When American progressives dream their future vision of America, no place entices them more than the sparsely populated countries of Scandinavia. After all, here are countries that remain strongly democratic and successfully capitalist, yet appear to have done so despite enormously pervasive welfare systems.
Paul Krugman, the current high priest of progressive economics, approves of Sweden's high level of spending on benefits as an unadulterated economic plus. He says that Sweden, unlike other European states like France, thrives despite its high tax rate and notes that, while half of all children are born out of wedlock, those children have far less poverty than American children. Progressive pundit Richard Florida, for his part, claims that Sweden is the most creative place on Earth, just ahead of the U.S.
Some even suggest America should adopt wholesale the Scandinavian system as a policy imperative. The Washington Post praises Sweden as the "rock star" of the financial crisis and lists five ways the U.S. could learn from Sweden. ThinkProgress lauds Sweden's ability to achieve the world's highest rate of "social progress" despite a lower per capita income than the U.S. Writer David Dietz, contributor to PolicyMic, sees countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark as models that can guarantee both future economic growth and a way for America "to regain its global edge and cement its economic dominance."
But before we all go out drinking aquavit, shouting "skol" and dyeing our hair blonde, it makes sense to recognize that not only is relatively small, historically homogenous Scandinavia an ill-suited role mode for a megapower like the U.S., but that, in many ways, the Nordic system may be far more limited than its admirers here might acknowledge.
Of course, it's not that there's not something to learn from these or other countries. Certainly Europe's chilly corner seems in much better shape than the rest of the continental mess. Given today's circumstances, recent books extolling the EU as a model such as Stephen Hill's "Europe's Promise" or Jeremy Rifkin's "The European Dream" seem just slightly absurd.
But even those outside the Euro-destruct zone are not doing as well as widely asserted. Overall unemployment in Sweden, at 8.4 percent, is also higher than that of the U.S.
Even Norway is underperforming. The last quarter its GDP grew .3 percent, down from an expected .8 percent. As long as mainland Europe is gripped by negative growth and record unemployment, export-oriented Scandinavian countries will continue to struggle.
In addition, not all the reasons for Scandinavia's relative health are those that would warm the heart of U.S. progressives. These countries, led by Sweden, have reformed many aspects of their welfare state, including such things as labor laws, and reduced taxes in ways that make them more competitive – and far less egalitarian than in the past.
Another positive factor for Scandinavia lies in their exploitation of resources, something many progressives, notably green policy aficionados, tend to view with disdain. Sweden exports loads of iron ore to drive its economy and employs massive dams to drive hydropower, which accounts for 42.8 percent of their energy. Norway benefits from a gusher of oil and gas that, producing nearly 2 million barrels of oil per day, making it the 14th largest oil producer in the world despite having a population of 5 million. If anything, Norway can be a model socialist economy because its economic base resembles the Nordic enclave of North Dakota. Overall, the tiny country produces nearly 15 times as much oil per person than the U.S.
There's also the matter of scale. Demographically, Scandinavia's population is microscopic compared to our far vast multi-ethnic Republic. Taken together the four Scandinavian countries – Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – are home to barely 26 million people, far fewer than California and about the same as Texas. These hardy souls are widely dispersed. The population density of Norway and Finland is roughly half that of the U.S., while that of Sweden is one-third less.
Sweden, to put things in perspective, has fewer people than Los Angeles County. Norway and Finland are less populous than Minnesota, which is about the closest thing we have to Scandinavia. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, with 3.6 million residents, would be by far the biggest urban area in the region. Overall American Nordics, including those of mixed ancestry, total 11 million, more than the population of Sweden, by far the region's largest country.
Scandinavia's greatest strength may lie in its least political correct asset: its Nordic culture. Scandinavians' traditional interest in education, hard work and good governance serves them well both at home and abroad. It's not socialism that is primarily responsible.
After all, America's Scandinavians, although largely the descendents of poor immigrants also are pretty successful, earning more on average than their counterparts back home.
A Scandinavian economist, for example, once stated to Milton Friedman: "In Scandinavia, we have no poverty." To which the caustic Nobel Prize winner replied: "That's interesting, because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either." Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is only 6.7 percent, half the U.S. average which is on par with the poverty rate at home.
Yet these cultural attributes, notes Swedish based commentator Nima Sanandaji, now appear to be eroding in part because of rising immigration. Long highly homogeneous, the Nordic countries – notwithstanding their liberal kumbaya rhetoric – are facing huge problems absorbing immigrants. Despite populations that are more than 90 percent native, there is growing unease about concentrations of largely Muslim immigrants around large cities like Copenhagen, Malmo and Stockholm.
These immigrants are not doing remotely as well as those counterparts in the U.S. or Canada. Unemployment rates can reach as high as 80 percent among African and Middle Eastern immigrants in Scandinavia.
In May, there was a major riot in Stockholm's heavily Muslim, dense and highly planned inner suburbs. Many immigrants do not seem to embrace the Scandinavian ethos that having strong welfare system available does not mean people should take undue advantage of it.
More troubling still, notes Sanandaji, who is of Swedish-Kurdish ancestry, many young Scandinavians also seem to be rejecting the old Nordic social compact. Increasing numbers of people under 40 are retiring early, citing disabilities and sickness.
These trends point to serious problems for countries whose birthrates, despite widely praised natalist policies, are dropping and generally are below ours. With immigration growing ever more unpopular, further demographic decline in the Nordic countries seems inevitable.
As a result, the Scandinavian welfare state faces challenges arguably far worse than those here at home. The Bank of Finland, for example, warns that an aging population and large public debt would cause a "risk that Finland will drift onto a path of fading economic growth, persistently high unemployment and deteriorating public finance."
To be sure, America faces many of these same problems, but it seems silly to look for solutions in a region of the world that is not only fundamentally different but also faces equal, or even greater challenges. Rather than adopt solutions forged in the Nordic cold, American progressives would do better to hone their prescriptions to meet the illnesses of the very different patient here at home.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.