No, Scandinavian countries aren’t parasites. They’re just… better.

Oct 1, JDN 2457663

If you’ve been reading my blogs for awhile, you likely have noticed me occasionally drop the hashtag #ScandinaviaIsBetter; I am in fact quite enamored of the Scandinavian (or Nordic more generally) model of economic and social policy.

But this is not a consensus view (except perhaps within Scandinavia itself), and I haven’t actually gotten around to presenting a detailed argument for just what it is that makes these countries so great.

I was inspired to do this by discussion with a classmate of mine (who shall remain nameless) who emphatically disagreed; he actually seems to think that American economic policy is somewhere near optimal (and to be fair, it might actually be near optimal, in the broad space of all possible economic policies—we are not Maoist China, we are not Somalia, we are not a nuclear wasteland). He couldn’t disagree with the statistics on how wealthy and secure and happy Scandinavian countries are, so instead he came up with this: “They are parasites.”

What he seemed to mean by this is that somehow Scandinavian countries achieve their success by sapping wealth from other countries, perhaps the rest of Europe, perhaps the world more generally. On this view, it’s not that Norway and Denmark aren’t rich because they economic policy basically figured out; no, they are somehow draining those riches from elsewhere.

This could scarcely be further from the truth.

But first, consider a couple of countries that are parasites, at least partially: Luxembourg and Singapore.

Singapore has an enormous trade surplus: 5.5 billion SGD per month, which is $4 billion per month, so almost $50 billion per year. They also have a positive balance of payments of $61 billion per year. Singapore’s total GDP is about $310 billion, so these are not small amounts. What does this mean? It means that Singapore is taking in a lot more money than they are spending out. They are effectively acting as mercantilists, or if you like as a profit-seeking corporation.

Moreover, Singapore is totally dependent on trade: their exports are over $330 billion per year, and their imports are over $280 billion. You may recognize each of these figures as comparable to the entire GDP of the country. Yes, their total trade is 200% of GDP. They aren’t really so much a country as a gigantic trading company.

What about Luxembourg? Well, they have a trade deficit of 420 million Euros per month, which is about $560 million per year. Their imports total about $2 billion per year, and their exports about $1.5 billion. Since Luxembourg’s total GDP is $56 billion, these aren’t unreasonably huge figures (total trade is about 6% of GDP); so Luxembourg isn’t a parasite in the sense that Singapore is.

No, what makes Luxembourg a parasite is the fact that 36% of their GDP is due to finance. Compare the US, where 12% of our GDP is finance—and we are clearly overfinancialized. Over a third of Luxembourg’s income doesn’t involve actually… doing anything. They hold onto other people’s money and place bets with it. Even insofar as finance can be useful, it should be only very slightly profitable, and definitely not more than 10% of GDP. As Stiglitz and Krugman agree (and both are Nobel Laureate economists), banking should be boring.

Do either of these arguments apply to Scandinavia? Let’s look at trade first. Denmark’s imports total about 42 billion DKK per month, which is about $70 billion per year. Their exports total about $90 billion per year. Denmark’s total GDP is $330 billion, so these numbers are quite reasonable. What are their main sectors? Manufacturing, farming, and fuel production. Notably, not finance.

Similar arguments hold for Sweden and Norway. They may be small countries, but they have diversified economies and strong production of real economic goods. Norway is probably overly dependent on oil exports, but they are specifically trying to move away from that right now. Even as it is, only about $90 billion of their $150 billion exports are related to oil, and exports in general are only about 35% of GDP, so oil is about 20% of Norway’s GDP. Compare that to Saudi Arabia, of which has 90% of its exports related to oil, accounting for 45% of GDP. If oil were to suddenly disappear, Norway would lose 20% of their GDP, dropping their per-capita GDP… all the way to the same as the US. (Terrifying!) But Saudi Arabia would suffer a total economic collapse, and their per capita-GDP would fall from where it is now at about the same as the US to about the same as Greece.

And at least oil actually does things. Oil exporting countries aren’t parasites so much as they are drug dealers. The world is “rolling drunk on petroleum”, and until we manage to get sober we’re going to continue to need that sweet black crude. Better we buy it from Norway than Saudi Arabia.

So, what is it that makes Scandinavia so great? Why do they have the highest happiness ratings, the lowest poverty rates, the best education systems, the lowest unemployment rates, the best social mobility and the highest incomes? To be fair, in most of these not literally every top spot is held by a Scandinavian country; Canada does well, Germany does well, the UK does well, even the US does well. Unemployment rates in particular deserve further explanation, because a lot of very poor countries report surprisingly low unemployment rates, such as Cambodia and Laos.

It’s also important to recognize that even great countries can have serious flaws, and the remnants of the feudal system in Scandinavia—especially in Sweden—still contribute to substantial inequality of wealth and power.

But in general, I think if you assembled a general index of overall prosperity of a country (or simply used one that already exists like the Human Development Index), you would find that Scandinavian countries are disproportionately represented at the very highest rankings. This calls out for some sort of explanation.

Is it simply that they are so small? They are certainly quite small; Norway and Denmark each have fewer people than the core of New York City, and Sweden has slightly more people than the Chicago metropolitan area. Put them all together, add in Finland and Iceland (which aren’t quite Scandinavia), and all together you have about the population of the New York City Combined Statistical Area.

But some of the world’s smallest countries are also its poorest. Samoa and Kiribati each have populations comparable to the city of Ann Arbor and per-capita GDPs 1/10 that of the US. Eritrea is the same size as Norway, and 70 times poorer. Burundi is slightly larger than Sweden, and has a per-capita GDP PPP of only $3.14 per day.

There’s actually a good statistical reason to expect that the smallest countries should vary the most in their incomes; you’re averaging over a smaller sample so you get more variance in the estimate. But this doesn’t explain why Norway is rich and Eritrea is poor. Incomes aren’t assigned randomly. This might be a reason to try comparing Norway to specifically New York City or Los Angeles rather than to the United States as a whole (Norway still does better, in case you were wondering—especially compared to LA); but it’s not a reason to say that Norway’s wealth doesn’t really count.

Is it because they are ethnically homogeneous? Yes, relatively speaking; but perhaps not as much as you imagine. 14% of Sweden’s population is immigrants, of which 64% are from outside the EU. 10% of Denmark’s population is comprised of immigrants, of which 66% came from non-Western countries. Immigrants are 13% of Norway’s population, of which half are from non-Western countries.

That’s certainly more ethnically homogeneous than the United States; 13% of our population is immigrants, which may sound comparable, but almost all non-immigrants in Scandinavia are of indigenous Nordic descent, all “White” by the usual classification. Meanwhile the United States is 64% non-Hispanic White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 1% Native American or Pacific Islander.

Scandinavian countries are actually by some measures less homogeneous than the US in terms of religion, however; only 4% of Americans are not Christian (78.5%), atheist (16.1%), or Jewish (1.7%), and only 0.6% are Muslim. As much as In Sweden, on the other hand, 60% of the population is nominally Lutheran, but 80% is atheist, and 5% of the population is Muslim. So if you think of Christian/Muslim as the sharp divide (theologically this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to be the cultural norm in vogue), then Sweden has more religious conflict to worry about than the US does.

Moreover, there are some very ethnically homogeneous countries that are in horrible shape. North Korea is almost completely ethnically homogeneous, for example, as is Haiti. There does seem to be a correlation between higher ethnic diversity and lower economic prosperity, but Canada and the US are vastly more diverse than Japan and South Korea yet significantly richer. So clearly ethnicity is not the whole story here.

I do think ethnic homogeneity can partly explain why Scandinavian countries have the good policies they do; because humans are tribal, ethnic homogeneity engenders a sense of unity and cooperation, a notion that “we are all in this together”. That egalitarian attitude makes people more comfortable with some of the policies that make Scandinavia what it is, which I will get into at the end of this post.

What about culture? Is there something about Nordic ideas, those Viking traditions, that makes Scandinavia better? Miles Kimball has argued this; he says we need to import “hard work, healthy diets, social cohesion and high levels of trust—not Socialism”. And truth be told, it’s hard to refute this assertion, since it’s very difficult to isolate and control for cultural variables even though we know they are important.

But this difficulty in falsification is a reason to be cautious about such a hypothesis; it should be a last resort when all the more testable theories have been ruled out. I’m not saying culture doesn’t matter; it clearly does. But unless you can test it, “culture” becomes a theory that can explain just about anything—which means that it really explains nothing.

The “social cohesion and high levels of trust” part actually can be tested to some extent—and it is fairly well supported. High levels of trust are strongly correlated with economic prosperity. But we don’t really need to “import” that; the US is already near the top of the list in countries with the highest levels of trust.

I can’t really disagree with “good diet”, except to say that almost everywhere eats a better diet than the United States. The homeland of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola is frankly quite dystopian when it comes to rates of heart disease and diabetes. Given our horrible diet and ludicrously inefficient healthcare system, the only reason we live as long as we do is that we are an extremely rich country (so we can afford to pay the most for healthcare, for certain definitions of “afford”), and almost no one here smokes anymore. But good diet isn’t so much Scandinavian as it is… un-American.

But as for “hard work”, he’s got it backwards; the average number of work hours per week is 33 in Denmark and Norway, compared to 38 in the US. Among full-time workers in the US, the average number of hours per week is a whopping 47. Working hours in the US are much more intensive than anywhere in Europe, including Scandinavia. Though of course we are nowhere near the insane work addiction suffered by most East Asian countries; lately South Korea and Japan have been instituting massive reforms to try to get people to stop working themselves to death. And not surprisingly, work-related stress is a leading cause of death in the United States. If anything, we need to import some laziness, or at least a sense of work-life balance. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure that the only reason he said “hard work” is that it’s a cultural Applause Light in the US; being against hard work is like being against the American Flag or homemade apple pie. At this point, “we need more hard work” isn’t so much an assertion as it is a declaration of tribal membership.)

But none of these things adequately explains why poverty and inequality is so much lower in Scandinavia than it is in the United States, and there’s really a quite simple explanation.

Why is it that #ScandinaviaIsBetter? They’re not afraid to make rich people pay higher taxes so they can help poor people.

In the US, this idea of “redistribution of wealth” is anathema, even taboo; simply accusing a policy of being “redistributive” or “socialist” is for many Americans a knock-down argument against that policy. In Denmark, “socialist” is a meaningful descriptor; some policies are “socialist”, others “capitalist”, and these aren’t particularly weighted terms; it’s like saying here that a policy is “Keynesian” or “Monetarist”, or if that’s too obscure, saying that it’s “liberal” or “conservative”. People will definitely take sides, and it is a matter of political importance—but it’s inside the Overton Window. It’s not almost unthinkable as it is here.

If culture has an effect here, it likely comes from Scandinavia’s long traditions of egalitarianism. Going at least back to the Vikings, in theory at least (clearly not always in practice), people—or at least fellow Scandinavians—were considered equal participants in society, no one “better” or “higher” than anyone else. Even today, it is impolite in Denmark to express pride at your own accomplishments; there’s a sense that you are trying to present yourself as somehow more deserving than others. Honestly this attitude seems unhealthy to me, though perhaps preferable to the unrelenting narcissism of American society; but insofar as culture is making Scandinavia better, it’s almost certainly because this thoroughgoing sense of egalitarianism underlies all their economic policy. In the US, the rich are brilliant and the poor are lazy; in Denmark, the rich are fortunate and the poor are unlucky. (Which theory is more accurate? Donald Trump. I rest my case.)

To be clear, Scandinavia is not communist; and they are certainly not Stalinist. They don’t believe in total collectivization of industry, or complete government control over the economy. They don’t believe in complete, total equality, or even a hard cap on wealth: Stefan Persson is an 11-figure billionaire. Does he pay high taxes, living in Sweden? Yes he does, considerably higher than he’d pay in the US. He seems to be okay with that. Why, it’s almost like his marginal utility of wealth is now negligible.

Scandinavian countries also don’t try to micromanage your life in the way often associated with “socialism”–in fact I’d say they do it less than we do in the US. Here we have Republicans who want to require drug tests for food stamps even though that literally wastes money and helps no one; there they just provide a long list of government benefits for everyone free of charge. They just held a conference in Copenhagen to discuss the possibility of transitioning many of these benefits into a basic income; and basic income is the least intrusive means of redistributing wealth.

In fact, because Scandinavian countries tax differently, it’s not necessarily the case that people always pay higher taxes there. But they pay more transparent taxes, and taxes with sharper incidence. Denmark’s corporate tax rate is only 22% compared to 35% in the US; but their top personal income tax bracket is 59% while ours is only 39.6% (though it can rise over 50% with some state taxes). Denmark also has a land value tax and a VAT, both of which most economists have clamored for for generations. (The land value tax I totally agree with; the VAT I’m a little more ambivalent about.) Moreover, filing your taxes in Denmark is not a month-long stress marathon of gathering paperwork, filling out forms, and fearing that you’ll get something wrong and be audited as it is in the US; they literally just send you a bill. You can contest it, but most people don’t. You just pay it and you’re done.

Now, that does mean the government is keeping track of your income; and I might think that Americans would never tolerate such extreme surveillance… and then I remember that PRISM is a thing. Apparently we’re totally fine with the NSA reading our emails, but God forbid the IRS just fill out our 1040s for us (that they are going to read anyway). And there’s no surveillance involved in requiring retail stores to incorporate sales tax into listed price like they do in Europe instead of making us do math at the cash register like they do here. It’s almost like Americans are trying to make taxes as painful as possible.

Indeed, I think Scandanavian socialism is a good example of how high taxes are a sign of a free society, not an authoritarian one. Taxes are a minimal incursion on liberty. High taxes are how you fund a strong government and maintain extensive infrastructure and public services while still being fair and following the rule of law. The lowest tax rates in the world are in North Korea, which has ostensibly no taxes at all; the government just confiscates whatever they decide they want. Taxes in Venezuela are quite low, because the government just owns all the oil refineries (and also uses multiple currency exchange rates to arbitrage seigniorage). US taxes are low by First World standards, but not by world standards, because we combine a free society with a staunch opposition to excessive taxation. Most of the rest of the free world is fine with paying a lot more taxes than we do. In fact, even using Heritage Foundation data, there is a clear positive correlation between higher tax rates and higher economic freedom:
Graph: Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index and tax burden

What’s really strange, though, is that most Americans actually support higher taxes on the rich. They often have strange or even incoherent ideas about what constitutes “rich”; I have extended family members who have said they think $100,000 is an unreasonable amount of money for someone to make, yet somehow are totally okay with Donald Trump making $300,000,000. The chant “we are the 99%” has always been off by a couple orders of magnitude; the plutocrat rentier class is the top 0.01%, not the top 1%. The top 1% consists mainly of doctors and lawyers and engineers; the top 0.01%, to a man—and they are nearly all men, in fact White men—either own corporations or work in finance. But even adjusting for all this, it seems like at least a bare majority of Americans are all right with “redistributive” “socialist” policies—as long as you don’t call them that.

So I suppose that’s sort of what I’m trying to do; don’t think of it as “socialism”. Think of it as #ScandinaviaIsBetter.

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