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Tam Hunt: What Can the United States Learn From the Nordic Model?

The United States is the most powerful country to ever exist — and it’s the richest. We are a proud democracy with one of the longest records of peaceful succession of power since the nation’s founding in 1776.

We are a place where anyone who has a dream and is willing to work hard can have a good shot at seeing that dream come true.

My family is a great example of the promise of America and the American dream: we emigrated from England when I was a young child and all four children in my family have earned college degrees or graduate degrees, all from public universities and using government loans and grants, and we have all done pretty well in the game of life. We can thank America’s openness and economic opportunity for our success.

But could America be even better? Could the American dream be improved by a dose of other countries’ successes being stirred into the pot of American innovation, compassion and determination?

I think the answer is yes, and so do millions of other Bernie Sanders supporters.

When I first learned about Bernie’s presidential campaign I quickly wrote him off as unelectable because he’s a self-described socialist.

I learned later that he is actually a self-described “democratic socialist,” which is quite different than traditional socialism — the “democratic” part of the phrase being rather important.

I also learned as the head-to-head polls started to come in that Bernie being a socialist does not doom him to electoral oblivion.

In fact, millennials today view democratic socialism more favorably than they view capitalism, a strong indicator of where our country is headed.

And Bernie does better as the Democratic candidate against the potential Republican contenders than does Hilary, according to the poll aggregator RealClearPolitics. Sanders currently has a five point lead over Clinton in a potential race against Trump in the general election (16 percent to 10.4 percent lead over Trump).

Apparently, enough voters know the difference between a democratic socialist and soviet-style socialism to give Bernie a shot. Again, Bernie is the former not the latter!

We have the benefit today of having massive amounts of data at our fingertips to do our own research with relative ease. And we can make informed judgments about other countries, going far beyond the news headlines about this or that country’s successes or failures.

Let’s take a look at some of that data here and see if we can’t draw some useful conclusions about how the U.S. might learn some lessons from other countries.

Can Denmark Offer the U.S. Some Lessons?

Bernie has gotten some flack for citing Denmark as a shining example of how democratic socialism can work very well. Danes pay about 38 percent of their income in taxes on average, including income taxes and payroll taxes, which is surprisingly not that much higher than the average of 31 percent for American workers, according to a 2015 study by the U.S.-based Tax Foundation.

Even though Denmark does have higher taxes, its people also seem to understand that when taxes are well-spent there can be a net benefit to them individually and to society more generally.

No one likes high taxes. Even democratic socialists! At least not when they have to pay those high taxes themselves.

But when relatively high taxes are used to build excellent public transportation, provide excellent health care and free education even through college, many voters start to think it might make sense to pay a bit more in taxes.

For the record, I’m a progressive libertarian and a believer in smaller and more decentralized government rather than larger centralized government.

I’m not a democratic socialist, but I think Bernie’s vision of a better America is more in keeping with my values than any of the other candidates in this cycle, and I am particularly worried about the massive accumulation of wealth by a tiny elite and the political power that such accumulation allows in our system.

These are issues that Bernie has highlighted for decades.

Looking at Denmark objectively, we see that it ranks extremely well in comparisons to its peers on various criteria.

I first learned about the Nordic miracles (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland) about a decade ago when I was dating a Swedish-American girl and visited her Swedish family.

I learned that Denmark, Sweden and the other Nordic countries perennially top the ranks of list after list of international comparisons.

The Economist  magazine, which tends to be somewhat conservative, wrote a great article in 2013 lauding the “Nordic model” as an example for other countries because they seem to have found the right mix of policies for ensuring national wellbeing: “If you had to be reborn anywhere in the world as a person with average talents and income, you would want to be a Viking.”

A number of international comparisons are now conducted each year by various organizations, including in business competitiveness, transparency and corruption, gender equality, democracy, human development, happiness and many other issues.

Looking at a few of these we see that Denmark does indeed do very well compared to the U.S., as figure 1 shows, along with the rest of her Nordic siblings.

Figure 1. Comparing Denmark and the U.S. on various int’l surveys.

  U.S.A. Denmark
Human Development Index 2015 No. 8 No. 4
World Happiness Report 2016 No. 13 No. 1
Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 No. 15 No. 1
Global Gender Gap Report 2014 No. 19 No. 5
Global Competitiveness Report 2015-16 No. 3 No. 12
Economist Democracy Index 2015 No. 20 No. 5
World Bank Doing Business report 2016 No. 7 No. 3

But can Denmark be a valid comparison for the U.S.? Isn’t it way too small and homogeneous for comparison?

Well, yes and no. Of course, every nation is different, so no comparisons are entirely fair, but Denmark can offer some valid data for policymakers and voters more generally in the U.S.

Size is less of an issue with the information revolution making people and places essentially connected all the time.

There seems to be no inherent reason that a small country like Denmark can’t offer lessons to much larger countries like the U.S.

It’s just a matter of scale, ambition and finding that mix of policies that is best for a given country’s goals.

The Democratic Deficit

While the U.S. is generally viewed as being a relatively democratic country, it doesn’t do particularly well in international comparisons that attempt to measure the quality of our democracy.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Democracy Index ranked the U.S. 20th in terms of the quality of its democracy (just behind Mauritius and Uruguay; Denmark was 5th), and part of that score came from a relatively weak showing in the political participation measure, where it tied for 18th place.

Why don’t more people participate in politics, in voting and the other forms of political participation available to us, here in the U.S.?

We can’t say for sure, but there are two main interpretations: either people who don’t participate are disillusioned and don’t think they can make a difference or they’re generally happy with the system as it is, or at least not too unhappy to make the effort to vote.

In recent years it seems fairly clear that we are trending toward the first explanation as more and more people become unhappy with our political system.

It’s becoming more and more clear that ours is a veneer democracy, not a real democracy; more of a plutocracy (rule by the rich) than a democracy.

Just 158 families gave almost half of the presidential campaign donations in the early stage of 2015, with the large majority of that money going to Republican candidates (138 of the 158 families gave to Republican candidates).

Lawrence Lessig’s  book Republic, Lost is a great discussion of how money has corrupted our system and how we can fix it.

Lessig ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015 but failed to generate enough interest to qualify for the debates and then dropped out.

His message has since been amplified by Bernie and his followers as more and more people realize that our system of campaign finance rigs outcomes far too often in favor of the big money, for both Democrats and Republicans.

Bernie’s campaign, fueled almost entirely by small donors, is showing that real democracy may after all be possible.

Can the $27 average donation to Bernie’s campaign elect the next president?

We’ll see, and it’s a very tough path to the nomination for Bernie, but as of now the dream is still alive. California’s June primary vote is key for a Bernie victory.

The Trust Deficit

Another area where the U.S. falls short in comparison to her peers is in trust.

The balance of values in the U.S. has for too long favored individualism, innovation and a go-it-alone attitude at the expense of community, trust and compassion.

The World Happiness Report has each year since 2012 found that the Nordic countries also top the ranks in terms of happiness.

Happiness? Yes, the survey combined a number of statistics from the annual Gallup World Survey on life expectancy, per capita GDP, social services, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and corruption perceptions.

Here is the top 10: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.

The U.S. does fairly well at No. 13 on the list in terms of the overall score. But where the U.S. does very badly in relation to her developed nation peers is in trust.

The U.S. is way back in 50th place in terms of trust, behind countries like Ethiopia, Algeria and Azerbaijan. And way behind Denmark at No. 4.

Why is the U.S. so lacking in trust in recent years? Very likely because of ongoing underemployment and political and racial polarization — the very factors that have fueled Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to the top of the Republican nomination dogpile.

How can the U.S. do better on trust and happiness more generally? That’s a tough question to answer, but part of it surely involves an evolving concept of community and inclusiveness that is less fearful of differences and more embracing of our fundamental unity as human beings trying to make the most of our short time here.

And more specifically it surely involves being a bit more like Denmark and the other Nordics that top the ranks of the World Happiness Report.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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