What Americans Don’t Get About Nordic Countries

by Anu Partanen for The Atlantic

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks during a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Fla., Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks during a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Fla., Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Bernie Sanders is hanging on, still pushing his vision of a Nordic-like socialist utopia for America, and his supporters love him for it. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is chalking up victories by sounding more sensible. “We are not Denmark,” she said in the first Democratic debate, pointing instead to America’s strengths as a land of freedom for entrepreneurs and businesses. Commentators repeat endlessly the mantra that Sanders’s Nordic-style policies might sound nice, but they’d never work in the U.S. The upshot is that Sanders, and his supporters, are being treated a bit like children—good-hearted, but hopelessly naive. That’s probably how Nordic people seem to many Americans, too.

A Nordic person myself, I left my native Finland seven years ago and moved to the U.S. Although I’m now a U.S. citizen, I hear these kinds of comments from Americans all the time—at cocktail parties and at panel discussions, in town hall meetings and on the opinion pages. Nordic countries are the way they are, I’m told, because they are small, homogeneous “nanny states” where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and belongs to a big extended family. This, in turn, makes Nordic citizens willing to sacrifice their own interests to help their neighbors. Americans don’t feel a similar kinship with other Americans, I’m told, and thus will never sacrifice their own interests for the common good. What this is mostly taken to mean is that Americans will never, ever agree to pay higher taxes to provide universal social services, as the Nordics do. Thus Bernie Sanders, and anyone else in the U.S. who brings up Nordic countries as an example for America, is living in la-la land.

But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me.

The choices Nordic countries have made have more to do with self-interest than altruism or kinship.

When I lived in Finland, as a middle-class citizen I paid income tax at a rate not much higher than what I now pay in New York City. True, Nordic countries have somewhat higher taxes on consumption than America, and overall they collect more tax revenue than the U.S. currently does—partly from the wealthy. But, as an example, here are some of the things I personally got in return for my taxes: nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child (plus a smaller monthly payment for an additional two years, were I or the father of my child to choose to stay at home with our child longer), affordable high-quality day care for my kids,one of the world’s best public K-12 education systems, free college, free graduate school, nearly free world-class health care delivered through a pretty decent universal network, and a full year of partially paid disability leave. As far as I was concerned, it was a great deal. And it was equally beneficial for others. From a Nordic perspective, nothing Bernie Sanders is proposing is the least bit crazy—pretty much all Nordic countries have had policies like these in place for years.

Read the whole article in The Atlantic.