Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Nordic Dream

There have lately been two fresh studies about social mobility once again rehearsing the well known fact that it is highest in the Nordic countries and that the American dream is least evident in - well - the USA. If you have been born poor you are much, much more likely to stay poor in America than in the Nordic countries. This state of affairs has been well established for long and should not surprise anyone. The only place where it's not known is the popular imagination and the American political discourse. The key to our Nordic success in integration and social openness and fairness of competition is the public education system which is of uniformly high quality largely regardless of areas and classes. The private sector is very weak in education and even the wealthy people put their children in to the public sector schools. Of course this is slowly changing for the worse: there already are "bad" areas and schools in some regions of Helsinki (and the bad state of Swedish immigrant areas is also well known).

Naturally, "bad" is quite a relative term in this context: we are not talking about the US slum schools here where mere physical survival is basically the most that can be achieved - never mind any reading and mathematical skills. Nevertheless we are gradually evolving towards this general direction of dismantling the level playing field and making the social competition more unfair and closed. This is due to the absurd situation where catastrophic failure and inefficiency are seen as success as dictated by the primitive classical economic thought (that's "libertarianism" for you). It should be very elementary for any even moderately intelligent person to understand that without a level educational playing field the different economic classes will ossify and your parents' inherited wealth and not your own intellectual talent will determine your success in the society. Competition will lessen and the society will get more closed and less efficient with increasing social conflicts. So, if your parents are very rich, the dream society definitely is the USA - but should you be born in a poor family and want to get ahead based on your personal abilities, pray very hard that your parents are living in Scandinavia.

6 comments:

helsinkian said...

Your post is a general Scandinavia vs. USA comparison. The American system is more capitalist, it is accepted that some people are not taken care of, whereas the Nordic model underlines taking care of the weak.

America (like Hong Kong) shows that a society can be very rich, yet some segments of that society may be living in Third World conditions. Others, the rich ones, enjoy greater opulence than in egalitarian societies such as in Scandinavia.

Then it's another question whether America is an example of pure capitalism or not. Of course the main ideological difference is there and the spirit of America is capitalist but in practice it's hard to see America as a textbook example of capitalism or Europe (or Scandinavia to be specific) as the polar opposite. I know we're discussing the real world and not just models in some theory but this is not an easy discussion.

One of the great ideologies of the past decades is called communitarianism. I think that's a very American way of thinking. The little community (a rich neighborhood or any neighborhood that affords the ideals of a community that takes care of its members) takes care of its business in an exemplary manner (people are even willing to pay for other people's services) as long as the benefits are limited to the local level (and not shared with the poor neighborhood that is unable of the luxury of creating a community that takes care of its members).

I really think that communitarianism somehow explains also how Europe is changing. A bad neighborhood in any European country is better accepted as such because it's seen that they aren't able to live up to the standards of acting locally. Finland is a very municipality-fixated country and when the Finnish government solved the 1990s crisis by casting off many of the financial troubles to the local politicians, much of this way of politics might have been inspired by a communitarianist ethos.

The Scandinavian countries are such small entities in Europe. Comparing them to America is almost like comparing Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut to Europe as a whole. I put this forth because I really think there are significant differences between US states as well. I do think such comparisons are meaningful but it's good to bear that in mind that in a Europe vs. America comparison there are many European models and many states in America.

I also think that Europe and America influence each other. There's a relation between our two continents (some say it's one-way traffic but I don't think so). America can learn from those European models that work better than others and Europe can learn some things from America as well.

How did you come up with the word "dream" in the title? I always thought the American Dream is most potent because it is above all a dream that each individual is supposed to try to turn into reality. Of course in the Nordic model individuals still have dreams and the model itself used to be an unattainable dream. Since there has been so much talk of the current or impending crisis of the Nordic model, it's interesting to see the dreamlike qualities of it. The Nordic countries of a hundred years ago were very much dominated by classical liberalism. How can people's mindsets have changed so completely and what ideology will dominate in Scandinavia fifty or hundred years from now?

Phil said...

If you have been born poor you are much, much more likely to stay poor in America than in the Nordic countries.

I'd like to see those figures about that.

The private sector is very weak in education

What do you mean by "weak"?

we are not talking about the US slum schools here where mere physical survival is basically the most that can be achieved

So very (sadly) true.

Competition will lessen

Didn't the U.S. just beat Finland this year in the competition index?

So, if your parents are very rich, the dream society is the USA - if you are born in a poor family and want to get ahead based on your personal abilities, pray very hard that you are living in Scandinavia.

So you don't get ahead based on your personal abilities in the US? Hardly. I've always said this - If you're poor and lazy, Finland is your place. If you're poor but hard-working and motivated and wish to move up, head for the states.

stockholm slender said...

Well, just a general answer to your comments. I think it is an observed fact of human behaviour that we automatically try to make our achievements hereditary, on the other hand abilities vary wildly from generation to other. In equal educational conditions the children of poor can compete very effectively with the children of the wealthy. Unfortunately, if there is not an active force in the society making those educational conditions equal, they will not be equal. In the Nordic countries the state (and our Lutheran-Social Democratic mentality)is such a factor. In the economically liberal US this factor is missing and the playing field is concequently not level and poverty and wealth are thus much more commonly inherited. Very simple really.

Phil said...

Compared to the US, Finland is very much a country of "It's not what you know, it's who you know". Having contacts and knowing important people are extremely important in this small, homogeneous society.

I'd beg the differ that rich Finns are more "equal" to poor Finns compared to rich/poor Americans. But I think we'll need some statistics on before we could argue further.

Finnsense said...

"Compared to the US, Finland is very much a country of "It's not what you know, it's who you know". Having contacts and knowing important people are extremely important in this small, homogeneous society."

Firstly, I would say that this isn't obviously true. Secondly, even if it were true it's obviously much easier to make important contacts when people are not segregated into geographical areas, schools and universities based on wealth, as happens in the UK and US.

stockholm slender said...

Finnsense, I could not agree more. What is kind of depressing in the current trends is that power is trumping reason. All groups and institutions, wealthy or non-wealthy will act in shortsighted immediate self-interest, and in our society it is the surplus capital which empowering the strongest elites. The concequence is the gradual weakening of social mobility and competition as education and healtcare gradually are getting segregated. Yes, we are far from it now, but the trends are very clear. Libertarianism clearly resembles Leninism is its absolute blindness to human nature and human history.