Book Review: Of Gravlax and Power Grids

Economic lessons from Scandinavia.

Norrebro, Copenhagen

Photographer: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

We are not Denmark,” Hillary Clinton said in a Democratic presidential debate last year, in response to a Bernie Sanders monologue against “casino capitalism.” Then she said: “I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”

Well, sure, she’s got us there. But there’s a lot to love about Danes, as well as Swedes, Norwegians, and Icelanders, sociologist George Lakey argues in Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got It Right—and How We Can, Too ($21.95; Melville House). As a rule, Scandinavians are annoyingly clean, efficient, and public-spirited. Iceland, with the population of Pittsburgh, has an airline with direct flights to Orlando. Copenhagen is infested with bicycles. The area seems to have more crime novelists than criminals.

Lakey has been traveling to the region since 1959, when he went to Oslo at 21 to woo a Norwegian woman named Berit he’d met in the States. (They’re still married.) He’s a Quaker, a lefty political activist, and a retired professor of “peace and conflict studies” who admires Scandinavian nations with the zeal of a convert. He marvels at their income equality and apprenticeships, feminism and wind turbines, colorful native dress and high scores on the international happiness index. “I want the United States to benefit from the living laboratory that Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Icelanders have created, and I’m confident that their experiments with egalitarianism can be inspiring, useful, and applicable to Americans,” he writes. “Which American cultural value is threatened by modernizing our transportation or electrical grid?”

Backed by some persuasive data, Lakey disputes the Republican rap that Scandinavian countries are nanny states that prop up inefficient businesses to protect jobs. Instead, he says, they practice “flexicurity”: Companies are free to fire workers, and the government provides income support and retraining to get them back on their feet. It’s actually a pretty good region for doing business. Although Lakey doesn’t mention it, the conservative Heritage Foundation in the U.S. reports that Denmark’s regulatory environment “remains one of the world’s most efficient.”

What’s true, Lakey admits, is that taxes in Scandinavia are high. Most people don’t mind paying them, though, because they feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth: “We won two elections promising not to lower taxes,” former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told the New York Times in 2011. The Scandinavian story would seem too good to be true but for the irrefutable data: long life expectancies, short workweeks, narrow gaps between rich and poor, high rate of startup creation, and top global rankings for press freedom.

The most vexing problem for this part of the world, he says, is coping with all the people who want in. In most of Europe, waves of immigration have produced cultural friction that has occasionally become combustible, as in 2011, when a Norwegian opposed to Islamic influence killed 77 people in Oslo. This pains Lakey. “Racism is a very personal issue for Berit and me because we twice adopted African-American babies,” he writes. But he’s hopeful. Although the Vikings raped and pillaged, their descendants are content to exercise the soft power of ideas. After the murders, he writes, tens of thousands of people gathered in the rain to sing the Norwegian translation of a Pete Seeger song, My Rainbow Race. Apparently, we have something in common after all.

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