economically competitive, and to having a functioning democracy, it is also an immensely valuable end in and of itself. While it's true that uneducated individuals are mere eloi, to be exploited all their lives economically, they are also immensely impoverished individuals in a very fundamental way; and studies have shown that they will even live shorter lives.
In the US, greater economic resources flow to schools attended by the well-to-do. In Finland, by contrast, resources flow to schools attended by the least well-off.
There is also no student debt.
Partanen's book lays out the most definitive blueprint available for societal success. The numbers don't lie. To bring that success to America will require a sea-change in US politics. The time to begin making those changes is now.